Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Waiting for Spring

We're restless.  

It seems this is the time of year when we begin thinking about holding chaji, tea gatherings, with our friends.  Perhaps it's the longer days and a little bit of warm weather — a false spring — we had earlier this month. Daffodils and narcissus are blooming — and the plum trees! They have been stunning this year. 

With the thoughts of chaji came thoughts of kaiseki, and those thoughts gave rise to requests from our regular Chanoyu practice group to learn more about kaiseki. I'm certainly no expert, but since I have been in the kitchen during many chaji, learning from and observing experienced tea people, and have the most kaiseki cooking experience of our group, the requests came round to me to share what I know about kaiseki. 

Hassun. More photos here.
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Springtime Cha-Kaiseki Cooking Workshop


There are two forms of modern kaiseki: Kaseki Ryori, served at specialty restaurants and bearing only a passing resemblance to its cousin Cha-Kaseki, the meal for tea. Cha-kaseki seems to have evolved from Shoujin-Ryori, vegetarian meals served at Zen Buddhist temples. The word “kaiseki” is often translated as “breast stone,” in reference to a warm stone pressed to the bellies of Zen monks to stave off hunger pangs as they meditated. Traditionally, a tea master could maintain the garden, cook the meal and serve by tea him or herself, but today a kaiseki chef is often employed to prepare the meal.

What follows is a brief introduction to the courses and types of food served at a cha-kaseki meal. Interactions between host, assistant(s) and guests have been intentionally simplified or omitted for the sake of brevity. For more complete description of how to serve the meal and the verbal exchange between host and guests, see Soshitsu Sen’s Chado: The Japanese Way of Tea.


The meal served at a chakai, or tea gathering, is a physical and spiritual preparation for the guest to receive tea. The meal is intended to be sufficient to quell hunger, like a warm stone, and settles the stomach for the coming sake and tea. Guests should not feel stuffed or over-full so that when they leave the tea gathering it is with a sense of wanting to return. 

Garlic, onions, hot pepper and other strong flavors and aromas can disrupt the guests’ sense of taste and smell, and prevent them from enjoying subtle aromas and flavors of sweets and tea to come. Ingredients should be simple, fresh, seasonal and of the highest quality; they are prepared with care and utter consideration for the guests. Perhaps this is expressed best by the motto used by Zen temple cooks: chouri ni kometa aijou, “cooking with love.”

Dishware is chosen to complement the food, season and theme, which, in turn, is arranged to complement the dishware it is served on. Monotony is to be avoided: if an ingredient is repeated it should be prepared in a manner different from the preceding dish (such as simmered in one course and raw or fried in another); if a square dish is used, the food served on it should be round or, if also square, rotated 45°. Severe contrast — in texture, color, shape, taste — is also to be avoided as this disrupts harmony. Elements of kaiseki should complement and harmonize without artifice.

The first three courses of a formal tea kaiseki are served together on one tray. Gohan (rice) and misoshiru (miso soup), both in lidded lacquerware bowls, are arranged next to one another — rice on the left and soup on the right — on the near side of the meal tray. On the far side of the tray is mukōzuke. The three bowls form a triangle on the tray.

  • Gohan — white rice, the first taste. Rice made for kaiseki should be cooked so it is soft and tender -- not al dente or chewy -- in order to maintain harmony in the tea room. The rice is shaped to represent the character ichi, the number one.

  • Misoshiro — miso soup. After one bite of gohan, the guest takes a taste of misoshiru. In Kaiseki, gohan and misoshiru are a pair, meant to be tasted alternately. The soup is made from a blend of different types of miso depending on the season. Miso soup for kaiseki is strained to remove coarseness and present a smooth, refined texture.

After the guests have a few minutes to enjoy rice and soup, the host brings in the first serving of sake (rice wine) in a lacquered container. The host serves sake to the principal guest in lacquered saucers which are passed down the line. The host serves sake to each guest, who then may enjoy the third dish on the tray:

  • Mukōzuke — Foods in a dish arranged on the far side of the meal tray for each guest, which is why it is called mukōzuke (lit., "set to the far side"). Often this might be some kind of sashimi, though not necessarily so (traditionally, August kaiseki is entirely vegetarian). It should be a cool dish to contrast with the warm rice and soup. If sashimi is served, it should be complemented with wasabi and a garnish called tsuma. Tsuma can be anything that heightens the color and flavor of the sashimi, such as finely shedded daikon, somen noodles or chrysanthemum petals.

After sake is served, the host brings in a more rice in a covered dish and offers a second serving of soup. Guests may help themselves to a second serving of rice. Afterward, the host serves the next courses.

  • Wanmori or Nimonowan, simmered foods, served in a clear broth. Wanmori is the high point of the meal, the crescendo, the dish to which most attention is paid. The host will decide on the wanmori dish first, then all the other dishes in the kaiseki will be selected to complement it. Clear broth and simmered foods are cooked separately and arranged carefully in the bowl just before serving. It is served individually in lidded bowls slighly larger than the bowls used to serve miso soup.

  • Yakimono, grilled foods. Yakimono for cha-kaiseki is savory, prepared from vegetables (such as eggplant), fish, duck or tofu. It is brought out in a communal serving dish for the guests to serve themselves.

After yakimono, the host brings more rice in the covered container to which guests may help themselves. If the host plans on serving azukebachi (below), s/he brings another serving of sake from earthenware or ceramic tokkuri (bottle) and an assortment of cups. The host allows each guest to select a cup and serves each one sake from the tokkuri in turn. The host then brings in the next dishes which comprise azukebachi.

  • Azukebachi (“entrusted bowl” or "bowl left in another's care”), an optional course, comprised of dishes prepared differenly from one another. One is a rich niwase (simmered together), a stew-like dish, and the second bowl is a refreshing, light, salad-like dish. The dishes are left in the care of the guests. Contrast and complement are important in selecting foods for azukebachi.

After an adequate amount of time, the host returns to collect empty dishes, then returns with:

  • Hashiarai (chopstick rinser), clear broth served in a small lacquered and lidded cup or bowl. Hashiarai is lightly flavored but fragrant — perhaps merely hot water with salt, umeboshi or ginger with a simple, seasonal garnish such as cherry blossom petals or fragrant herb. Also referred to as kozuimono (small clear soup) or suimono.

Hashiarai is meant to cleanse the palate in preparation for the next course:

  • Hassun: a tray of two delicacies, traditionally one from the mountain and one from the sea. The name “hassun” translates as “eight (hachi) sun (a measurement approximately one inch in length).” Hassun has roots in Buddhist temple rituals, and extreme care is made when arranging the tray.

Hassun is a complex interaction known as chidori (plover) for the back and forth interaction of host and guests, reminiscent of a shorebird chasing waves on the beach. This is the only time when they will share food and drink together in the tea room.

If the guests need more sake or if the host has more dishware to show, then shiizakana is served:
  • Shiizakana :(insisting fish), usually a delicacy from the sea, always served in small portions. Shiizakana are usually savory and tasty foods that go well with sake. These are also “entrused dishes” and are left to the guests to serve themselves.
  • Yutō: pitcher of hot water with slightly browned rice in it, which the guests serve themselves.
  • Kōnomono: pickles that accompany the yutō.

Yutō and kōnomono signal the end of the meal.

Wagashi or omogashi (moist sweets) are served in individual lacquered boxes (fuchidaka) at the end of the meal, just prior to the intermission. Wagashi are large, sweet and made from a variety of ingredients including an (sweet bean paste), mochi, nut meats and squash. The cloying sweetness of wagashi is meant to linger in the guests’ mouth through intermission and into the next portion of the chaseki, charcoal arrangement and koicha.

Casual Kaiseki

When the occasion calls for it, many of the kaiseki foods are served together in jubako (a nest of boxes) or shokado-bento (individual boxes). Dishes arranged in these boxes are at the host’s discretion, but soups, if included, are served separately.

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Theme: Haru wo Matsu

Gohan – rice
Misoshiru – shiromiso with simmered daikon, garnished with mustard
Mukozuke – (1) crab meat salad or (2) carrot and jicama sashimi (v)
Nimonowan – (1) lobster dumpling or (2) tofu dumpling (v), with spring greens, mushroom and garnished with lemon zest shaped like pine needles
Yakimono – (1) grilled seasonal fish (scallops?) or (2) tofu dengaku
Hashiarai – hot water seasoned with salt, umeboshi and a sliver of ginger
Hassun – asparagus; (1) smoked fish or (2) smoked tofu (v)
Yutou – hot water with toasted rice
Konomono – takuan and Japanese cornichons

(v) indicates vegetarian option

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Fletcher, Nichola. Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting, pgs. 160-169. St. Martin’s Press, 2004.
Riccardi, Victoria Abbott. Untangling My Chopsticks, A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto. Broadway Books/Random House, 2003.
Sen, Soshitsu. Chado: The Japanese Way of Tea, pgs. 77-110. Weatherhill/Tankosha, 1979.
Tsuchiya, Yoshi. The Fine
Art of Japanese Food Arrangement. Kodansha Publishing, 1985.
Tsuji, Kaichi. Kaiseki: Zen Tastes in Japanese Cooking. Kodansha Publishing, 1972.
Vitell, Bettina. The World in a Bowl of Tea. Harper Collins Publishing, 1997.
Yoneda, Soei. The Heart of Zen Cuisine. Kodansha Publishing, 1982.

Recipe Reference

Dashi, seasoned dashi and miso – Yoneda, pgs. 80-85
Drenched daikon radish – Tsuji, pgs. 395-396
Carrot and Jicama Sashimi – Harvey (handout)
Nimonowan – seasoned dashi, Yoneda; dumplings, Vitell, pgs. 63-64
Yakimono – tofu and scallop dengaku, Tsuji, pgs. 191-194
Hassun – sake steamed asparagus, Vitell, pg. 136
Arrangement – Tsuchiya, pgs. 37-48
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