Keiko Kuwakino doesn't mind dirt on her fresh vegetables. In fact, she asks for it when she makes purchases from local farmers.

“Leave the dirt as it is,” she often says with a smile.

Kuwakino, 38, is a chef of the Sanaburi restaurant at Satoyama Jujo, a hot-spring hotel in Minami-Uonuma, Niigata Prefecture.

After daikon radishes freshly uprooted from the field are loaded on her 4WD, she drives off to work. She travels around to buy locally, as she “wants the roots, the leaves and the flowers as well.”

Her concept of cooking is “‘jimi’ (unspectacular) but ‘jimi’ (full-flavored).”

Her repertoire is mostly vegetable dishes that are simple yet have been put through many procedures.

When the restaurant opened in 2014, she had a hard time purchasing fresh produce.

Minami-Uonuma is famous for its production of rice, and vegetable farmers were scarce. Even when farmers grew vegetables, it was usually for their own consumption, and they would tell her, “These aren’t fit for hotels.”

Kuwakino made it her mission to find local producers, and now most of her dishes are made from vegetables from the area.

Red turnip is grown in northern Niigata Prefecture through a slash-and-burn method of cultivation. Hoping to preserve this traditional culture, she came up with a soup that allows guests to enjoy the whole turnip.

When the pretty top part of the turnip with the leaves is removed, one sees a thick white soup in the hollowed-out portion. Yes, the inside of the purplish red turnip turns out to be white and shiny. Granular things on the plate that look like soil are leaves and nuts baked in the oven. She has created the image of a burned field. The lid is uncooked and fresh, while the cooked half is tender. One gets to eat the whole thing.

Kuwakino says she often wonders, “What constitutes ‘being tasty’?” She thinks it is not just the taste but also the atmosphere of the moment that counts. So she serves appetizers on fallen leaves in autumn and places a snowman on the table in winter.

But when it comes to seasoning her dishes, she focuses on how to make most of the natural flavors of the vegetables. “Guests need only to see the ingredients. I want to make myself invisible.” She only adds dashi stock and salt to the turnip soup. The gentle sweet taste allows guests to enjoy the vegetable to the fullest.

INGREDIENTS

(For three)

3 red turnips

2 to 3 cups of dashi stock made from dried kelp and dried bonito

METHOD

Thinly peel turnip, quarter and cut into appropriate size. (Since it will go into the blender later, the shape may be uneven.)

Place pot on medium heat, pour little more than 1 tsp oil and add turnip.

Stir-fry while shaking the pot occasionally until the corners of the turnip lose edge and it softens.

Add a pinch of salt and dashi stock just enough to cover the turnip. When it comes to a boil, turn down to low heat immediately and simmer until turnip becomes tender. Mix occasionally.

Add salt if necessary. Mix in a blender for several dozen seconds and it is done. Serve in a bowl and sprinkle with black pepper to taste.

At Satoyama Jujo, the soup is served in a real turnip. Horizontally cut 1 cm below the root of the leaves. Slice off a bit of the bottom also so the turnip sits on the plate. Hollow out turnip. (A round-shaped cutter and spoon work well.) Bake in a 180-degree oven for about 10 minutes. Pour in soup. The top part with the leaves is not baked and is used as a lid.

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From The Asahi Shimbun’s Watashi no Ryori column