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Home » Archives » September 2004 » Exclusive Interview with Victoria Abbott Riccardi

Exclusive Interview with Victoria Abbott Riccardi

Thursday, September 23, 2004 Posted: 04:26 PM JST

Victoria A. Riccardi is the author of Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto (published May 2004). "Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto" has been extremely well-received by the critics. Publishers Weekly calls it a "delightful and ususual culinary memoir". Frances Mayes, author of "Under the Tuscan Sun", says that he "relished every page." Riccardi's prose, he continues, "reflects the same spirited, nuanced, intelligent style that she discovered on a pilgrimage to the heart of Kyoto's tea kaiseki cuisine."

1. What are most American's perceptions of Japanese food?

Most Americans think that Japanese food consists mainly of sushi, sashimi, teriyaki, and tempura--the dishes they know from Japanese restaurants in America. What they don't realize is that Japan has an extremely rich and varied cultural history--ranging from Buddhist vegetarian temple food (Shojin ryori) to home-style cooking (dishes you don't find in restaurants) to kaiseki, the ritualized multi-course meal that accompanies the formal tea ceremony.

2. Given the extraordinary selection of teas in Japan, might any of them find their way onto American menus?

The US has imported quite a variety of high quality Japanese teas. You can find them in Japanes markets, as well as select tea shops--retail and sit-down.

As for appearing on restaurant menus, Asian and Japanese restaurants serve brewed green tea, while high-end American-style restaurants might offer a green tea, such as sencha, along with their after-dinner tea selection.

What is appearing on menus--both Japanese and non-Japanese--is matcha, the powdered green tea used for the tea ceremony. Although it appears in some savory dishes, such as in broths for fish dishes at Charlie Trotter's restaurant in Chicago, Illinois, it's primarily used as a flavoring for desserts, including matcha ice cream, matcha creme brulee, and matcha shortbread.

3. What are some characteristics of Japanese sauces?

Japanese sauces are primarily used for dipping, since chopsticks are not made for scooping up sauces and crusty bread (perfect to sop up French, Italian, Spanish, etc.. sauces) isn't part of the traditional cuisine. Most Japanese sauces are thin and nonfatty and often made with soy and/or dashi. Examples are soy for dipping sushi and sashimi and ponzu sauce and sesame sauce for shabu-shabu.

4. Kaiseki and the tea ceremony in Japan seem rooted in the same tradition of the Slow Food movement. Is that accurate?

Traditional Japanese food, including kaiseki, is very much in the spirit of Slow Food. Dishes are made with fresh seasonal ingredients, cooked simply to preserve the natural flavors of the ingredients, and eaten in a relaxed, calm environment--free of faxes, phones, and soccer games!

Kaiseki is an ancient style of cooking and the tea ceremony evolved during a time when people could escape into a quiet tea room and spend five or six hours contemplating the beauty of nature and the spirit of tea.

The tea ceremony is unique in that it has tremendous religious overtones. The Japanese were the ones who saw the ritualized nature of the tea ceremony akin to meditation and, thus, a way to reach enlightenment. So, unlike Slow Food, which is completely food focused, kaiseki and tea have that added spiritual component.

5. What can one learn from Japan's approach to food, particularly kaiseki?

There are several key elements, beginning with the choice of ingredients. They should be of the highest quality, in season, and extremely fresh.

Next, we should consider how to pair the ingredients, keeping in mind the harmony of flavors, textures, and colors. Contrasting colors, shapes, textures and flavors make for interesting eating.

For example, a tender savory steamed custard (chawan-mushi) is made more interesting and tasty when it cradles various ingredients, such as sweet shrimp, crispy water chestnuts, and a slippery mushroom cap.

We should also consider using simple cooking techniques, such as steaming, grilling, and simmering, to best bring out the natural flavor of the ingredients. Too often, Western chefs create sloppy gloppy explosions on the plate, muddling flavors with too many ingredients and techniques.

In Japan, the skill of the cook lies in bringing out the natural flavor of the ingredients, versus trying to create new flavors with multiple ingredients, as we do in the West.

The temperature of the food is another important consideration--hot foods should be served piping hot and cold foods well chilled. Also, cool foods should appear in the warmer months and warming heartier foods in the colder months.

Another extremely important consideration that we tend to overlook in the West is the nature of the serving pieces we choose to serve our food in and on. In Japan, cooks are extremely conscious about choosing the proper dish to enhance the food. They look at the color, shape, style, and design of the dish and then choose the appropriate dish, thus bringing the food alive, instead of killing it.

For example, they would place a pile of grilled mushroom caps on a square ivory dish--the caps are round so the dish is square to create a pleasing contrast. Same with the dark brown caps on the light plate. Sadly, in the West we tend to simply plop the food on plates with little thought about the bowl, plate, or dish that holds it.

The setting in which one dines is also very important in Japan. High-end restaurants, inns, and even homes try to offer garden views from the dining area. The natural environment is tranquil, spare, and calming.

Lastly, Japanese cooks put their heart into the food, particularly kaiseki chefs. They cook with a spirit of giving, an impossible gesture if you're a harried American sticking a frozen dinner in the microwave.

6. What are some of the fundamental differences between Japanese cooking (and, more broadly, Asian), and Western?

One of the main differences between Japanese food and most other cuisines is the small dish style of serving a meal. Little bowls, partially filled with a few small servings of, say. vegetables, are put on table, along with a bevy of other dishes, such as a wedge of grilled fish, a bit of tofu splashed with soy, and some vinegar-sugar dressed shredded salads. White rice is the meal. Soup is often included.

Chinese food differs in that the shared plates tend to be quite large--generous servings of stir-fried items etc... The dishes in Japan really are quite small. It's not really like tapas, which are appetizers to whet the drinker's whistle. It's simply a way of bringing lots of variety to the table to flavor the rice.

Also, Japanese food uses very little fat. Soups are brothy, sauces are liquidy, and proteins are often braised or grilled.

7. Many Asian cuisines, such as Chinese, have intense flavors created by spices, ginger, garlic, etc. Yet Japanese food tends to be quite subtle.What can the flavor-crazy American culture learn from this?

There is something to be said for subtlety in our high-octane, super-sized American culture. Jazzed up cooking has its place at the table, but so does delicacy. As I experienced when I first came to Japan, a person's palate over time can become sensitized to dainty flavors. Likewise, when I traveled to Mexico, it took about a week for my palate to become used to the searing heat of chiles!

8. How well known is kaiseki in Japan?

Sadly, kaiseki seems to be a dying art. Most Japanese have heard of kaiseki, but could not elaborate on the cuisine's history, style, and spiritual meaning.Many Japanese also could not explain the difference between restaurant-style kaiseki and tea kaiseki, which are quite different. (I detail the differences in my book, p. 214)

10. What is the future of Japanese restaurant food in the US?

As we saw with Italian food, I predict we'll see more regional Japanese food. We are already seeing this happen with Indian food. Also, I believe we'll see more restaurant kaiseki, such as what's being served at MASA, an extremely high-end restaurant in Manhattan.

Although the kaiseki may not be exactly what you'd find in Japan, the American-style kaiseki will have many of the same elements--seasonal, aesthetically pleasing food made from the heart.

Keywords: people_focus book_news books cooking

Related Links:

  1. Official web site
  2. Buy the book

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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