Ordinary fare, extraordinary care
The term kaiseki likely conjures images of intricately cut vegetables and fish on fancifully arranged trays. It is not a mistake to call this multi-course Japanese haute cuisine kaiseki, but it is important to delineate between two marked styles with the same name. While the former style of kaiseki, positioned in the realm of restaurants, is designed to entertain and impress, another style of kaiseki originates in the tearoom where extravagance and ornamentation are eschewed in favor of refined simplicity and subtle beauty.
Both models of kaiseki rely on a prescribed order of courses prepared and presented according to established guidelines. But the articulations are so vastly different that the misunderstanding of their differences, among foreigners and Japanese nationals alike, is particularly irksome for Kazuko Gotou who cares deeply about the distinction. A direct descendent in the family that helms the Mushakouji school of tea, one of the three lineages descended from tea grand master Sen no Rikyu, Gotou is an expert in tea ceremony. She is also an accomplished author and educator on both the kaiseki of tea ceremony and katei-ryōri (home cooking).
Kaiseki rooted in the traditions of tea, 懐石 (pronounced kaiseki in Japanese but herein referred to as cha-kaiseki or tea-kaiseki for differentiation) is written with two kanji characters that translate as bosom and stone. The choice of these characters to represent the simple meal served before tea is attributed to Sen no Rikyu in reference to Zen monks who would fold warm stones into the front of their robes to ward off hunger. The kanji for the cuisine of restaurants, written 会席 (also read kaiseki) is a more literal reference to a seat at a gathering.
Modern kaiseki draws influence from the simpler traditions of cha-kaiseki and shojin-ryōri (Buddhist temple cuisine), but its draws as well from two far more decorative culinary traditions, yusoku-ryōri of the 9th century imperial court and more directly honzen-ryōri, the ceremonial banquets of the 14th century warrior class. Its traditions prescribe a level of flair and ornamentation that is rejected in cha-kasieki.
The aesthetic difference between kaiseki and cha-kaiseki is striking, but the main distinction, Gotou explains, originates in the relationship between host and guest. Kaiseki restaurant chefs cook to please the diners of the day, whomever they may be, and lavish their patrons with elaborate meals. Cha-kasieki is a personal offering tailored to invited guests.
Today many tea schools prioritize the formality of the tea itself, but a full tea ceremony must include cha-kaiseki, a light meal served in courses leading up to the climactic act of drinking thick matcha (powdered green tea) known as koicha. But koicha is strong and will upset an empty stomach. It will equally rest uneasy in a full one. The traditions of tea instruct that perfect satisfaction is derived from drinking koicha on an eighty percent full stomach. This doctrine necessitates the cha-kaiseki meal and dictates the sequence and volume of dishes offered in service of the final bowl of tea.
Gotou describes tea ceremony as intelligent play. For all of its formality and prescription, it must be pleasurable. With devout consideration of the season, the mood, and the guest’s experience, a host seeks to dazzle not through embellishment and ornamentation but through an inspired sense of harmony and satisfaction. Tea ceremony illustrates core principles of Japan’s long refined culture and the accompanying meal embodies in its philosophy and performance the foundational elements of washoku, Japan’s national cuisine.
As MFK Fisher so succinctly wrote in her introduction to Shizuo Tsuji’s seminal English language introduction to washoku, Japanese Cooking, A Simple Art, “The preparation and serving of fine as well as routine Japanese food is more obviously mixed, than is ours, with other things than hunger.” She expounds, “At its best, it is inextricably meshed with aesthetics, with religion, with tradition and history.” Of principle importance in washoku is a respect for nature. The Japanese reverence for seasons, for the unfurling of cherry blossoms or the reddening of the maple tree, may seem on the surface sentimental dalliances. But such notions are born of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous faith. Shinto identifies the natural elements, the wind and the rain, the buds and the blossoms, as the way of the gods. Washoku promotes the anticipation and blessings of micro-seasons through cuisine, insisting on simple treatments of perfectly seasonal ingredients. Through the food we acknowledge and appreciate the way of the gods.
Gotou, entrusted by her position in the Mushakouji senke family to preserve and pass on the full expression of tea ceremony, has dedicated her life to teaching the principles of cha-kasieki. Though it conjures notions of an exclusive and rarified experience, the same principles that guide a cook in preparing cha-kaiseki are at the core of kateiryōri, traditional Japanese home cooking. In her book茶懐石に学ぶ日日の料理 (Daily Food as Learned from Cha-kaiseki) that won France’s prestigious Gourmand World Cookbook Award in 2011, Gotou outlines the courses of a cha-kaiseki meal and showcases exquisite seasonal examples. But what most inspires this reader is her message that cha-kaiseki is not exclusive to the seemingly inaccessible realm of tea. It is in fact a perfect model for how to bring simplicity, seasonality, style, and grace to our own tables each and every day.
I remember several years back, when I still knew relatively little about Japanese cuisine, I asked my mother-in-law Kuniko to describe a cha-kaiseki meal. She outlined the general styles of dishes. She described the first small portions of rice and miso soup served alongside mukozuke, a small arrangement of fresh, raw (except in summer) seafood. The following course wanmori, made of seasonal ingredients in clear broth arranged in a lidded lacquer bowl, is considered cha-kaiseki’s main course and is the dish principally tasked to prepare the stomach for tea. Yakimono, fish grilled over charcoal with an accompanying vegetable, comes after. She described azukebachi another primarily vegetable course that could be nimono, seasonal ingredients simmered together in broth, or ohitashi, vegetables soaked in seasoned dashi. As she spoke I was stuck by the notion that she was describing the very same types of dishes she served each night at her table.
Gotou describes the heart of cha-kaiseki as for this person. If you hold that spirit, she says, “you will search for the best things to share. Inherently that will be something fresh, something seasonal. You will look for the best vegetables, or a good fish.” But seeking the best things to share doesn’t at all mean finding the most expensive thing, or something exotic and rare.
“The best way I can explain the intention behind cha-kaiseki,” says Gotou, “is that of a mother who is planning for her daughter’s birthday. She thinks, today I will cook the foods she likes best. That expression of love, that heart, that is the spirit with which a host plans a meal for the guests coming to a tea ceremony.” This simple principle, one that intrinsically connects cha-kaiseki and kateiryōri, is paramount to Gotou’s teaching.
In his book Kaiseki: Zen Tastes in Japanese Cooking, Kaichi Tsuji defines cha-kaiseki food as ordinary. “Many of the dishes are everyday fare, and they are all part of traditional Japanese cooking. It is the care that goes into its preparation and serving that makes [cha]-kaiseki truly unique.” But he goes on to explain a period of amplification in the volume and variety of cha-kaiseki courses. “With the revival of the tea ceremony at the turn of the [20th] century, in company with economic prosperity… the soup and several dishes that had long been the ideal for [cha]-kaiseki no longer seemed satisfying.” He continues, “When the number of courses was still limited, a host could easily handle the tearoom, the garden, and the cooking by himself. But the increase in dishes made the professional [cha]-kaiseki cook a necessity.”
When Gotou came of age learning to cook at her mother’s heels, her family regularly employed hired chefs for tea ceremonies. But she would like to see cha-kaiseki return to its simpler roots. She insists that if you can cook form scratch at home, if you can identify the vegetables in the garden or market that look good, make your own stock, learn what a fresh fish or a good cut of meat looks like, then you can emulate cha-kaiseki.
But that if carries alarming weight in modern Japan. Two generations ago every girl grew up learning how to cook from scratch with fresh ingredients. But a confluence of trends that we Americans will find familiar, women leaving the domestic realm to enter the workforce, technological advances offering convenient cooking methods, and the increased prevalence of processed foods, means that today, regardless of gender, few know what to do with a pile of raw ingredients.
“When you talk about normal food in Japan today,” Gotou says, “it’s now something like spaghetti, some version of a one pan, one dish meal.” In daily fare, western style dishes are taking center stage at the dinner table and the cooking methods are fundamentally different. Gotou generalizes Western food as cooked foods that rely on sauce for flavor. In contrast, Japanese food she says, “presents the taste of the original ingredients. Seasonings are used only to enhance or draw out the true flavor of the ingredients.” Even dashi (stock), which can have a strong flavor, should never compete with the main ingredient. If you soak greens in dashi, the flavor of the greens should still be prominent. To that you could add just a little salt or soy and have a truly delicious dish.
These very same principles are exercised whether cooking for a tea ceremony, in a restaurant, or for your spouse and children at home. Gotou feels strongly that this legacy of cuisine developed over centuries in Japan must be preserved. She was instrumental in securing washoku its status as a UNESCO intangible heritage in 2013. And though she is an expert in an elite field, her passion lies in inspiring everyone to eat well with a turn back towards the principles and practices of washoku. She looks to a period 30 to 40 years ago as a golden era of home cooking in Japan when a diet of a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup, and a few sides of seasonal vegetables was supplemented by more readily available meat.
Gotou has spent years considering how to convey the ideals of cha-kaiseki in simple terms and helms several initiatives purposed to revive the national cuisine. Her efforts resemble those of our own Alice Waters. She laments that today’s children don’t understand the principles of taste and has established a foundation to draft curriculum and teach kids about food. “Their diets are full of processed foods with uniformly overbearing flavor,” she says. “They aren’t exposed to enough natural ingredients and thus lack the awareness to articulate between flavors like bitter or umami or sweet.”
At our final meeting in February at her professional kitchen in Tokyo, Gotou had two tasks scheduled for the day. She would spend the morning preparing two sample summer cha-kaiseki courses to be professionally photographed for an official Mushakouji senke publication. She would then spend the afternoon filming a television series for home cooks showing proper use of a knife when cutting vegetables. “People don’t know what it should sound like,” she stressed. “The technique is in the sound. You can hear it.”