Last weekend, I went to 内田悟のやさい塾, a cooking class run by the famous vegetable master Uchida-san. He has been working as a vegetable wholesaler for 30 years, and opens his own vegetable store, mainly for restaurants, since 2005 near Tsukiji market. He is evangelizing his passion and knowledge on vegetables at monthly free vegetable classes and also at the cooking class rooms around Japan. I bought one of his books, 内田悟のやさい塾 旬野菜の調理技のすべて 保存版 秋冬 and a monthly magazine for iPhone. I learned a lot of basic vegetable preparation skills from the books and I was curious to participate his class. He doesn't say that his recipes are vegetarian, but actually there is no fish, meat, nor daily ingredients in his book.
Just like a normal cooking class in Japan, most of 20 participates were ladies, only two men including myself. Some people came from Nagoya, Osaka, and cities around Japan.
The class consisted of three parts, Uchida-san's demonstration ( an hour and half ), group cooking (45 minutes), and eating together (45 minutes).
I was lucky to stand just behind Uchida-san during his demonstration, and could try two tastings. The demonstration started with a vegetable broth, and followed by three kinds of potato dishes which was the theme of the class this time. It was great to learn various ways to cut and prepare potatoes depending on varieties and recipes, and also the scientific reason behind them. For example, I should not soak cut pieces of potatoes in water if I wish to use the stickiness of starch for such as gullet. Or an idea to use whole potato, peeling skin thickly to remove toxic buds, and sun-drying the skins, remove the buds and deep-fly for a snack.
Group cooking was kind of short, and we actually didn't cook much. Most of the recipes were prepared by staffs, and we did only the final step, like mixing a salad or pan-fry potatoes. While we were eating the cooked dishes, Uchida-san talked why we should care about seasonality and the origins of vegetables, and also why he teaches only vegetable cooking.
He advocates natural farming because he thinks that it is the only way to produce safe food. He met 河名秀郎(Kawana Hidero)-san who was a founder of ナチュラル・ハーモニー, a vegetable delivery company focused on natural farming, when his son suffered from eczema, and he decided to start the free vegetable lecture when he lost his wife to cancer.
In natural farming, not only agricultural chemicals but also manure is considered to be harmful to soil and thus to human who eats the crops from the land. That is the biggest difference from organic farming and sometimes the gap is bigger even compared to the one between organic farming and conventional farming. He understands that not everyone can afford to eat only vegetables from natural farming, so eating seasonal vegetables is his second recommendation. Seasonal vegetables tend to grow under their natural climates (both in location and season), and require less fertilizer.
Uchida-san has a strong opinion against the current food system, including conventional farming, processed food, and the media which promotes trendy diet programs and fancy food shows with little knowledge of seasonality. I was a bit surprised by his tone which was not shown in his books, and I felt so did the other participants.
At the Q&A session, I asked about local production and consumption. His answer was clear. From his career as a wholesaler, he believes that consumers should leverage the benefit of the existing distribution system, by producing vegetables at the most suitable producing districts. Since he is against the use of a fertilizer, he doesn't believe that enough varieties can be produced in one region. He also mentioned that 身土不二 theory which emphasized locally grown food (especially at a macrobiotic diet) was getting overturned recently.
Frankly, I was a little confused after the class. His knowledge and passion for vegetables were magnificent. His cooking theory was logical so that I could learn the nature of vegetables deeply... But I was not confident to pay another 10,000 yen for the next class. I am not sure the exact reason, but maybe because I might have been overwhelmed by his anxiety against the conventional farming. I understand that there are many farming theories and I cannot commit myself to only one of them (yet at least). I might need to visit more farms around Japan to think about the locality of food.