And now for our final installment of “Food from Afar,” a series of food photographs  with accompanying back stories. We apologize if this series has instilled a sense of hunger—and wanderlust. We started in Korea, hopped over to Hong Kong, then did a mad dash from Chefchaouen, Morocco to Grenada, Spain to Oaxaca, Mexico. Hang on, in this post, we present the work of Cynthia Staples, who takes us on a vicarious trip to Kyoto, Japan. Her photos are in our “Food from Afar” exhibit currently on display at the Inside Out Gallery (CVS windows, Davis Square) for just a few more days. Okay, Kyoto, here we come…

Nibble: Can you describe the item in the photograph?

Cynthia: It’s a barrel of taru-sake outside of a Kyoto eatery.

Nibble: What was the inspiration behind taking the picture?

Cynthia: This photo was taken in Kyoto in October 2010.  I was inspired to take the photo because of my companion’s reaction as we passed by the barrel.  He exclaimed, “Taru-Sake!”  Steve is a scientist who travels to Japan quite a bit.  I’d never heard him say that word before.  When I pressed him, he told me this story:

“One of my memories of sake involves a toad (or frog, I’ve seen both).  He’s the Tsukuba-San gama-kaeru — the Mount Tsukuba frog.   At a scientific meeting in Tsukuba, we were told the story of this frog. He’s famous for his sweat, from which is made an oil with magical properties.  As the story unfolded, around us casks of sake were being breached — small cedar barrels about the size of a beer keg. I’d had sake before, but this was particularly good — cool and dry, with a flavor similar to retsina.  I was told it was taru-sake, barrel sake.  It seems not to be generally available; at least I’ve come across it rarely.   I understand it’s mostly served at festivals.   Occasionally, when I travel around Japan, I see traces, though – -like this beautiful barrel.”

Nibble: Were you able to taste the sake?

Cynthia: This sake I did not taste, but sake was available in many other forms throughout the journey, sometimes clear, sometimes cloudy, served cold and sometimes served hot.  Always a unique drinking experience.

Where do you shop for sake around here?

For sake, there is no better spot than the Reliable Market in Union Square. [Editor’s Note: check out this Nibble post on sake, in which a local sake expert recommends specific sakes at the Reliable.]

Nibble: Can you describe the item in the photograph?

Cynthia: These are mushrooms sold in an open air market in Kyoto, Japan.

Nibble: What was the inspiration behind taking the picture?

Cynthia: I was inspired to take the photo for two reasons.  First, while mushrooms are not my favorite food, I had come to respect the fungus much more after recently making the acquaintance of a Russian émigré near Somerville.  This woman spoke fondly of learning to harvest wild mushrooms in her homeland, and continuing the tradition here in the United States.  Secondly, never before had I seen an entire market stall dedicated to one item.  How precious could that item be?

Nibble: Were you able to taste the food you photographed? How did the visual compare to the flavor?

Cynthia: While I did not partake of these particular mushrooms, I was able to nibble on a wide variety of mushrooms throughout my one-week journey.  The mushrooms, and the dishes of which they were an important ingredient, were always fresh and delicious.

Nibble: Can you describe the item in the photograph?

Cynthia: This was part of a “fake food” display used by a restaurant as a visual menu of its offerings.

Nibble: What was the inspiration behind taking the picture?

Cynthia: For days as I walked around Kyoto I had noticed the most beautiful displays of freshly prepared delicacies in restaurant windows.  Shrimp appearing as if caught just that morning.  Sushi artfully arranged on bamboo platters glistening in the sunlight.  In front of the Italian restaurants, calzones spilling melted cheese onto white plates.  I photographed these displays because I wasn’t sure I could convince people back home of the artistry and craftsmanship I saw before me. 

Nibble: Were you able to taste the food displayed in Kyoto windows?

Cynthia: I have no doubt that these window displays enticed me to enter restaurants that I might otherwise have passed because I couldn’t read the kanji, or Japanese characters, on the menus.

Nibble: Where do you satisfy your taste for exotic food in Somerville/Union Square?

Cynthia: There are two places in particular in Somerville/Union Square where I take great pleasure in seeking out “exotic” foods like mushrooms:  the Reliable Market in Union Square and the Market Basket grocery store on Somerville Avenue.