Japan wants world to treasure its kaiseki cuisine
BY MITSUKO NAGASAWA STAFF WRITER
Recreating the image of the seasons is one of the characteristics of kaiseki. In this course, gingko leaves add a bit of autumn color. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
With UNESCO recently honoring French cuisine as a cultural heritage treasure, the Japanese think it's time for their turn at the table.
Japan is considering asking the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to add its "kaiseki" food culture--a traditional multi-course meal that symbolizes the essence of Japanese culture--to its Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists.
Although kaiseki is currently used to describe Japanese course meals in general, originally, meals served by the host of a tea party were referred to as kaiseki.
It is thought that the term, which literally means "bosom stone," came from the practice of Zen monks alleviating hunger by putting warm stones into the front part of their robes.
Originally, tea party guests had a kaiseki meal to relieve hunger before tea was served. It was simply composed of a bowl of rice, another bowl of soup and three side dishes. An extra plate with a snack was also offered for the guests to humbly enjoy sake.
Despite the exquisite image it projects, kaiseki is similar to home meals. To Japanese, it is an extension of their daily lives.
"Asa no chaji" (morning tea gathering), or "asacha" for short, begins at dawn to escape the scorching heat.
Kazuko Goto, a culinary specialist born to a tea master's family, gave an outline of kaiseki cuisine served during an asacha gathering.
The menu consists of seasonal ingredients to capture the essence of the summer, and bowls and plates are carefully chosen.
A plate of shiny "junsai" (brasenia) pleases the eye. The crispness of pickled cucumber charms the ear. And the rich red miso soup satisfies the body that craves salt in the summer. The combination is meant to deliver the message of refreshment.
"The ingenuity is exercised to suggest the presence of ice with the use of ingredients and bowls with crystal clearness, but ice will not be actually used," Goto said.
Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), the celebrated tea master who perfected the "wabi-cha" style, once described the innermost secret of tea ceremony as "giving it a cool feel in the summer." The appearance is the key.
Kaiseki cuisine was refined into the style close to what we know today in late 18th century after it had been influenced by daimyo (feudal lords) who were fascinated by the tools of tea ceremonies and haiku poets who had insightful views on nature.
In the 19th century the Russian style service, under which each dish is served on a plate in succession, became widespread in French cuisine. In that sense, Japan was quick to introduce similar service.
As sugar became widely available, Japanese confections developed further in parallel with kaiseki cuisine.
"In addition to the value of sweetness, (the sweets) began to portray changes in time and emotions with their colors and shapes," Tomizo Yamaguchi, the president of Suetomi confectionery store, said. "A grain of 'azuki' bean can symbolize a firefly or a pebble from a river."
"(The introduction of) kaiseki was a revolution in the Japanese culinary history," Isao Kumakura, the president of Shizuoka University of Art and Culture, said.
There are three characteristics in kaiseki, namely 1) Each dish is served sequentially, 2) There should be no extra ornaments, and 3) It must make a strong statement.
The other extreme of kaiseki is "honzen ryori," a form of serving food at banquets by samurai families during the Muromachi Period (1338-1573). The grade was determined by the number of dishes, and less attention was given to how they tasted.
Honzen ryori food was also served by commoners for ceremonial occasions in postwar Japan. Kaiseki emerged as a counter to honzen ryori and became widespread.
During prewar years, kaiseki had a presence as a form of culture. Businesspeople who were enthusiastic about the tea ceremony competed over how much they could lose themselves in it. Reviews of tea parties were published in newspapers.
At an August asacha tea gathering, guests were impressed to see lotus leaves and flowers used as plates and bowls, records say.
Yoshihiro Takahashi, the 15th-generation owner of a long-established restaurant in Kyoto, Hyotei, talks about "Hamomatsu no Wan" (a bowl of soup with hamo pike eel and matsutake mushrooms) when he explains the spirit of Japanese cuisine overseas.
Hamo plays a major part in Japanese cuisine during the summer, and begins to be replaced by matsutake at the end of the season.
The soup captures the brief moment of seasonal transition. The hamo becomes less fatty and is not as tasty as during the mid-summer season. But it comes into harmony with matsutake without meddling with its scent.
"If you try to make it more special than it needs to be, you will leave a lingering sense of discomfort," Takahashi said. "I'd like to cherish values to make our guests feel it naturally."