Interview with Chinatsu Doi
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Interview with Chinatsu Doi

Text: Minori Mukaida
Photo: Ariko Inaoka

Our second soba recipe comes from Ms. Doi Chinatsu, a chef based in Awaji Island (a largish minor island near Kobe in Hyogo Prefecture). She runs a popular cooking class called Kokoro ni Kaze Kitchen (Wind for Mind). We visited her atelier to talk to her.

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A ten-minutes drive from the town of Sumoto will take the visitor to a mountainside cinematic hut. The location for Kokoro ni Kaze (Wind for mind) Kitchen is a building that had once been a milk collection center, an atmospheric place composed of traditional materials including striking Awaji roof tiles. Inside, the kitchen workspace seems rather small. That’s no coincidence as the height of the kitchen table counter, the position of the oven, and the placement of utensils are arranged for quick, easy access for the small, but energetic chef. “It’s tailored for my size,” Ms. Chinatsu jokes. She invites me to sit down facing the window so that I may enjoy the view. Indeed, the scenery has qualities of a rustic painting.

“This is a sweetgrass. This is a yarrow: it blooms around the summer solstice.” As she walks through her fields, she introduces her herbs one by one. When she finds an herb that grows in a place other than the place where it took root in the soil, she inserts a small tree branch as a marker, saying, “I like the fact of natural environments so I tend to let the herbs bloom where they might.”

Why did you choose this place?

“It sort of came from giving up looking for the perfect spot. When I was living in the city, I had a strong desire to change my life, but I wanted to wait until my child grew up. I wanted to be near my family, specifically my grandparents, so I decided to return to my hometown on Awaji Island. While searching for the right location I had imagined a place just like this, but the beginning of my search proved fruitless and I moved back in with my parents temporarily. I spent five years looking for the ideal building before giving up, realizing I could build my own place, as it wouldn’t really matter where I ended up. More important was finding the right field with good soil! Interestingly, a few days after this revelation, an acquaintance telephoned me about renting a field. On the way to the field to rent near my childhood home, I discovered this adorable hut. I thought to myself, “I wish could take a break and work here.” When I looked for the owner, it turned out that the hut and field were owned by the same landlord. That’s how Wind for Mind Kitchen came about.”

That’s a rapid development.

“Yes, it was. I decided to rent both immediately. A few days after my family and I talked about moving out to find my own place once my son left for University, another acquaintance called me about a house, now my home, located between the field and my childhood home. I still wonder how it all worked out so remarkably well.”

Basically once you “gave up” everything developed just as you wanted.

“True! Sometimes you have to look away from your ideal situation and then something more than wonderful and unexpected might develop. You have to get over your tunnel vision.”

How did you come up with your recipe?

“I had two choices: I was thinking about making doji soba, a local variety from Nagano. This was around the time I’d pick wild plants in the mountain, such as bamboo shoots and royal fern. But passing through my garden I found my herbs blooming as well as some sprouts, so I decided to make a “salad soba,” the point being to utilize whatever herbs or greens are at your disposal, whether it be your garden or local farmer’s market. For example, different herbs and vegetables will be ready next month, such as asparagus. You should utilize what’s best, and that’s usually what’s in season, soba being the cornerstone ingredient creating a very balanced meal.

Does the field give you a lot of inspiration?

“Yes, it does. And of course, local supermarkets and farmers markets are inspiring as well. I’ll often improvise on an evening’s menu depending on what ingredients are available in the store or in bloom in the fields. It’s a playful approach to cooking, and I like the stability of soba being the base ingredient of these various improvised meals.

What kind of soba do you like best?

“Awajishima has a strong culture of udon. When I was growing up, the sort of soba we ate was very soft. When I moved to Tokyo, I tried a seiro soba (cold noodles) with shrimp tempura. It was stylish and tasted so different from what I’d been used to. It changed my concept of soba, which became one of my favorite meals in Tokyo.

Next time you come to Kyoto, you need to try hot soba dishes at Owariya.

“Maybe we’re going into a new chapter in soba cuisine. I wonder if it will change my concept of soba again. I’m excited.

In the film, The Witch of the West Is Dead, the main character spends time with her grandmother living in the forest, learning to appreciate nature and cleansing her spirit before returning to the city. One feels similarly purified by Chinatsu’s kitchen atelier, so as to be better fortified returning to the city and busy social patterns. Here the sun shines on the morning dew and the fields glow, we murmur our gratitude to the main players in nature, the mountains, the plants, water. Ms. Chinatsu Doi reminds me of that film’s white witch, someone I’d love to revisit as seasons change.