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A lesson in Japanese cuisine

Lifestyle — Posted 28/07/13

Two lessons every Japanese cook learns early on - never lift the lid on a cooking rice pot and never boil the miso!

To help raise money and further the wonderful work of the Stephanie Alexander Kitchen Garden Program, public workshops based on its educational, pleasurable and balanced philosophy to food are being run. Similar to how the Kitchen Garden classes are conducted in Australian primary schools, the public workshops widen the influence of the ‘growing, harvesting, preparing and sharing’ philosophy fundamental to the program.

Be. magazine participated in a public workshop on a sunny autumn morning where Japanese food was the focus, in particular, healthy Japanese comfort food. Held at the Collingwood College in Victoria, the grounds were buzzing with young students attending Saturday language classes and next door to our classroom another workshop on beekeeping was taking place.

The classrooms are set up with an emphasis very much on food preparation and foodie reverence. Wicker baskets are heaped with freshly picked young apples, wrinkly, homegrown orange pumpkins and fragrant garlic. Colourful hand-painted terracotta tiles line parts of the walls and everywhere scales, bunches of herbs and old fashioned posters of illustrated fruits and vegetables catch the eye.

Rieko Hayashi, our teacher for the three and a half hour workshop, began by discussing the culinary philosophy of Japanese cuisine. With a nutritionist mother and father who was a chef, Rieko has blended their worlds and focuses on cooking healthy, nutritious and macrobiotic Japanese food.

Throughout the workshop, Rieko demonstrated how Japanese food centres on balance, seasonality and hospitality. Using ingredients’ natural properties is a core direction in planning meals. In cold weather, root vegetables are more commonly used as they warm the body whereas in summer, cooling foods like cucumber help combat the heat.

Seasonal symbolism plays a strong role in Japanese culture and Rieko explained how she loves to use flower-shaped vegetables to reflect this. In spring, carrots cut into cherry blossoms or plum flowers are a favourite – and we learnt both the hand cut method and the cheat’s vegetable cutter option!

Preparing a Japanese meal can be distilled into a simple formula - five tastes cooked five ways and in five colours.

Tastes – sweet, hot, salty, bitter, sour

Ways – grill, simmer, steam, fry, raw

Colours – red, blue (including green), yellow, white, black (including dark purple).

In our workshop we began by preparing a simple soup stock with a base of konbu (dried kelp) and dried bonito flakes. The stock was then used as the base for several of the dishes we prepared. With stations set up in the classroom, we moved through the kitchen and watched and learnt as Rieko took the simple ingredients and produced the most delicious aromas from the swirling, bubbling pots.

With some enthusiastic choppers and stirrers in the group, it wasn’t long before we were sitting down to a delicious, balanced and beautifully presented lunch. We ate nikujaga, a hearty dish of meat, onion, carrot and potatoes, a spicy onion and seaweed salad with a sour plum dressing, freshly picked green beans in a sweet and sticky black sesame sauce, miso soup and rice.

The meal was beautiful and gathering to enjoy it really embodied the spirit of the Kitchen Garden Program. Rounding it off with a green tea gave us a chance to quiz Rieko on the day’s learnings and gave her an opportunity to share with us a bit about her culinary journey from Japan to Australia.

This winter there are some exciting workshops being held, including:

15 June – Triple Cream Brie and Haloumi

27 July - Magic Middle Eastern

27 July – Pruning for Productivity

24 August - A Bushtuckers Garden

24 August - Authentic Portuguese

Extra   For more information and to book a workshop, visit kitchengardenfoundation.org.au
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