Cooking up a menu mixing local and Thai

by Tomoko Otake

Motoko Yamada, 27, the manager of a Thai restaurant named Rahotsu, has lived in Nara since 2002, when she moved to the prefecture to attend Nara Women’s University. A welfare studies major who wanted to put her knowledge to work in local communities, after graduation it was a natural decision for her to continue with her then-part-time job at the restaurant, whose owner, Fumito Bessho, has been active in community- building efforts, including organizing concerts in the precincts of temples.

At Rahotsu (the Japanese name for the myriad tiny curls of hair on the head of the Buddha), Yamada and her staff have over the years tried to infuse a touch of Nara and its history into its otherwise authentic Thai cuisine.

As a result, diners now find that one of the appetizers on its menu is So, which is known as “ancient cheese” and which people in ancient Nara are on record as having eaten as long as 1,300 years ago when it was Japan’s capital. So is made from milk that is simmered until it becomes solid. It is not only time- consuming, but it also takes two liters of milk to produce just a few tiny pieces of this richly flavored “ancient cheese” which has a unique texture somewhere between regular cheese and biscuit.

Another interesting dish is Tom Yum Goong soup with Miwa Somen noodles — “holy noodles” that legend suggests have been produced in present-day southern Nara Prefecture for more than 2,000 years — and whose price is set every year by the local Miwa Myojin Shrine. Surprisingly, the fine, smooth wheat noodles go well with the spicy Thai soup.

Yamada, a native of Okazaki, Shizuoka Prefecture, has played a key role in creating and expanding a network of young professionals who have chosen to base their careers in Nara Prefecture — even though, in 2005, only 70.7 percent of residents worked in the prefecture, the lowest percentage in the entire nation.

For Yamada, her reason for staying in Nara is the abundance of Buddhas and other venerable symbols of spirituality.

“I feel protected,” she says, noting she is not a follower of particular temples or of any religion. “There are so many Jizo (bodhisattva) wearing red aprons placed in the little alleys here,” she said. “Each one of them has a flower bouquet left by someone and dedicated to it. Jizo is a children’s god, and once I saw a child praying in front of one.”