We all want to eat, pray, and love (food) like Anthony Bourdain does in his travel TV show, No Reservations. But why do we dream of being him out of all the celebrities that travel and eat like kings for work?
The secret lies in one obligatory scene of every episode – the meal scene with the locals. The grandmothers and mothers of the host, often the best chefs in the village, roll up their sleeves and put together an array of authentic home-cooked food, and as Bourdain arrives, the entire family or the village breaks the bread and feasts like it’s the last supper of their lives. It’s the nostalgic meal, laughter, and memories that Bourdain shares with the locals that make his trips so awesome.
I live alone and my family lives thousands of miles away, so I never thought I would personally experience such “Bourdain moments” here in Tokyo. But then, I did. I booked an experience with Tadaku, and learned how to cook delicious food from a local chef, then ate with strangers like we knew each other from long ago, at somebody else’s house, without paying much.
Tadaku is a global start-up that does cultural exchange through home-cooking sessions, by matching people with local home-cooks keen to teach and share their secret recipes. Tokyo happens to be one of the spots they operate in.
From popular standards like sushi, soba, and tempura, to seasonal delights like a celebratory feast to mark the Doll’s day spring festival in March, Tadaku hosts offer the best of Japanese comfort food. Following the advice of Trent McBride, one of the co-founders, to go for classes with “something a little extra,” I decided to try host Ippei and his Australian wife’s ‘hand roll sushi’ session.
Things kicked off with a tasting of nama-zake, Japanese unpasteurized raw sake, at the couple’s local liquor shop. After picking the perfect bottle, they led us guests to a local market, where they showed us how to pick the freshest fish. Then, at their personal culinary workshop, also known as their house, in the heart of Asakusa, Ippei and his wife taught us how to make our own hand-roll sushi. We could choose from a variety of ingredients, including sashimi of fish some people had never heard of, and fresh seasonal vegetables. We carefully wrapped them with vinegared rice and seaweed into a cone-shape. They explained how to eat the rolls properly as well, so the ingredients won’t spill out and the nori skin won’t break – basically, we learned how to munch like locals.
Another worthwhile session is one that guides you through the ins and outs of vegan, shoujin cuisine. This one is run by Naoko, a Japanese tea-ceremony teacher and zen-meditation practitioner. Born into the family of a sake brewer, Naoko grew up learning how to ensemble seasonal vegetables, cereals, and seaweed into a perfect plate of shoujin cuisine. Like her mother taught her, she teaches her guests the essence of shoujin cuisine from its source, by taking them to a local vegetable farm just three minutes from her house.
In her session, guests are exposed to a cuisine many Japanese locals have not even tasted before –rice cooked with yellow nanohana flowers (rape blossoms) a soup of freshly picked bamboo shoots and raw wakame seaweed, Naoko’s original rice flour dumplings with lily root fillings, a yam dish served in a yuzu orange shell, not forgetting daifuku, a sweet sticky rice dessert filled with fresh strawberries. Naoko guides her guests to understand Buddhist culture and a traditional way of life through shoujin cuisine.
Unlike typical Japanese cooking classes where you often have to cook with an army of 50 housewives, Tadaku sessions are kept intimate and cozy, limiting the number of guests to five to eight people – just the right size for a family-style meal. The food is the ultimate icebreaker and catalyst for conversation. The experience made me realize that food becomes of comfort when we associate it with unforgettable memories.