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Taste of Pastoral Poetry Q&A with Yoshihiro Imai

Circle is a cookbook which combines elements of nature, poetry, and food photography. 
(C) Yuka Yanazume


After growing up in the suburbs of Tokyo, Yoshihiro Imai, 33, moved to Kyoto and became a self-trained chef. At his own expense Imai published a cookbook, Circle, which combines elements of nature, poetry, and food photography to document seasonal cuisine and scenery in the kitchen and beyond, from where the flavors and colors of each meal originate.

Did you dream of being a chef growing up? 
When I was young, I dreamed of being a scientist. Then, in college, I attempted to make bread using natural yeast. As I kneaded the dough with my hands and watched how microorganisms breathe life into bread, my passion for food was sparked. From 2006 to 2014 I worked at the Enboca Restaurant, where we used seasonal foods to express the passage of time. The Noma(1) cookbook inspired me to head to Copenhagen for short- term study. Recently, while getting ready for my new restaurant, I have sought to support farmers and celebrate nature and natural ingredients. The journey continues. 

How does living in Kyoto shape you and your culinary work?
Living in an ancient city fosters modesty. Even today, Kyoto astonishes in ways that make me feel like a newcomer. I can hear elderly residents joke: "The last time Kyoto had something new was before World War II!" Living amidst the mountain slopes of Higashiyama District has had an imperceptible influence on my cuisine. For example, the kiln- roasted persimmons in Kyoto have a color reminiscent of the autumn season when they are made, whereas in Copenhagen a similar dish uses pears. The fine blend of tradition and modernity as well as the close ties I've developed to people in farmers' markets and mentors working with food are what keep me grounded. 

The kiln-roasted persimmons in Kyoto have a color reminiscent of autumn when they are made, whereas in Copenhagen a similar dish uses pears.(C)Yuka Yanazume
How does involvement in farming impact the way you work with food? 
In the city, food is one of the best methods for bringing us closer to the earth. As a youth in Mito, I was introduced to the plants growing on my grandfather's farm. Now, in Ohara, Kyoto my involvement with a youth farmers' community shows me the people who are dedicated to produce and how they care for the land. Working with food is like conducting a choir, with the color, aroma, and texture of the food originating from ingredients nurtured by the earth. The rice I eat three meals a day comes from my father-in-law's family farm, and I cook with cast iron pots to preservethe natural flavors of the ingredients. Culinary work at its best is not a dazzling skill. Rather, it's a response to the original flavors that people derive from food.

In Ohara, Kyoto in a village on the foothills of Mount Hiei, there is a farm similar to my grandfather's farm. Here you can buy fresh ingredients and pick wild flowers and 
shrubs to complement various dishes.(C)Yuka Yanazume
Kamo Eggplant served with wild flowers is inspired by the breeze and light of summer farm. 
(C) Yuka Yanazume

What story did you want to tell in the Circle cookbook? 
I make food in response to the season, so the same dish takes on different forms depending on the time and space. Since photography is the only method available to capture food at the time it is made, I decided to publish Circle. I didn't expect that it would elicit attention in Taipei, New York, and other places around the world. In Japan, I opened pop-up restaurants(Note 2) in rooftop gardens, art galleries, fish markets, and museums. My goals were to share observations of nature and food as well as to show how eating enables us to connect to history during our limited time on earth. 

Have you visited Taipei? Where do you most want to go in Taipei and what food would you like to try? 
I believe that Taiwan is full of life. I look forward to visiting someday. In Taipei, I would like to go to the traditional markets and the local restaurants. I'd like to see artistic areas that feature poetry and handcrafted goods. I'm also very interested in pickled and fermented foods. Every place has a unique way of food preservation. These are the types of things that interest me when I visit other countries.


Our Monthly Column: A Spoonful of World Flavor ●This post originated on Discover Taipei
Notes:

1. Noma: A two Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen,Denmark that was ranked the world's number one restaurant in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2014.

2. Pop-up Restaurant: A temporary restaurant not limited to a particular location and which may stay open for as little as a single meal.

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