Off-the-Eaten Path Food Experience in Japan. "Meet the People and Places behind your Plates! "

Thursday 12 December 2019

Fermentation experience at a farmer's kitchen and soy sauce brewery in the Yamanobe ancient trail

BY Robin Hoshino

Nature’s Way - When it comes to food 

Convenience is often king, but in the land of an legendary queen in Nara, two amazing women are going back to basics.

The Yamanobe Trail which runs through the countryside of Nara, is thought to be one of the oldest roads in Japan. Part of this road winds its way through the eastern edge of the Nara Basin, an area dotted with kofun - ancient burial places of Japanese royalty. Among these is said to be the final resting place of Queen Himiko, who ruled these lands more than a thousand years ago.

Soy sauce brewery Daimon Shoyu

Today, this region is home to a new generation of strong and inspiring women who are making waves in the local food scene for their incredible work. The first of these is Maki, a third generation brewer of Daimon Soy Sauce. We visited her family brewery one clear Autumn morning to find out more about what makes Daimon Soy Sauce unique.

Daimon Soy Sauce Brewery has been passed down through the women in Maki’s family, along with a passion for natural brewing methods. While much modern soy sauce is made in sterile factories, and has many additives to keep the flavor stable for a long period at room temperature, Daimon Soy Sauce is made using traditional techniques in enormous wooden barrels using koji bacteria that is cultivated in-house. As a daughter and mother, Maki is proud to use high quality ingredients and traditional techniques to produce a safe and healthy products for her family and people everywhere.

As soon as we entered the brewery we were hit by an earthy salt caramel-like smell. The entire space was a soy sauce ecosystem - life was in the air. 
Maki explained that they are very careful that the brewery does not get infected by other bacteria - the soy sauce bacteria are surprisingly delicate, and succumb easily to more aggressive strains such as those to make natto - fermented soy beans. Using the same barrels year on year gives the soy sauce bacteria a stable environment to thrive. This comes with real challenges - as well as taking a lot of time and labor, as this kind of traditional brewing becomes rarer and rarer, the craftspeople that support this industry are also vanishing - there is only one person in Japan currently making the kind of barrel necessary to brew soy sauce. For this reason too Maki is keen to get more people using this traditionally-made products.

We saw the soy sauce being brewed, and even got a chance to mix the moromi - the fermented mash in the casks, after which Maki invited us to taste the final product. She poured a drop into a sake cup. The colour was deep red, and the aroma fruity and earthy. The taste was deep and complex and satisfying.

Organic Farmer's Kitchen "Himiko's Garden"

After Daimon Soy Sauce, we took a short trip to Himiko’s Garden, a community kitchen and cafe, where we met Kaori - an organic farmer who grows ancient varieties of rice using natural farming methods.

As we arrived she was busy preparing lunch in the open-air kitchen that overlooks her rice fields and a lake, right at the foot of one of the ancient burial mounds. Back in the kitchen all eyes quickly travelled to the Kamado - a traditional wood fired oven- in the middle of the floor. This is a clay mound-like oven with hollows on the surface for pots to sit into over the flames. 

While we waited for the rice to cook, Kaori explained each of her homemade condiments to us. There were several kinds of miso with different bases such as barley and black beans instead of rice and soy beans. We sampled salt-koji and she explained that the koji boosts the salt flavor so you don’t need as much salt if you use salt-koji instead.

Originally from Osaka, Kaori was inspired to move to Nara and study natural farming under an expert as she was concerned about the amount of additives and sugar in modern food. When she started growing her own fields of rice, she out-produced all her neighbours and even her teacher came to find out how she did it. After the tasting Kaori also took us down to the fields to look at the rice. In spite of the recent storms, the plants were looking healthy. She showed us the ancient black and red varieties as well as rice famous in sake-making.

When the rice was ready we sat down to a delicious macrobiotic lunch of vegetables, tofu, chicken, rice and miso soup. The food certainly packed a more nutritious punch that your average meal. After lunch we were brimming with energy.

Soy sauce and rice are perhaps two of the most basic components of Japanese food, and these days are often taken for granted - mass produced and sometimes even imported. Here in Nara, we could experience the quiet dignity that comes with valuing and protecting these essential parts of Japanese culture so that they can be passed on to the next generation.