Reiko-san of Ekiya-cho District and her “Uzumi”

 
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When I travel around the world, I meet the distinct types of old women in both appearance and culture. The same goes for the specialty dishes they make. Of course, since all of them come from different land and cultures, the presentation and flavors of their foods are all different as well. Occasionally, whether I’m using a fork or chopstick, I just stop in awe when I put a morsel of food in my mouth. Here I’ll talk about “uzumi”, a local secret often served during festivals in the area that I learned of thanks to Reiko-san, an elderly gal who married into a respected local family.

“Thank you for coming from afar. Please have a bowl of tea.”

Reiko Urabe holds a license to teach the Way of Tea under the Urasenke tradition. I visited the area in Fukuyama city known as Ekiya-cho, where historically a major roadway passed through the district and various inns were built to accommodate the travelers that used it. Various large burial sites (kofun) and former temple grounds also surround this district. My destination had a beautiful Japanese garden and a splendid Japanese-style home. Although I was led into the tea room, I was nervous that I might be tested on my manners when it comes to tea. However, Reiko-san, in a kind voice, said “Just make yourself at home,” as she served up some Japanese sweets.

Then, with a level of precision, she started to prepare a bowl of tea.

“This bowl was passed down in the family from a tea master who loved wabi sabi.”

Reiko-san is now 88 years old, but doesn’t show her age. Her cooking is based on lessons she took at a noted cooking school she attended for 20 years before eventually getting a license to teach. Reiko-san maintains a philosophy of eating only food that she prepares herself. 

Today Reiko-san will prepare “uzumi”, a dish that is often served during the festival celebrating the annual harvest in the area. Put simply, the dish is just a bowl of cooked rice with broth. According to Reiko-san, the dish has its origins in the Edo Period (1611-1868) when the lord of the Fukuyama Domain issued an austerity law, which resulted in the creation of such dishes. Since luxurious items were forbidden then, ingredients such as shrimp and seasonal items were “buried” under the rice to hide them from suspicious eyes. Now, it is part of the local cuisine that is passed down in the Fukuyama region.

In Reiko-san’s words: “It’s a dish meant to celebrate the festival. We cook a lot of freshly harvested rice so that we can invite all the relatives. Then, we harvest matsutake mushrooms from the nearby mountains, so for me shrimp is rather more of a luxury.”

First, the broth. Small shrimp are quickly rinsed then cooked with minimal amounts of water and rice wine (sake). Once cooled, the head and shells are removed. Kelp is used to create a rich broth and then the shrimp broth is blended together.

 “A while back, my grandchildren came by and when I skipped a few things while making the broth, and my grandchildren noticed the difference and commented that I must have left something out,” Reiko-san said while laughing.

Taro is slightly simmered in the broth, then matsutake mushrooms, shrimp, green onions, and tofu are added. All the ingredients are cut into similar sizes. The flavor is then further enhanced with rice wine (sake), soy sauce, sweet rice wine (mirin), and salt. As soon as the ingredients are cooked, they are placed into a bowl and rice is placed on top to hide the ingredients. 

Place some strips of yuzu citrus skin on the rice and the dish is complete. Cover the bowl with a lid, and then no one will notice that there are sumptuous ingredients hidden below the rice.

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Reiko-san then prepares other dishes as the “uzumi” is placed on trays. A shira-ae (ingredients mixed with mashed tofu) is combined with konjac jelly, persimmon, and crown daisy leaves, and a sunomono (dish using vinegar) using yamato taro root, dashimaki (rolled egg), and simmered eggplants are prepared. Finally, a small dish of pickles is placed on the tray, with all the dishes set in a beautiful kaiseki (formal course meal) manner.

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Once we all sat down, I opened the lid of my bowl with the “uzumi” inside. I could smell the yuzu and matsutake mushrooms through the white rice. It made me nervous about whether or not the secret ingredients hidden below would be revealed because of the aroma. “Please mix the ingredients with the rice,” Reiko-san said. I had a moment of guilty pleasure with the secret rice placed in these elegant bowls! All the dishes reflect Reiko-san’s precision in preparation and flavor, adding an air of elegance to the cuisine.

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“I am always busy!” Reiko-san laughed. She tries reads one book per month and also has her tea classes. In addition, she volunteers in the area by reading the town’s archives and entering them as data on the computer. When I wondered how she could manage all of this, it turns out she actually wakes up at 5 AM. She also has her own vegetable garden in front of the house.

Not only is Reiko-san rich in wisdom, knowledge, and elegance, she is also survivor of the war. At age 4 she moved from Kasaoka(Okayama) to Osaka, right about when the war began.

“Every day bombs would be raining down on us. Our resilience was tested daily. When I was 14, I worked in an ammunition factory. At the time, I wasn’t able to study since we served in the student mobilization units for the country. We all just went and did it for the sake of the daily portions of rice bran bread that were distributed.”

There was practically nothing to eat during the war, so a family of 5 had to share a single serving of rice.

“My brother would ask many times, ‘Is there more?’ Then my mother would share half of her portion with him, or even her entire share. I still remember my mother’s efforts even to this day,” Reiko-san recalled. At 26, Reiko-san got married and became part of the Urabe family. Reiko-san commented, “Back then, once you married into a household there was no going back. The only thing I could say was just the word: yes.”

Then, she eventually took over the family business, replicating the flavoring style of the Urabe family and raised the children. As soon as the children got older, she was able to get some free time outside by attending cooking and tea classes.

For Reiko-san, the time that she gained was truly precious. Not wasting a moment, she through herself into research and education. Now I know why Reiko-san can say “I am always busy,” with a smile.

“Everyone has the same amount of time, so there isn’t anything one cannot do if they apply the effort!”

Reiko-san’s mother would apparently always say that. The effort applied to education or manners is reflected through beauty and elegance. Just like the fine ingredients hidden under the rice, I too should absorb the lessons I learned today and resolve myself on becoming a refined person.

Translation:Luke Baker