Cuisine in Japan is complex and much more than meets the eye. In some ways, it’s sad that some foods have become popularized, diluted and even polluted to the point where the historical meaning has been surpassed by the common nonsense of those very foodies in love with Japanese foods.
Take for example the idea of knife ceremony, something that was well-known in the past and today is almost extinct. In the past the knife ceremony was prominent between the elite and it was a connection between food and fantasy. Knife ceremonies were not just to impress but also had a religious significance, a symbol of life, war and survival.
In the 15th century chefs interpreted knife ceremony as a way of symbolizing a cleansing of spiritual ills. Today given the lack of tradition in everyday life, leaves most Japanese with little understanding of their history, and or the importance of tradition in cuisine.
If you wonder why Japanese chefs cut with precision to the millimeter, it is a long story. Chefs once upon a time called Hochonin used to manage their knives with expert micro-precision. It was such that the only Hochonin were experts in the knife culinary space. They performed a kata which today we use to reference martial arts but it once had meaning in knife ceremony. The idea of respect for nature, and imparting a sense of control over it, a re-definition and re-intrepretation.
The cutting rituals were designed to include composure, worship, virtues and protection from the heavens and the five agents, fire, wood, water, metal and earth. Believe it or not it was believed that the cutting board had divine forces living in it as it was made from wood. The cutting was a transformation from the mundane to creating a new symbolic body.
Japanese chefs focus on the overall design to enlighten your sensory system, color and form are key, and the preparation of any dish and has a basic philosophy behind it, it should be either hot-warm or cold.
This sounds obvious but it is not to most. If you are lucky enough to try Kaiseki ritual food, or kappo cuisine prepared in front of the client you begin to see that the theme is based on two ideas; simplicity and balance, the complementarity of ingredients. This simplicity involves texture and contrast, so the idea when something is sweet, there is can be sour, or bitter but it must be balanced by the dashi broth and it’s consistency.
Sitting at a counter in Tokyo I am 3 hours at lunch, which is not unusual, and I start to think of the connection between the Kazaridoko, the Tokonoma niche behind the chef and the ideology and introduction and respect for nature. Here this space is used to symbolize the season, purity and respect. This space is a quiet space, a space where you contemplate, watch and reflect. It also symbolizes the notion of hard work, harvest and seasonality.
The flower is placed in a Hanaire, a chabana container often a tea utensils for flowers and is translated as “flowers put in”, since the emphasis is on putting the flowers in for a short time rather than “arranging” them so they can live longer.
Compared to Ikebana, the utensils used are fewer and limited, partly by historical precedent, partly by aesthetic choice. They can be divided several ways by material, by formality levels, historic, and by the way they are used in the Tokonoma.
The delicate refinement of taste, selection of raw materials, and attention to details is integral to any chef preparing a formal meal in modern times. Describing food, we often about the overall taste, “the dish” and the focus is often on type of food and how we feel. But in Japanese food, we think of food groups, and a group of foods belong to the season and not only what the customer desires.
Japanese food differs to most other western cusines cultures becasue the design is heightened based on ritual. Foods were served to compliment the ritual, and not overshadow them, and nature is always a central theme.
The temperature plays an important role with the aromas and flavors and his base dashi are key accents. The texture of the yuzu skin, a yellow citrus, and one of my seasonal favorites, it is used to accent the richness of the citrus fruit, and heighten a dish.
I give more thought to the flow of foods and order to start with cool and finish with warm. Foods can range from very hot to simply cold /depemding on the season/ but nearer the end of each meal we begin to refresh ourselves with white rice and a warm soup. Is that a matter of scientific practice and did the Japanese understand how digestion works better?
Some of us are familiar with the term Ichi-ju-san-sai which literally means “one soup and three dishes” and it shows the basic style of the Japanese meal and the prescribed importance of sequence.
It’s all about an understanding of tradition and without it, you cannot become a great chef. We still find some chefs preserving tradition and chef Matsukawa a young chef is graceful and has the skill of a chef I respect.