My father-in-law Takashi has very specific (and very good) taste in food. He is what his family members call urusai when it comes to flavor, a word that can mean noisy or fussy. He isn’t fussy in the I don’t like this or that kind of food, way but rather in the I don’t eat food that isn’t perfectly delicious, way. And noisy as in when something isn’t to his liking, he’ll tell you so that you can fix it next time. One of his particular peeves is overly sweet food. There is surprising amount of sugar used in Japanese food, especially here in Kyushu, but long ago he banned sweeteners from his own house which is how Kuniko became so adept at cooking without them and passed on to me an understanding of flavor that is savory focused.
Takashi would much rather eat just what he likes at home than suffer through a disappointing meal at a restaurant. And honestly he finds almost all restaurants disappointing. One of very few restaurants he frequented on his regular trips to Tokyo for exhibitions was Robata, an impossible to find tiny establishment accessed down a back alley in Ginza. Everyone in the family came to love Robata and in the last decade Hanako and I also tried to get to Tokyo together at least once a year for a meal. Lunch or dinner there was always so good, so pure, the flavors clear, balanced, and perfect. For me it represented a pinnacle, an inspirational and aspirational expression of the cuisine I love to cook at home. So when I first heard that Robata was closing I was a bit bereft. Where would I go to experience the flavors I’m chasing? But then I heard that the chef, Tsuchiya san, a Karatsu native, was returning to our town and that he would occasionally open his home to private dinners. And, even more exciting was the news that he would offer intimate cooking classes. Only one thing could replace eating at Robata in Tokyo and that’s learning from Tsuchiya san once a month here in Karatsu!
Tsuchiya san hadn’t been back long before we attended a dinner at his home in February at the invitation of friends. The evening’s meal featured seri and kamo nabe. Seri, also known as java water dropwort or Japanese parsley, is cultivated for culinary use but it also grows wild. Tsuchiya san used seri cultivated in Akita in very soft soil that allows the plant’s roots to easily stretch and elongate. He simmered the seri, leaves, stems, and roots along with slices of dark burgundy duck meat in a warm broth for an intoxicating and deeply comforting winter dish. Seri, like parsley, has a distinct and strong flavor. It was my first experience eating the roots. Generally only the leaves and stems are used sparingly in soups or as a garnish. But we ate heaps of it in all its parts, simmered and steaming, crispy, earthy, and so delicious.
Only a few days later I was at my local yaoya vegetable market and saw a vibrant bunch of seri in a basket, roots and all. I talked with the proprietor who said that it was locally foraged and though the roots were not as long and perfect as those of the seri from Akita, they were clean and tan and appetizing so I decided to take it home and try my hand at a version of seri nabe. Alongside some gorgeous shimeji mushrooms and strips of pork from black haired pigs raised in Kumamoto, we simmered the seri, roots and all, in broth and enjoyed it with ponzu made of yuzu, dashi, and soy and some nama-shichimi, a course multi-spice blend that has been our go-to condiment this winter. This new combination is a revelation and a welcome addition to the rotation of warm broth meals to make when spring is still teasing from afar.
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