Serving Kaiseki – the meal for tea

Serving Kaiseki: Formal, playful and metaphorical, Kaiseki is the meal made for tea.

Hiroko Sugiyama is reaching out for a bowl for making a welcoming new brew of hot water using fragrant yuzu, a distinguished Japanese citrus fruit variety. And while though you can find no speck of dust in her charming kitchen, Sugiyama is rinsing the bowl with water before filling it with simmering hot water from the tea kettle on her kitchen stove. She actually will rinse all dishes the moment she takes them down from the kitchen shelves.

She says: “Each time you’re using a bowl, refresh the bowl with water so it’ll become more alive. Suppose I was a true kaiseki master (she refers to those chefs that prepare formal meals at Japanese official tea ceremonies) she sais, I actually would have been spending quite some thought and time thinking about what kind of water I would use. Maybe I would have carried special water all the way down from famous Mount Rainier so the guests could be tasting the snow.”

Now Hiroko views herself not as a master, but she is actually a lifelong student of Japanese tea ceremonies and at her home, she runs a culinary atelier. She studied at the world-famous Cordon Bleu Institute in Paris and in Bangkok at the Thai Royal Cooking School. She is also active within the IACP (the International Association of Culinary Professionals) and has earned respect and recognition around the globe as a top authority on “kaiseki,” the art of serving meals with tea.

Kaiseki meals don’t have main courses like Western meals do and a special highlight of the kaiseki meal is the soup dish, the “wanmori”. This time, Sugiyama has made sarimi of cod. A deliciously tender dumpling with egg whites that is garnished with lemon zest and turnip tops. The broth in which it is served (dahsi) is made with kelp and dried tuna (bonito) and then spiked with light soy sauce, sweet mirin, and dry sake. When you learn about Reiki (that also originated in Japan) you’ll learn about soup. It plays a crucial role in this healing art that combines Shinto, Taoist, and Buddhist traditions into a palatable system.

Usually, a kaiseki meal includes a grilled dish (“Yakimono”) but this time, Sugiyama has chosen a fried dish (“Agemono”). She fried Asian small and round eggplants and then topped that with red miso, sake, sugar, ginger, and mirin and traditionally, hand-carved chopsticks from bamboo are put on a communal platter.

This is an “Azukebachi” dish (meaning “leave it with you”). This allows the host to leave the table to make arrangements needed for the next courses. Chestnuts, green beans, and fresh ginkgo nuts (pretty rare) are being served accompanied by two sorts of sweet potato (shaped in a leaves-form) and fried burdock roots. The “leaves” are meant to evoking the feel of a forest in fall. You can read more about the importance of this sort of food in the post about Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Generally presented as a final dish (“Tomewan”), rice is paddle-sculpted into a numeral one (“ichi”) to signify its prominent place in diet and cuisine of Japan. A cake (usually from wheat) with millet grains, symbolizing the season, is also presented in the same shape floating in a bowl with miso soup. this perfectly smooth and deceptively miso is truly a labor of dedication and love.

The delicious meal that Sugiyama will prepare in the following hours is simultaneously playful, contemplative, and metaphorical. All courses are calculated to fall exactly and precisely within the delicate parameters within a fine tradition set by many generations. And still, just like the lines of a haiku (tightly ordered) that are capturing tall single moments’ fleeting experiences, every single one of the kaiseki’s seven courses is truly original.

The meal that Sugiyama had prepared this time is to commemorate the new year for Japanese tea. In this country, the new tea containers will be opened in fall, in November, so this meal is both autumnal and festive. This celebratory meal allows chefs to use the most precious dishes they have. At her favorite Kyoto restaurant, Sugiyama was served a kaiseki dinner that included an heirloom bowl that came with a price ticket of over $3,000.

Laughing shyly, Sugiyama says” “It was a wonderful experience to be served from that particular bowl”. This meant that the chef was trusting me that I wouldn’t break it. The key thing about kaiseki meals is, however, “shun”. It is pronounced a bit like “shoon” and its meaning is seasonal (height of ripeness). But of course, the less tangible sense is just as important, as a unique place and time. The expression for this is “ichi-go, ichi-e” that can roughly be translated by the expression “once in a lifetime”.