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Hyotei’s Tomato Soy Sauce

Tomatoes in in a quintessentially Japanese dish

Hyotei, a three Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto, has served some of the same dishes to travelers of the nearby Nanzen-ji temple for hundreds of years. That’s not to say that Chef Yoshihiro Takahashi lacks imagination, but rather speaks to the reverence for tradition in Japanese culture.

Opened 400 years ago, Hyotei began as a tea house nestled in a pine forest outside of Nanzen-ji’s gates. The chef there, Takahashi’s ancestor, served a specialty boiled egg to temple-goers after their long travels. The egg recipe has been passed down for generations, and remains a staple of Hyotei’s kaiseki cuisine, but Takahashi continues to make the menu his own, lending his talent to the culinary artform.

I arrived in Japan only a few days prior to dining at the historic restaurant. My mother and I hadn’t originally planned on dining at Hyotei, but once we got settled in our apartment, or machiya, I stumbled across the name in a makeshift guidebook left in our room. It had mapped out a few highlights in our district, and I spotted a three-Michelin-starred restaurant just a few blocks away. We don’t normally try to make reservations at top-tier restaurants with only a few days notice, but we discovered that we just might have a way in.

My mother, Cynthia Sandberg, owns a small farm in the Santa Cruz mountains by the name of Love Apple Farms. While she started to gain notoriety in our community for her top-quality tomatoes about ten years ago, she became internationally renowned through her relationship with David Kinch and his restaurant, Manresa, in Los Gatos. She quickly transitioned from one of the restaurant’s seasonal suppliers of tomatoes to Kinch’s full-time farmer.

A few years into the partnership, Kinch brought ten Japanese chefs to the farm for a garden tour. Fast forward four years, and my mom and I just so happened to be in Japan on our own tour to visit the restaurants of these talented chefs. We connected the dots that Hyotei’s Takahashi had been one of the earlier visiting chefs.

With hope, my mom called in to inquire about a reservation. While she strained with the language barrier, trying to explain that she had met Takahashi on her farm, we managed to secure a table a couple of nights later in the week.

[On top of Hyotei’s exterior garden, the tasting menu gave us a picture of Japanese customs, sensibility, and taste.]

Somewhat nervously, we navigated the side streets between our machiya and Hyotei. Two servers clad in kimonos awaited us at the door. We stepped in the foyer, removed our shoes, and donned geta (traditional Japanese wooden shoes). Inside Hyotei’s walls, it resembles a shrine more than a restaurant. We strolled down a cobblestone pathway flanked by a winding coy river and undulating moss to our tatami room.

On top of Hyotei’s exterior garden, the tasting menu gave us a picture of Japanese customs, sensibility, and taste. Takahashi interspersed staples like miso, eel, and pickled plums with some more recent creations–notably, a tomato soy sauce paired with sea bream sashimi, wasabi, and shiso.

I’ve seen tomatoes prepared in many ways over the years, especially at the Manresa Tomato Modernista Dinner, but it was inspiring to see the tomato featured in a quintessentially Japanese dish. I would venture a guess that the orange-hued sauce was prepared with a tomato water extract. Kinch uses a technique to extract juice from tomatoes by hanging them in butter muslin overnight to filter out a colorless water. It’s possible that Takahashi uses a similar technique to extract the tomato flavor and infuse it into his soy sauce.

The bite of acidity in the tomato soy sauce countered the wasabi’s spice, bringing out the subtler flavors in the sea bream. While the course centered around the delicately prepared fish, Takahashi’s tomato sauce gave the plate his signature. Perhaps his time at Love Apple inspired the integration of tomatoes into this delicious course.

I’ve since found some recipes for a tomato soy sauce that call for simmering tomatoes, soy sauce, and rice vinegar in a saucepan to achieve a similar result. That would likely be the easiest method for a home cook to replicate. It would pair well with seared ahi and an arugula salad–if you can’t get your hands on sea bream and shiso. Next time you want to indulge in some fresh fish, try it Hyotei style with tomato soy sauce!

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