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Kaiseki

by Diana Rosen

The way of tea:
trace it, and ever deeper it goes;
like the fields of Musahi
where the moon is lucent,
its depths draw us on.
-- Rikkansai (1654-1726)

In her fascinating new book The World in a Bowl of Tea, Bettina Vitell takes the reader through traditional and innovative dishes of the light, elegant and nutritious cuisine of the Japanese tea ceremony, Kaiseki.

A dedicated and serious student of chanoyu (the Japanese tea ceremony) for more than a decade, Vitell presents menus and serving ideas that do much to support the gracious and hospitable goals of a tea host, Western or Oriental.

Kaiseki, Vitell says, "emphasizes the interaction of host and guest as more important than elaborate food and luxurious serving utensils. In the midst of scarcity, the host's sincerity is revealed."

Vitell, who wrote the very popular vegetarian book A Taste of Heaven, brings her own considerable taste and skill to this tome, revealing the essence of what some gourmets call Japan's haute cuisine, Kaiseki.

Easily adaptable for home use, these Kaiseki recipes are significant in the way they are both beautiful to view and delicious to eat. Bite-sized morsels though they may be, when served in the traditional seven courses at a tea ceremony (often punctuated by sake more than tea!) they are a bountiful feast.

The selection of serving plates, their color and shape; the arrangement of foods, the ambiance and design of the room in which they are served are all a part of creating the right mood to greet and serve guests, in and out of a tatami room, scene of a typical tea ceremony.

In chanoyu, a balance between the rough-hewn and the elegant is considered beautiful; a host is considered thoughtful of his guests when displaying a "refined poverty." Because of this, one need not purchase special Japanese teaware or serving bowls and plates (although it's fun!) but, one can mix and match with one's own pieces to create a balance of harmony and aesthetics when serving Kaiseki foods.

Make a delicious bowl of tea; lay the charcoal so that it heats the water; arrange the flowers as they are in the field; in summer suggest coolness, in winter, warmth; do everything ahead of time; prepare for rain; and give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.

Although many of the recipes are exotic, most feature familiar vegetables like squash, eggplant, cucumber, potatoes and mushrooms as well as Oriental fruits like kumquats, plums and persimmons and easy-to-find poultry and fish.

Here are a few of our favorite "salads" based on mukozuke, an open dish usually presented in the center of a tray holding two covered bowls. Mukozuke means "small portion served on the far side of the tray," and is frequently sashimi or fresh vegetables arranged in a style that dramatically contrasts with the black lacquer tray. Therefore, color, shape and design of the foods are important in the overall presentation.

Tomato "Sashimi"
Makes four servings
Flavorful tomatoes are sliced with the same care and attention as the raw fish for traditional sashimi. Choose fruity, vine-ripened tomatoes at their peak. Vitell credits Scott McDougall of the San Francisco Urasenke Center with this recipe.

4 medium ripe tomatoes
4 tbs. fresh lime juice
2 tsp. soy sauce
pinch of salt
1 tbs. wasabi powder*
12 sprigs of watercress

Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and plunge tomatoes in for just a moment. Rinse them under cold running water and peel them. Cut the tomatoes into quarters, and remove the seeds. Slice each quarter into thin wedges. Cover and chill for 30 minutes.

Mix the lime juice, soy sauce and salt in a small bowl.

In another small bowl, combine the wasabi with just enough water to form a dough-like paste. Mold the paste into four small pyramid shapes.

Divide the tomato wedges among four small plates. Top each with three sprigs of watercress. Place a wasabi pyramid on one of the sprigs. Drizzle with the lime sauce on the side of the dish so that it forms a pool. Serve immediately.

Asparagus with Walnut Dressing
Makes four servings
This tangy walnut dressing is delicate enough not to overshadow the taste of the asparagus. (It goes well with steamed spinach.) Serve this spring dish in individual bowls or plates that complement the color and shape of the asparagus.

1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tbs. sugar
1 tbs. sake
1 lb. asparagus

Crush the walnuts in a food processor or suribachi* leaving small chunks. Add the soy sauce, sugar and sake and blend for five to ten seconds, just until well combined.

Trim and discard the woody bottom portions of the asparagus stalks. Cut them into 1 3/4" pieces. Steam the asparagus for no longer than two minutes. You'll know it's perfectly cooked when you smell its faint aroma escaping from the steamer. Rinse it with cold water and drain.

For each serving, arrange stems and tips in a mound, with tips aiming upward. Drizzle with the dressing and serve.

Whether you partake of these foods for your own private tea ceremony, or wish to introduce lightly seasoned, clean vibrant tastes to your own nutritious eating, you'll enjoy these wonderful recipes.

Definitions

*wasabi: a pale green powder made from the root of the wasabi plant; known as the Japanese horseradish

*suribachi: glazed ceramic bowl with rough combine interior that is used as a mortar with a pestle for grinding seeds and nuts


Diana Rosen is a freelance writer  for eZines, web site copy, and print magazine articles on food, beverage, and other lifestyle topics. The veteran journalist is also the author of 10 nonfiction books and the co-author of three others. For more information, visit write to her at dianalrosen@aol.com.



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