When you see cherries, you probably think pie fillings, sundaes, or cakes. But Chef Mutsuko Soma, chef-owner of Kamonegi in Fremont, thinks savory. “I like pickling cherry in ponzu,” she said.
That would be ponzu sauce, a traditional Japanese dipping sauce that’s citrus-based. To show me how she scouts for ingredients, Soma and I took a trip to the University District farmer’s market.
Ponzu is commonly used in grilled meats and fish, or for dipping dumplings. Soma usually pickles Japanese plums in ponzu, but cherries work great, too. In fact, she likes using cherry ponzu on duck. “It’s easy, you just put cherry in ponzu, that’s it,” she explained. “You can store over a year,” she adds. Over time, the sauce tastes more fruity.
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At Soma's Kamonegi, her handmade soba and tempura are the specialties. Soma grew up in the countryside of Utsunomiya, Japan, about 60 miles north of Tokyo. There was plenty to forage near the mountains. But growing up, Soma said there wasn’t much variety in her meals.
Soma said her mom would cook the same things over and over. “Like grilled fish on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. And Saturday, it’s cup ramen day.”
Saturday was when the family went to the supermarket and everyone got to pick his or her favorite cup noodles. But Soma's perspective on food changed when she was 16 and worked part-time at a restaurant. She saw how food like gyoza, sushi or chawanmushi was made.
“I was like, 'Wow,'" she said. "I never think about it, how food was made.”
Soon, Soma started reading books on cooking. She began to cook at home. But she wanted more. In 2002, she came to Seattle to follow her dream.
“America has so many people from Europe, from Asia, from South America," Soma said. "I wanted to meet more people to learn more about cooking.”
For a long time, Soma cooked French and Spanish cuisine. But she missed fresh soba noodles made with buckwheat, the kind her grandmother used to make. No one else in Seattle made soba fresh. So she went back to Japan to learn.
Soma says Seattle reminds her of the seasons in Japan. And just like in her home country, certain seasons can be fleeting.
“Northwest has great fruits, but season is so short," she said. "So I like buy them a lot. So I can pickle them for future, too.”
On cold, winter days, pickled cherry ponzu can serve as a reminder of summer—or for Soma, of family cooking from across the Pacific.