The chef who carries on the culinary tradition of Edo in Akita
As autumn gives way to winter in northeast Japan, the people of Akita Prefecture are strengthening themselves for the long, cold months ahead. A local specialty popular at this time is the fondue known as kiritanpo, traditionally eaten around the hearth on rural farms and still to this day prepared in faux-rustic inns in the heart of Akita town.
Chef Hiroki Takamura, however, offers food of a very different kind. Discreetly located in a residential alley, well away from the brash bars and tourist restaurants of the city center, its restaurant, Nihonryori Takamura, exudes a sophistication unusual to find in the most remote areas of Japan.
It’s a compact restaurant – just seven seats on a counter that overlooks Takamura’s sparkling open kitchen, plus six more in a small private room – with a polish that wouldn’t be out of place in a large metropolis. Not surprisingly, he learned his trade in central Tokyo before returning to his hometown to open his own place.
What is remarkable is that instead of typical Akita dishes, Takamura serves Edo ryÅri, a style of cuisine that developed in the capital of the shoguns over the centuries before it was renamed Tokyo in 1867. Nowadays, KyÅ ryÅri, the cuisine of the ancient capital of the emperors, Kyoto, has become de facto the representative cuisine of Japan, throughout the country and abroad. But until the end of the 20th century, there were still a handful of high-end restaurants in Tokyo devoted to the city’s distinctive culinary tradition.
One of them, the legendary Taikohachi in the Mejiro district of Tokyo, was where Takamura trained. During this time, he cooked for kabuki actors, artists and writers, baseball stars such as Shigeo Nakashima, and once even looked after the then crown prince, long before he ever did. becomes Emperor Naruhito.
Since 1999, when Takamura returned to Akita, Tokyo’s three remaining Edo cuisine restaurants have all closed – the last of which was the venerable Nabeya in Otsuka – leaving Takamura as the only active chef carrying on the tradition.
He remains faithful to the precepts he learned during these years of training, and the influences are expressed both in his cuisine and in the layout of his restaurant. Between the kitchen and the counter where customers are seated, there is an aisle (like in Taikohachi), which allows food and drinks to be served directly from the front, instead of the waiters approaching customers by behind as it is more common.
Takamura has also stayed true to the fundamentals of Edo cuisine, including its ingredients and seasonings. He prepares his basic broth for cooking and soups using only katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings) rather than adding konbu (kelp) or dried shiitake mushrooms. The kitchen also uses koikuchi shÅyu (dark soy sauce) and a bigger and richer miso, rather than the lighter one usukuchi shÅyu and softer saikyo and shiro miso popular in Kyoto.
While both styles follow the multicourse, kaiseki-style, Takamura says there are significant differences in the underlying philosophies.
âKyoto’s cuisine is colorful and often uses bright decorations on the dishes,â he explains. âBut Edo was a city of samurai culture. This meant that the dishes should never be garish, without frivolous decorations that are only for show. In the Edo style, everything on the plate should be edible. For example, in the kitchen of Kyoto sakuramasu (cherry salmon, spring specialty) can be decorated with a sprig of Sakura (cherry blossom). “In Edo, it would never make it through.
One thing is clear: Now that he has no more mentors to follow, Takamura is developing his own interpretation of the spirit of Edo cooking rather than formal rules. The key to him is âoriginality based on traditionâ, taking full advantage of the ingredients available in the northeast region of Tohoku, especially seafood.
The zensai The plate (starter) that opens the meal is a collection of bite-size pieces – a “best hit” of seafood and seasonal vegetables, cubes of tofu and tamagoyaki omelet, all cleverly arranged on a sparkling lacquer platter. The following clear soup, served in equally striking black lacquer-lidded bowls, also showcases the bounty of the season: wild mushrooms in fall; maybe creamy cod milt in the winter; forage sansai (wild plants and bamboo shoots) from the mountains as soon as spring arrives; and the abundance of local vegetables during Akita’s short but scorching summer.
Takemura says that, personally, spring is his favorite time of year, as the long, cold winter finally gives way to the excitement of the first fresh green shoots. But as a chef, he always looks forward to the onset of winter, when the fish are plump and high in fat.
He recently introduced a new signature dish: kabura mochi. Tender Japanese turnips are grated and garnished with tapioca, then grilled, garnished with a scoop of Moldovan caviar and garnished with gold leaf. It’s flashy but not frivolous, and there are clearly Chinese influences at play. But in Takamura’s skillful hands, it’s now part of his evolving vision of Edo cuisine.
Another signature dish all year round includes hinai jidori, Akita’s famous local chicken breed. Takamura begins the cooking process at the back of the kitchen, then ends it on his mizu konro, a mobile charcoal barbecue on wheels that he can maneuver up to the counters.
Inspired by a Spanish recipe, it is basically a sausage, made from leg and organ meat that is minced and stuffed into the skin of the chicken’s neck. He slowly cooks it in the kitchen at the back first, then finishes it on the charcoal until the chicken is nicely browned.
It is an impressive and visceral theater. Each customer can observe the cooking process up close, smell and savor the aromas, and even smell the heat of the grill. Add to that Takamura’s ever-cheerful bonhomie and it perfectly illustrates the truism that cooking at this level is always more than the quality of the ingredients, the preparation and the dressing.
âTo be a chef, you have to be an artist,â he likes to say. In addition to overseeing the cooking process, Takamura listens to the ebb and flow of conversations at the counter. Interacting with its customers, creating dialogue and participation, only reinforces their appreciation.
From delicate ceramics and lacquers to the high-end local sake that he pairs with every dish, it’s this blend of sophistication and personal attention that makes Takamura’s counter the most coveted reserve in the prefecture.
Omachi 1-7-31, Akita, Pref. Akita 010-0921; 018-866-8288; www.akita-takamura.jp; open 6 pm-10.30pm (closed Sun and Hols); menu from 8,000; online shop; nearest station Akita; non-smoker; main cards accepted; a little english spoken
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