Japanese home cooking may be pretty simple, but if you haven’t had the chance to witness the actual practice of preparing the dishes, there are always nuances that are lost when you just follow a recipe. This is often exacerbated by the inevitable inaccuracies of translation. How you work out what kind of starch is used to dust tofu for frying, gauge whether oil has been heated to the right temperature for deep frying tempura or whether you’ve wrapped your gyoza correctly is made so much clearer when an expert shows you how to do it and talks you through the process as you try your hand at it. It’s doubly useful when the person guiding you speaks the same language that you do. This is why Haru Cooking Class in Kyoto is such a gem of a find.
Led by cooking instructor Taro Saeki (a former cook and Japanese guesthouse manager) and his lovely, super efficient wife Yoshiko (an ex-bartender), the sessions are taught in English and cover easy, classic Japanese home cooked dishes. Although I have studied a fair number of Japanese cookbooks and mastered a range of recipes through them, I still found the vegetarian cooking class with Taro and Yoshiko that I attended wonderfully instructive.
The couple run cooking classes from their traditional Japanese home in Shimogamo, near the Imperial Palace. It is an easy to get to location that takes you into a pretty, residential neighbourhood just minutes from the Kamo River. What Haru Cooking Class offers is a really intimate experience (they only take up to 6 persons in a class, with a maximum of two different classes a day) that also gives guests a rare glimpse of the typical Japanese household. Their rambunctious daughter, Haruko welcomed us with great warmth and multiple performances of the Alphabet Song. And as we proceeded with our class, she sat in the dining room watching a Disney movie while Yoshiko’s mother supervised her.
It’s amazing just how much Taro and Yoshiko manage to pack into and whip out of their tiny kitchen. It is no larger than a hospital elevator, yet it’s neatly packed to the gills. Working on portable gas-cartridge stoves, we prepared a complete home-style vegetarian lunch together. It included a cucumber sunomono (酢の物 a vinegared dish), dashimaki tamago (だし巻 or rolled omelette; check out Taro’s video on how to prepare it), kinpira (金平 a stir-fry technique commonly applied to a range of root vegetables; in our case carrot and burdock), tofu no kabayaki (fried tofu topped with shimeji mushrooms, haricot vert and shishito cooked in a sweet glaze) and miso soup. Yoshiko then plated all the dishes beautifully (this in itself was a great lesson) and we sat down to enjoy the delicious fruits of our labour with a bowlful of Japanese rice.
I loved the easy, conversational approach to the hands on lesson. There was plenty of time for questions and digressions into the specifics of Japanese soy, miso, seaweed and dashi. Taro was generous with his knowledge and veered away from being overly prescriptive. His cooking class was accessible, relaxed and fun. I felt that we’d made new friends and that this would be the first of many more lessons. The best thing is, weeks after we’ve returned home, I’ve found myself applying the lessons I’ve learnt to our daily meals. Taro and Yoshiko have opened my mind to making multi-dish casual Japanese meals on a regular basis. If you’re interested in mastering the basics of Japanese home cooking while in Kyoto, check out Haru Cooking Class. Next time, I’d love to go on a Nishiki Market tour with Taro. You’ll also notice that Taro and Yoshiko’s classes are child-friendly.