Traveling Spoon: Cooking lessons in a faraway kitchen
My new obsession is Traveling Spoon. Think of Traveling Spoon like the AirBnB of kitchens. A local resident of your host city welcomes you into their home, teaches you to cook a delicious, traditional meal, and when it’s finished, you all sit around the table and eat together. In essence, it’s everything that draws me to food and food writing: exploration and community around the table.
While in Japan, I had the opportunity to do not one, but two, Traveling Spoon meals - one in Tokyo and one in Kyoto. It’s hard to choose what I liked best about my Traveling Spoon experiences - connecting with locals and getting a glimpse of “everyday” life in Japan, or learning how to cook (and getting to eat) exotic dishes in a foreign land.
Even though we were in the same country for both meals, and both of our hosts were named Keiko, the two afternoons spent cooking and eating were totally different.
In Tokyo, it was like we were joining a family for Sunday lunch. It was a hot day - fall had begun but the weather hadn’t bothered to notice. The house, with piles of magazines stacked in the corners and crayon art literally scribbled onto the walls, was a true family home.
With the help of a translator and while she cooked, Keiko taught us the differences between drinking sake and cooking sake (salt is added in the cooking version - a remnant of the Edo period, when straight alcohol couldn’t be sold, so salt was added); how to make homemade miso soup (the trick is a lemon pepper made with the winter citrus, yuzu); and chirashi sushi - a colorful “celebration” sushi that is served in a big bowl, dotted with salmon, shrimp and carrots.
As we sat down to eat, my husband and I felt suddenly aware of our lack of knowledge on Japanese table manners. How quickly should we drink the sake that Keiko so generously kept refilling? Is it appropriate to serve one’s self seconds, or wait to be prompted by the host? These were mere moments of trepidation, and we all quickly fell into a comfortable rhythm of enjoying the food, and with the help of our translator, sharing anecdotes of life in the US and Japan.
Kyoto’s Keiko, on the other hand, was a retired English teacher who moved to the suburbs to help care for her ailing parents. Where her house was quieter and perhaps more of what we expected from a Japanese home, her enthusiasm and hospitality were beyond measure. Even when we were accidentally an hour late for our meeting time at the train station, she cheerfully returned, explaining how the delay had worked perfectly because it gave her the chance to help another touring couple by driving them from the station to their final destination.
Before we jumped into cooking, Keiko sat us down at her traditional Japanese dinner table, cross-legged on the floor, and gave us a tutorial on different types of Japanese teas. We sipped our way from the lighter Sencha tea to a smokier Bancha with our teacher explaining the differences of each. She laughed when we asked how Japanese people handle drinking so much caffeine. “I don’t feel caffeine anymore,” she chuckled.
In the kitchen, Keiko taught us to make miso soup (similar but different from what we had learned in Tokyo), niku jaga, a meat and potatoes dish, and renkon hasami age, a crispy fried lotus root topped with minced chicken.
Walking us through the line up of ingredients on her windowsill, Keiko taught us about the root of all umami flavor in Japanese cooking, a broth called dashi. She explained that dashi can be made from scratch, but for the busy home cook, a just-add-water broth starter can be picked up at the grocery store. As my husband and I teased each other on the other’s culinary performance, Keiko asked us to repeat phrases or words of our banter, jotting in a notebook she kept on hand. Even though she had retired from her teaching days, she didn’t want to stop learning, she explained.
At the end of our meal together, Keiko’s hospitality once again shined through as she drove us back into the city and to Ippodo, the shop where she had bought the tea she served us. The quaint street called Teramachi, lined with artisan shops, became one of our favorite spots in all of Kyoto. We returned multiple times throughout our stay, thankful for the local insight we would have never discovered on our own.
Is spending an afternoon with a total stranger, navigating a language barrier and possibly inciting an international incident with a dining faux pas potentially intimidating? On paper yes. I highly encourage you to force yourself out of your comfort zone, though, and into the kitchen. Because, it’s an experience that cannot be recreated in any other way. Traveling Spoon, through food and through people, offers an experience, a connection, that no restaurant, hotel or tour guide could ever match. I can’t wait for my next culinary adventure, in the homey kitchen of a faraway land, wherever it may be.
Fried Lotus Root with Chicken Patties
Recipe courtesy of Traveling Spoon Kyoto host, Keiko Morito
10 cm lotus root
100g minced chicken
1T beaten egg
A little salt
A little pepper
1 tablespoon potato starch
2 tablespoons potato starch (measured separately from 1st tablespoon)
Oil for frying
Cut lotus root into 1cm pieces.
Mix the minced chicken, minced onion, beaten egg, salt, pepper and potato starch.
Cover each piece of eggplant/mushroom/lotus root with potato starch and pat in order to get rid of too much potato starch.
Put chicken patties on each eggplant/mushroom/lotus root.
Cover the meet side with potato starch and remove too much potato starch..
Fry some eggplants/mushrooms/lotus root with chicken patties at medium heat for 3 minutes..
Turn over each pieces and fry for 3 minutes. Done!