from the Heart of Japan
There is perhaps nothing more simple and divine at the Japanese table than a pristine bowl of snow white shinmai, new rice, to close an autumn meal. Like the wafer at mass, newly harvested rice speaks to the Japanese soul of the divine, of things both eternal and ephemeral.
Here in Karatsu the soundtrack to October is haunting, a simultaneously joyful and melancholy refrain practiced in pockets of darkness where boys gather to prepare for our grand festival. These melodic refrains passed by ear from generation to generation.
Kuniko walks each day to the end of the driveway where two slight chestnut trees grow. She gathers as many as she can find at her feet and squirrels them away in her freezer where the meat sweetens until she has enough to cook the nutty yellow bits of chestnuts in rice, a signature taste of fall.
Cha-kaiseki, the meal that precedes tea in the tea ceremony, draws on the traditions of home cooking but affords dishes the next level of consideration and offers a perfect model for how to bring simplicity, seasonality, style, and grace to our own tables each and every day.
I’m inclined towards a devotion to beauty and it’s encouraged in Japan. I’m granted permission to consider it essential. If elegance is the only beauty that never fades, as Audrey Hepburn said, then the fine crafts of Japan are elegance defined. Their beauty grows.
My introduction to washoku through Kuniko positioned me to practice a version of home cooking that is quite uncommon in the modern age. She is at the tail end of the last generation who cooked from scratch, a nationwide band of women who strove for economy without concern for convenience.
Working by Kuniko's side I scribbled notes on a piece of paper recording amounts, ratios, timing, and sequence. What spurred me to finally document the details of making umeboshi just months before a stroke would render those very details inaccessible in her mind?
Walking into Kuniko’s pantry is like entering a laboratory. Under the bright glare of florescent lights shelves rise from floor to ceiling all around. They moan under the weight of jars containing edible specimens preserved in variously colored brines.
The days lengthen and we grasp any break in the weather to walk the country roads and gather warabi, the sprouts of bracken fern. Warabi are enticing, exotic, mysterious creatures that emerge with necks bent deep and infant fronds clasped like a raptor’s talon.
Sakamoto san emerged from the sea in a black wetsuit trawling a large harvest of shin-wakame. The lobe-leafed new spring algae spilled from nets belted to his waist. Already in his sixties, he was the eldest of a group of male ama, free divers with a name that roughly translates to sea warriors.
These specific flavors of a region are attributed to fudo, a concept akin to terroir that refers not only to the natural elements of a place but also to its spiritual attributes and suggests that the air, the light, the water, the soil, infuse local flavors with a quality that cannot be replicated elsewhere.
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