monk by Yoshihiro Imai

monk Light and Shadow on the Philosopher's Path by Yoshihiro Imai

What’s the USP? Recipes and stories from monk in Kyoto, a 14 seat restaurant located on the philosophers path on the outskirts of the city where locally sourced ingredients are cooked with fire and the signature dish is, surprisingly, pizza.

Who wrote it? Yoshihiro Imai is the chef and owner of monk. Born in the small village of Mito-city, 60 miles northeast of Tokyo, Imai studied sociology at university, but an interest in baking bread and a stint working in a mountain resort hotel in Karuizawa lead Imai to take a job as a chef at enboca, a nearby pizza restaurant. Imai opened a sister restaurant to enboca in Kyoto in 2010. Inspired by a short internship at Noma, Imai opened monk in 2015.

Is it good bedtime reading? Food writing often falls flat when it aspires to any sort of  literary merit, lapsing into adjective-heavy, pseudo-poetic cliché that manages to express little more than the author’s desire to be taken seriously at all costs, including the text’s clarity and use to the reader. But, in a series of beautifully written essays about his life, career and culinary philosophy that includes subjects such as Oharah village market; Yoshida Farm cheese from the mountains of Okayama, and Yu Sasaki, ‘the mushroom whisperer’ of Iwate prefecture in Honshu, Imai communicates what is obviously a very deeply felt and considered passion for ingredients, the process of cooking and the nature and art of hospitality with a welcome directness and simplicity. For example (just one of many):

‘For us at monk, lighting the oven each day has become part of our daily lives, and we spend the entire day living with fire. The guests who join us at the counter end up gazing at the flames in silence during gaps in their conversation. Fire must have some kind of power to bring us back to our roots, to something ancient within us, and inspire philosophical thoughts. By cooking almost everything entirely by the heat of the fire at monk, I hope our guests can connect with this part of them through the food we share with them.’

What does it look like? There is an elemental simplicity and beauty to Imai’s food. Even a bowl of turnip soup looks like a work of art – swirled with purees of turnip greens and carrots and served in an elegant grey and blue-flecked artisan ceramic ‘vessel’ (of a large dark blue dish made by Taniai-based ceramicist Teppei Ono, Imai says, ‘Looking at it, I get the sensation that this is not a plate, but a hole in space through which one can peer into a deep ocean.’) The signature pizzas – made perhaps with fresh nori or fiddlehead ferns and koshiabura (the sprouts of a wild tree) – are extraordinary. Kyoto itself, depicted through the seasons (the book is divided into spring, summer, autumn and winter) looks like heaven on earth, with lush greenery, vibrant blossoms, crystal waters and open blue skies in the spring and summer; rich red and orange foliage in the autumn and a land of moss and frosts in the winter. At the risk of repeating myself on this blog, the publisher Phaidon are past masters at creating visually pleasing cookbooks, but monk is simply ravishing.

Will I have trouble finding ingredients? If you want to follow the recipes to the letter and you don’t live in Japan, you are going to run into problems. Try tracking down Shogoin turnip, shirako bamboo shoots (‘the fresh heads of the shoots before they appear above ground’, explains Imai), seri (Japanese parsley), yomogi (Japanese mugwort), or nanohana blossoms in Middlesbrough(or London, probably).

What’s the faff factor? If you have a wood fired oven and you can navigate your way through the ingredients lists, finding reasonable substitutes for items that Imai sources locally in Kyoto, then often the recipes are fairly straightforward to execute. Some dishes, including slow-roasted napa cabbage; tomato soup, and the pizza dough recipe could even be adapted for a domestic oven, with a bit of tweaking. The reality for many home cooks however will be that this is a book to read, enjoy, marvel at and dream of visiting monk one day to experience it all for yourself, rather than try and replicate at home. Professional chefs are more likely to have the skills resources and suppliers to make more practical use of the book, especially those based in Japan.

What will I love? monk captures Imai’s distinctive, individual and inspiringly soulful culinary expression.  It’s a complete pleasure to read and to gaze at Yuka Yanazume’s gorgeous images.

What won’t I love? This is probably not a book that you will be cooking from on a regular basis.

Killer recipes: pea soup; suyaki pizza crust; romaine lettuce, egg and yomogi; cherry leaf roast beef; octopus, red shisho and red onion; assorted roasted vegetables, summer; plum lemon verbena and green tea oil.

Should I buy it? If you are passionate about modern gastronomy and love to travel to eat, this book is for you.

Cuisine: Japanese
Suitable for: Confident home cooks/Professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy the book 
monk: Light and Shadow on the Philosopher’s Path
£29.95, Phaidon

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Andy Lynes

I'm a food and drink writer and author.

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