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.
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.
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.
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.
A yuzu fruit contains many large seeds and only a little juice, mellow and citrusy like a cross between mandarin orange and meyer lemon. While in season, we use the juice to dress vegetables and salads. But the fragrant peel deserves most of the attention.
I never really knew a turnip before moving to Japan. But here they are a staple, hearty but not heavy, starchy and sweet, the exact thing for crossing the bridge into winter. And they’re versatile too, a prized quality in a season when the variety of fresh produce at the market slowly diminishes.
As long as we’ve kept track of time, the day on which we reset the calendar has been celebrated as an occasion for reflection, for mental, physical, and spiritual renewal. With spirit beholden to the past and a heart hopeful for the future, we eat, we drink, and we meet this good New Year.
Japanese cuisine celebrates hazawari, the texture or literally tooth-feel of foods, to which the language is full of words to describe the textural aspect of flavor. Most are onomatopoetic, sounds that simulate physical sensations and the feelings they evoke.
There is so much more I hope to learn, so many more ingredients to meet, methods to practice, and meals to prepare. But I am on the way, steadily treading the right path even if I have a long way still to go. And as I tread, I find beauty in the potential and joy in the anticipation
The hills around here are thick with horsetail and just about every year I stumble onto a new patch. I can now tell you where they emerge first, and on what side of what stretch of road you’ll find the plumpest stalks. But then again, foragers don’t divulge their sources.
The sakura will bloom again next year. These were the words the mayor of Tokyo used to urge people not to congregate in revelry under full blooming cherry trees in parks over this past weekend. It was part of a plea to the residents of her city to stay home...
Summer has felt slow to arrive, but that’s just my impatience speaking. Finally the first warm night of the year arrived on the eve of May. I opened the window and felt the nighttime air on my skin void of chill for the first time. With the balm comes an early summer symphony. From terraced rice fields are flooded in preparation for planting, the guttural call of mating frogs reverberates throughout the valley. The air vibrates with the...
Kuniko hovers in the doorway. The green is thickening, she says. Soon it will grow heavy, as opaque and oppressive as the heat, she concludes, turning back into the kitchen to prepare tsukemono, the daily pickles. I follow her in, the tile floor so much cooler against my bare feet than the sun baked concrete outside. She removes the lid and a white cloth covering her tokozuke pot and reaches a hand in. She has tended the same pickling pot for longer than I’ve known her. It is her comrade in the kitchen...
Though I arrived more or less by happenstance, I often feel it was fated that I come to Japan. I immediately felt a deep resonance, captivated from the start by the broad and tangible relationship to the natural world that flows through the spiritual, aesthetic, and culinary practices here. The rhythms of daily life encourage balance between the needs and desires of humans and the powerful forces of nature that daily render blessings and affliction.
A biwa tree grows in the shade of giant black pines at the edge of our backyard orchard where it struggles for light. Beyond the sheer succulence of their color and juicy flesh, loquat eaves are medicinal, high in citric acid, and can be dried and made into a cool summer tea to drink as an antidote to heat and fatigue. A compress of boiled leaves has long been a folk remedy to treat sweat rash, an inevitable irritation of the skin in the humid heat of summer.
If June is any indication, we are in for a sultry summer. Alternating rounds of torrential rains that fall in this tsuyu rainy season and bright sun that vaporizes the gathered moisture bring on riotous thunder storms with bolts that strike alarmingly close to our hilltop home. On these muggy days a shot of shincha, the year’s fragrant newly harvested first crop of tea, brewed with ice, cuts through with a moment of cool clarity.
Summer is full of long days but the season as a whole is fleeting. As we hover at the threshold of major heat, interest in food wanes. We don’t crave satiety so much as an antidote to a pervading lethargy. It is too hot to think and summer suffocates culinary inspiration, so many a lunch is made of thin, smooth, slippery somen on a bed of ice.
The ume are particularly beautiful this year. “When it comes to umeboshi, nothing is set in stone,” Kuniko has often told me. “You make it one way one year and another way another year. You decide what you like and make it to your own taste.” After years of experimentation, this year’s batch is likely to be my personal formula going forward as the dusty rose hue is just exquisite.
The shiso pickled together with umeboshi is called tsukejiso and after its done its duty staining the umeboshi and sealing it in throughout the long journey to maturity, there are wonderful uses for the ume infused salty herb. I dry it in the sun for a day or two and grind it up to make a shiso salt called yukari. It’s a fresh alternative, with tart undertones, that adds a summery salinity to summer vegetables, picnic onigiri, cocktail rims, and much more.
Daily meals in Japan start with dashi. Kuniko can be sparse with her praise, but she’ll often praise my dashi which, after all, I learned to make from her. The konbu flavor whispers more than shouts. Jouhin, she’ll say, calling it elegant. That light, delicate, clear taste - that perfect extraction and presentation of an ingredient’s purest elements - that’s jouhin. She adores a broth that offers its flavors but doesn’t insist upon them, discernible but not conspicuous.
I have eaten eggplant, called nasu here, in the most delicious ways, deep fried as tempura, fried and then simmered in fine broth, picked with cucumber, ginger, and myoga in shibazuke. But one of my favorites is the way Hanako often makes it, grilled to melt-in-the-mouth perfection, peeled, dressed, and garnished with scallion and katsuobushi flakes. Simple, elegant, and delicious, the trifecta that defines good food.
Chrysanthemums symbolize the month of September, the season, and the imperial family in Japan. But mums remind me most of autumn in New England where avid gardeners bring them home to enliven a fading landscape. Here too, we've crossed the autumnal equinox and gradually the light and the brilliant hues of summer fade. The air is cooler and my tastes crisper, turning towards the foods of fall, mushrooms, roots, and a deeper shade of greens.
I find chestnuts particularly seductive, the prickly jacket that bursts to reveal smooth glossy shells, the rich eponymous color and strong lines of their gentle curves. Most confections rely on extractions and concentrations of flavor but shibukawani preserves the chestnut in its whole and elegant form, which I find most appealing.
Like any one of us, Kuniko might let a vegetable languish too long in the fridge and find it limp and withered. But unlike so many of us, her faith in it never wavers. A wilting eggplant, turnip tops, daikon skins, all of these end up in her tokozuke (fermented rice bran) pot and later at the table in an uncommonly beautiful array of tsukemomno pickles.
The season of new rice coincides with a myriad of gifts from the wild that pair perfectly with the sweet nuttiness of new rice – ginko nuts from trees with emblematic fan shaped leaves in a dazzling shade of yellow, mukago tubers dangling from jungly wild mountain yam vines that seem to thin to hold their weight, and mushrooms galore, including the most prized of all growing under cover on the forest floor, matsutake.
Festive persimmons ripen just in time for the holidays. In a season when we set the table with more substantial fare, this salad of persimmon and chrysanthemum greens ressed with a silken blend of yuzu, light sesame oil, a splash of light soy and a sprinkle of salt is a lovely and lively compliment.
Hakusai tsukemono has become one of my all time favorite Japanese pickles and a firm culinary tradition in our house. Every year, when I can find a fat, heavy, tightly headed cabbage for under 200 yen, I know it’s time for winter pickles. Pickles bring vegetables to the table at a time when few are to be found fresh and making hakusai shiozuke is the simplest of endeavors, really.
Each day throughout the month of December, these citrus shells stuffed with miso and nuts have bathed in the winter sunlight, curing in the cold air until leather hard, ready to slice and eat. Yubeshi are prepared at the peak of the yuzu season, as November becomes December, to be ready in time for New Years. These savory citrus slices accompanied by celebratory sips of sake open the first meals of the New Year in the most fragrant, flavorful, and festive way.
In an archipelago of islands surrounded by vast seas, it’s no wonder salt is such an essential ingredient in Japanese cuisine. Salt has saved many a leftover daikon radish or turnip peel from the compost bin and given culinary purpose winter’s array of roots. In winter we sometimes long for a dose of raw vegetables but few options abound. A salt pickle salad of black radish, watermelon radish, daikon radish, or even kohlrabi or celeriac can be just the helping of fibrous crunch we crave.
My years cooking with Kuniko brought into focus the slice of washoku, Japanese cuisine, that I found most captivating, dishes that easily cross between kateryori, daily home cooking, and cha-kaiseki, the meal of the tea ceremony, that are comfortable at the table on a weekday night but with a little extra care and attention could be elevated to ceremonial level. Kuniko’s dishes always pointed in that direction, restrained but elegant, seasonal and fresh.
My memories of Mirukashi begin in this season, with the first foray to gather fukinoto just weeks after moving into our new house up the hill from Kuniko. I was so completely taken with the little green buds we found that day that I followed Kuniko into the kitchen and never left. It was a decisive moment, my ingress to the world of washoku. Japanese cuisine would captivate my heart and intellect and provide an entree into a new country, a new culture, and a new family.
As I settled into the ways of washoku I understood that it is so much more than a manual of flavors. At its essence, it asks the cook to be fully attuned not so much to the ingredients of a country or culture but to the ingredients of a time and place. Mine is a table built of oak, not a counter made of cypress. Here the sparkle of late winter stars is as close as we come to Ginza’s glitter. To cook in harmony with the environs here in Mirukashi is my task.
The stately magnolia in the yard tracks the length of the night, the temperature of the air and the humidity of the soil around its roots, and when all is right the buds split and fat white petals unfold. This tree better indicates the season’s progress than any date on a calendar and so I watch it closely because when it’s in full bloom I know that the wild watercress is at its prime. Watercress appears as the first bountiful leafy green of the year and we pile them raw alongside grilled wagyu or in salads. But it’s best wilted in a hot pot of broth.
If characterized as rigid theories of etiquette or commands proclaimed from above, table manners can feel forced and stringent. But I’ve always found great beauty in the layered gestures of movement at the table. The graceful handling of utensils shows reverence and ensures longevity. Items are picked up and set down again, never pulled or pushed, to prevent the rough foot of ceramics from scratching a lacquer tray or wooden table.
We press our palms together and say grace in a single word, itadakimasu. As the five syllables pass our lips we pronounce I humbly receive. It’s a deep and far reaching phrase that illustrates how sitting down to a meal in Japan is intimately and equally tied to the physical, to the soil and water from which the ingredients come, and to the sacred, to spirit and faith. Itadakimasu is a brief but potent meditation in which we honor the spirit in all things before beginning a meal.
The cherry trees put on a marvelous show and it didn’t feel right not to celebrate, celebrate life and beauty and the return of the sun and the songbirds. It didn’t feel right not to take Kuniko, who suffered a second stroke back in January, out to see something beyond her shrinking orbit. Because how many more orbits does she have? Also, I recently learned to make bozushi and there may be no more elegant and delicious picnic than sushi made with seasonal snapper and kinome, the fresh leaves of the sansho tree.
Takashi walked in with a handful of fuki, the hollow stems of the native Japanese coltsfoot plant, in his hand. This is the first time I’ve ever bought fuki, he said. Only a hundred yen. The first time because fuki are a thing to gather, not purchase, but he really looked quite pleased with his 92 cent bundle. Fuki are crisp and fragrant, reminiscent of celery, and once simmered, they sparkle a translucent shade of spring green.
I’m as smitten with this dish for its flavor as I am for its construct. The salted fish gets wrapped, tied up, and grilled for just the amount of time it takes to grind a few clean kinome leaves and a couple of sansho berries in a mortar with a gentle, high quality rice vinegar. The table is set and as the leaf is unwrapped a sweet, nutty, roasty aroma rises with the steam of perfectly juicy fish. So elegant. So basic. Primal and perfect.
For the last 8 years I’ve captained the umeboshi ship. Year by year I’ve been setting a new course with slight adjustments and alterations. Because umeboshi, like all journeys with food, is personal. Whether you prefer salty (umeboshi), sweet (ume syrup), or spiked (umeshu liqueur), there is an ume recipe for everyone. But a recipe or standard practice is only an arrow pointing you in the right direction. From there the pathways are many, some well trodden and some to be carved anew.
A basket of ripe ume perfumes the house with the scent of apricots. Their soft fuzzy skins a shade of sunny yellow flushed pink at the shoulders like fair skin that’s been in the sun too long. Ume, the fruits of the Prunus mume tree, are known in English as Chinese plums or Japanese apricots. In in common parlance we refer to them as the former, but they are more closely related by species to the latter, a fact easily understood when drawing in the ripe fruit’s fragrance.
As the temperatures rise I find my self less and less interested in long hours the kitchen. Feeling sluggish in the heat, I crave foods that are light and fresh and cooking that is easy and effortless. I crave tall glasses of cold refreshing drinks, green tea in the morning to revive and clarify the mind, and a red shiso tonic in the afternoon to stimulate and hydrate the body.
Make hay while the sun shines, they say, and the summer sun is high in the sky. It’s time to pull the ume from their brine and dry them outside. It’s time to check on the ume syrup and extract the fruits from the sweet syrup. It’s time to use up the last of the red shiso juice that’s on the verge of fermenting in the fridge. Which means it’s time to make spent ume red shiso sorbet.
What is the musicality of a meal in Japan? a young man once asked me. I had just given a slide talk on kateirtori home cooking and he, a musician, was curious. He had always found the convivial cacophony of clinking glasses and dinnerware and conversing voices one of the enduring pleasures of a meal, he said. Something in the images I had just shown sparked him to wonder if it was different in Japan.
I dream of a more familiar version of late summer, I dream of a small bowl of chilled chawanmushi made of the palest yellow-yolked eggs and served in a bowl of such proportion to rest comfortably in my hand, the foot pressing a cool ring into my palm. I dream of that savory custard, silken and airy, skimming the throat like a fluttering crepe Georgette fabric grazing the skin on a sultry summer evening.
Even I get a thrill when the pink tipped straw colored smooth skinned rhizomes of shinshouga, new ginger, line the shelves at the markets in early summer. They’re just beautiful enough to make your heart race a bit. If you don’t give it much thought, you’d assume that it’s the ginger harvest season. And it is, in a way, if the ginger is grown in greenhouses, as much of it is. But if allowed to feel the natural light of day and the temperature and moisture of the soil, ginger will mature in early autumn, just as the air turns cold and our bodies crave its warming effect.
It is said that figs are the sweetest fruit, and that perhaps the fig and not the apple, tempted Eve. It was after all the leaves of a fig tree that she chose for cover. I too would be more tempted by a sultry fig, its thin blackish purple skin stretched taught over a teardrop sac of flowers forever concealed. How do you know when a fig is ripe? They’ll shed milky tears if you pluck them before their time. Fresh figs are succulent, bursting with juicy red flesh and the crunch of so many tiny seeds. I have read that in the wild there is no season of the fig. But in Mirukashi the season for figs is fall,
Kuniko dipped her hands in water, then spread a pinch of salt on her palms and took a mound of rice in her left hand. With her right thumb she pressed an indentation into the center and added a scant bit of umeboshi. She topped it with another clump of rice and began pressing. She pressed and turned, pressed and turned, soon turning out a perfect triangle shaped onigiri. Making onigiri is an intimate act and homemade ones, laced with love, taste the best.
Ten months ago, after years of wise guidance by my mother-in-law, a devoted practitioner of elegant and pragmatic home cooking, I took a leap and began studying Japanese cuisine at the next level in earnest with Tsuchiya san, a family friend and former chef at Robata in Ginza. It is a step towards a dream I’ve had for a long time of cooking dishes that reside at the intersection of kateryori (home cooking) and cha-kaiseki (the kaiseki of tea ceremony), two traditions with intimate cross current influences.
Mukago are a delicious entertainment. Through cooking and dining, ingredients first impress at the table where they are sensual, beautiful to behold, delicious on the tongue and warm in the belly. From there they entertain the intellect and spark curiosity to know where they come from, I am happiest at this intersection of the domestic and the wild. There is a spark of joy every time I can connect my daily life to the majestic natural world outside my door.
Like all animals this time of year, I notice a growing craving for richer foods, an instinctual drive to plump up for winter. The body craves a bit more oil, a bit more fat, and all things hot. Thoughts of grilling and frying come to mind when I consider the evening meal. Trips to the market take on a new tone. Gone are the summer delights like peppers and tomatoes. As winter moves in the selection turns towards starchier vegetables that ripen underground.
The fire in the stove is soothing and the dance of orange flames anchors and enlivens our little home. We’ll let a log burn down and roast round taro roots in the coals. We unwrap them at the table piping hot and break them in half with chopsticks, watching the steam rise. They are smooth and creamy, naturally imbued with the same velvety viscosity that butter lends to mashed potatoes. With drizzle of good olive oil and a drop of soy or a pinch of salt, they sit rich in the belly, warm and comforting.
Driving the country roads, it seems the hills are dressed for the holidays, the dull winter landscape bedecked with persimmon-jeweled trees. I can’t help but see them as festive and ornamental. Farmhouses have rows of them drying under the eves. It’s such a joyful seasonal sight that I too have always wanted a row of turmeric colored globes hanging under the eaves of my house. I’ve tried my hand at it. It really should have been easy.
For the New Year’s holiday the fishmonger supplies plump, large red snapper. Red snapper is celebratory, with red and white flesh the symbolic colors of celebration. We always order one and savor it over a few days and in many ways. On the first we celebrate with sashimi. On the second we grill the fleshiest cuts of bone around the fins, ribs, and cheeks. Each day the tips of our aodake green bamboo chopsticks fade drawing us further into the new year. The remaining fillet is sliced and marinated overnight in soy and sake. On the third day we celebrated with omedetai chazuke.
It’s best to give marmalade the time it requires as preserves of any kind punish those who rush. In the blink of an eye sugar scalds and a marmalade’s iridescence is clouded. Though long and exhausting, I look forward to these days in the kitchen, slicing and simmering and preserving the bounty. It connects me to my roots in New England where the summer harvest is put up for winter. After the day’s effort, a great mound of citrus are reduced to just a few jars of marmalade the color of a late August sunset with a concentration of bittersweet flavor as piercing as the brilliant winter sun.
Drawing back a clump of desiccated fronds, I find an emerald trumpet of delicate leaves cradling a cluster of button like buds. I raise the dirty, wet stem to my nose and drink in the earthy, pungent aroma of spring breaking from winter. This is fukinoto.
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.
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.
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.
Micro-seasons overlap and in each we find something on its way in, something fully arriving, and something waning. With a single ingredient we can trace three stages and its subtle shift in flavor as it comes into, passes through, and goes out of season.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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