Okina: The intangible joys of heirloom eggplant

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Special To The Japan Times

In 2013, UNESCO gave Japanese cuisine, or washoku, Intangible Cultural Heritage status, an unwieldy mouthful that left some people wondering, “What’s that?” A recent lunch at Okina, near the tourist mecca of Arashiyama in northwest Kyoto, provided a clear path through the official language.

Hordes of visitors flock to Arashiyama year-round to see the scenery, take boat rides, stroll through a bamboo grove and pray at Tenryuji Temple, a World Heritage site. The temple’s garden is bewitching; the tree-covered mountains in the background are incorporated into the temple garden in a design masterstroke. It’s easy to see why Tenryuji has its (tangible) World Heritage status.

To get an understanding of intangible World Heritage, abandon the hordes, cross the train tracks and after a 10-minute walk from Tenryuji, you’ll arrive at Okina, which has been serving Kyo-ryōri (Kyoto cuisine) for around 65 years. Sadao and Yohei Inoue are the second- and third-generation chefs, who remain mostly in the kitchen. The duo rarely broach the curtain border dividing the cooks and diners; their wives, consummate and charming hosts, constantly flit in and out of the kitchen. Okina may have held its single Michelin star for years, but puts on no airs or graces.

One of the prized ingredients of Kyoto cuisine (and the bulk of my meal at Okina) is kamonasu, an eggplant named after the Kamo River, which runs through the city center. This variety of aubergine is more bulbous that other eggplants and when it ripens, its deep purple skin glistens. At Okina my kamonasu was served as dengaku nasu: cut in half, smothered in white and red miso, and grilled. I don’t think I have eaten a vegetable as beautiful (the burnt umber tone of the miso should be bottled for painters) and the sweet miso-laced taste of the eggplant’s flesh would be enough to make the most defiant carnivore switch teams.

The meal format at Okina observes the rhythm and rules of kaiseki ryōri (traditional multicourse meal) but they have been serving food this way for so long that it feels unaffected and unhurried.

The tempura — two ayu, or sweet fish served over a red mangangi sweet pepper and all coated in a delicate batter — was served with arame no shio a lavender-colored salt made from a variety of kelp loaded with vitamins and minerals. It’s a dish I’ve had in countless kaiseki meals, but the combination of the tantalizingly bitter ayu, the sweetness from the heirloom peppers and the umami-rich salt planted a memory so vivid that it would surpass any photo of the meal.

The sōmen (thin wheat noodles) that opened my leisurely seven-couse lunch was another bright, beautiful and delicious dish as was the array of chilled and lightly cooked vegetables that came toward the end of the meal. Besides the fixed courses, Okina has a substantial a la carte menu created by chef Yohei Inoue.

The Inoue family who run Okina have the best possible approach to food: they enjoy it. Long may they continue cooking.

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