The First Abiding Principle: The Water
NAMAFU is nearly two-thirds water, and the qualities of that water are integral to what we sense while enjoying it. Kyoto’s water is legendary for its purity and consistency. Neutral in acidity and without strong mineral perfusion, it has a delicate, mild taste. Because the water table is so broad and deep, not only has the taste remained the same from time immemorial, but the temperature. In the preparation of food in Kyoto, water is the reliable standard that spotlights the flavors of ingredients without imposing its own, and that makes all the difference. Thus, Kyoto cuisine has become known for its light touch. The utmost ingredients and just a suggestion of dashi bring forth a panoply of rich flavor sensations on the tongue. Kyoto style has evolved by way of this prime ingredient, and so it is at FUKA as well. Though the modern era has necessitated new, high-volume hydraulic technology to supply a thriving city, the water that FUKA uses for its treasured NAMAFU comes from the same house well it has since the shop was founded – the water that Kyoto was born upon. Kyoto’s water is FUKA’s sine qua non.
But despite the remarkable uniformity of water and ingredients day after day, there are yet constant variations in the nature of the NAMAFU produced. The seasons change, and with them the temperature and moisture content of the air. Even the ambient fragrances that signify new growth in the spring, the ripening of fruit in the fall, and the dry crispness of winter affect the flavor of the chameleonic NAMAFU in ways that most of us might never perceive. It takes the years of daily experience garnered by a dedicated artisan to sense these things, and to prepare this timeless delicacy in harmony with the rhythms and cycles of nature. Which brings us to…
The Second Abiding Principle: Hand-Crafting
NAMAFU is the ultimate perishable food, its freshness and character evanescent. Although FUKA operates its own shops, and anyone can purchase its products daily, it caters mostly to Kyoto’s ryotei – high-end traditional restaurants. Each one insists on a product that conveys its special identity, and each wants it geared to the time, the occasion, and even its particular clientele. As a consequence, FUKA makes as many as 30 to 40 slightly varied forms of NAMAFU each day. Some are very basic recipes that have been popular from Kyoto’s imperial era. Newer styles reflect a savvier, more worldly audience that is as comfortable with Italian and French ingredients as with traditional Japanese, and the product must hold its own in those settings. Tradition must be preserved, but to do so means making it relevant for each new generation.
NAMAFU can be produced by machine, but except for some simple mixing chores, FUKA’s will always be crafted by hand. Sensitivity to the conditions prevailing in the atmosphere, the tastes and desires of diners, the qualities and interactions of the ingredients, requires the artisan’s long experience and mediation. Therefore only a limited amount can be produced each day. There are dozens of ways to cut corners and make the production process faster and easier, but for FUKA this is “not a business, but a craft”. The shop’s goal, ultimately, is to be true to itself, to satisfy its own innate knowledge that it has done proper justice to its cherished natural ingredients, and that something unique has emerged that can only be accomplished with singularly dedicated eyes, hands, and hearts.
FUKA has about 20 artisans in its employ at any time. All study the Tea Ceremony, and every man and woman partakes of that discipline’s spirit of ichigo ichie, a phrase from antiquity that expresses the precept that we are always “in the now”. Although the shop has made countless varieties of NAMAFU, and resumes the process each day that has gone on for centuries, the work is always approached with the unerring understanding that for those who taste what is made, all of that history is contained in a single moment. It must reflect all of the skill that FUKA has stood for these years, the integrity that is its hallmark. If it did not approach the making of NAMAFU with this philosophy, ringing out with every bite, it would not have lasted all this time.
It is shops like FUKA, small, but so rich in history and so unfailingly dedicated to a philosophy of excellence transcending time, that make up the vibrant fabric that is eternally Kyoto.