Every year on October 22nd, a huge spectacular procession of people in traditional costumes is carried through the streets of Kyoto. This week, 196 flavors will travel to Japan to celebrate Jidai Matsuri, or the Festival of the Ages.
Jidai Matsuri was organized for the first time October 22, 1895 to inaugurate the completion of the Heian Shrine and celebrate the 1100th anniversary of the day Emperor Kammu entered Kyoto in 794, and named the city as the capital of Japan (Kyoto was Japan’s capital before Tokyo). Kyoto was then known as Heian-kyō, literally capital of peace and tranquility.
Jidai Matsuri is one of the three largest festivals in Kyoto along with Aoi Matsuri, which takes place May 15 and Gion Matsuri that runs from July 1 to 31.
The main event of this festival is the Jidai Gyoretsu or historical reenactment: a mikoshi (portable shrine) and a procession of 2000 people dressed in costumes representing the 1200 years history of Kyoto is carried through the city.
Junichiro Tanizaki, one of Japan’s greatest writers born in the nineteenth said, “Japanese cuisine is a cuisine to be looked at, rather than eaten.”
Before taste, sight is the first sense that comes into play at the table. What is supposed to be enjoyed, is intended to be eaten by the eyes first. The dish is a small work of art that must meet specific rules of harmony, color combinations and shapes.
I chose to prepare one of the most consumed food in Japan: miso soup.
Until a few days ago, I knew only four tastes: sweetness, saltiness, bitterness and sourness, which I can easily associate with food. However, when Mike told me about the umami taste of my future miso soup, I felt totally lost. Would you feel lost too?
Yes, Japanese cuisine is not only limited to sushi and sashimi. Once you start learning about the Japanese culinary art, you must understand the meaning of the word umami. If, for Westerners, the four primary tastes are salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, there is for the Japanese a fifth essential flavor: umami, which means “delicious taste”.
In the early twentieth century, Professor Ikeda detected a different taste of those known so far while conducting a research on a seaweed broth. This taste is now 100 years old and is just starting to be known in the Western world. One of the reasons is that umami has only been recognized worldwide as the fifth taste since 2001.
Umami is a real sensation, triggered by the presence in food of one or more of these three substances: glutamate (present in prosciutto, parmesan, dried seaweed), guanylate (present in dried mushrooms, crab, meat) and inosinate (present in tuna, meat, sea urchins). In general, the taste is closely linked to the presence of proteins, and is found in savory rather than sweet dishes.
Miso (pronounced misso) is a traditional food in Japan and China and can be found in the form of a very strong-flavored salty paste. It is obtained from soy beans, salt and, depending on the manufacturing process, either barley or rice.
Soybeans are first steamed, then mixed with salt water and then fermented with koji (fungus that stimulates fermentation). The mixture is being aged and traditionally fermented in cedar barrels for a period ranging from a few weeks to three years.
Miso is therefore the result of a double fermentation: the first, a short one, gives koji; the second, a longer one, gives miso.
Beside miso, another key ingredient in this soup is dashi, which is an ingredient of many Japanese recipes. Prepared essentially with dried bonito (Katsuo-bushi) and dried shiitakes, cooked or soaked in hot water. These dried foods provide the umami taste.
The third unfamiliar ingredient that is necessary in miso soup is wakame (sea fern). It is an edible seaweed that is very popular in Asia and especially in Japan where it originated. The Japanese make use of wakame in food but for therapeutic purposes.
I spent several hours scouring markets to find all my unusual ingredients. Thank you to Nashi, manager of a Japanese market! She has been so helpful for guiding me in the choice of products, but also for giving me essential tips for preparing my soup.
My miso was just excellent!
- 2 teaspoons granulated dashi
- 3 cups water
- 3 tablespoons miso paste
- 2 tablespoons dried wakame seaweed
- 2 tablespoons tamarind juice
- 4 oz. tofu , diced
- 1 oz. Chinese chive
- Rehydrate the wakame seaweed and rinse well.
- In a saucepan, combine water, dashi granules and the seaweed. Bring to a boil.
- When the water is boiling, lower to medium heat. Add miso paste and tamarind juice. Stir well.
- Add tofu and chives. Simmer gently for 2 minutes before serving.