The beautiful table setting of a cha kaiseki meal
The moment I arrive, Hiroko Sugiyama starts to make tea. She pours water into her cast-iron teapot and sets it over her center stove to boil. So begins our chakaiseki (tea kaiseki) class. Sugiyama has been teaching the art of kaiseki, the formal meal served for the Japanese tea ceremony, since 2002. Sugiyama, who runs a culinary school out of her home, is a lifelong student of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Sugiyama, who runs a culinary school out of her home, is a lifelong student of the Japanese tea ceremony. “The tea ceremony is a clean, pure place, like another world,” she explains. “This time for me, it’s peace. It purifies the mind. It makes my worries go away, having a bowl of tea.”
Over the years, she has become an authority on the art of the kaiseki too.
Sugiyama is a conscientious and patient teacher.
Dating back to late-15th-century tea ceremonies common in the temples of Kyoto, kaiseki cuisine was once strictly vegetarian due to its Zen roots. Modern kaiseki menus, however, feature fish and meat. Sake is served if a tea ceremony is not scheduled.
Every kaiseki meal has a theme. Today, our kaiseki meal christened Hagi (a wisteria-like flower) Chakaiseki is an ode to the matsutake mushroom now in season.
But Sugiyama has another reason for this vegetarian feast. “My mother passed away on Oct. 10, 11 years ago. You don’t use fish and meat on death anniversaries.”
In a kaiseki meal, exquisite care is taken in selecting dishes and ingredients. Fresh seasonal ingredients are prepared in ways that enhance their flavor.
Sugiyama has even obtained the right kind of water for her guests. “This is water from Mt. Rainier,” she jokes, but she is not far off. She has hauled spring water bottled in 10-gallon jugs all the way from Lynnwood, an hour’s drive from her Sammamish home, to make tea and dashi (stock).
Kombu (sea kelp) and katsuobushi, dry bonito flakes flown in from Tokyo, are boiled in the spring water to make both Ichiban dashi (first stock) and the weaker Niban dashi.
To begin kaiseki, we are each served a fragrant brew of yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit, steeped in hot water. The meal we prepare and consume in the hours that follow is as pleasing to the eyes as the palate, all packaged within the beauty of tradition.
The serving ware and garnishes are as much a part of the kaiseki experience as the food. Dishes are systematically arranged, from the placement of plates, bowls and chopsticks to the patterns on the wares (facing bottom right).
Despite the multiple courses in the kaiseki progression, it is not a filling meal. And the appetizer-sized portions dictate nothing should be left on the plate.
Our first dish is chasoba-zushi, a sushi of green-tea soba rolled with cucumbers, shiitake mushrooms, yamagobo (similar to salsify), yamaimo (mountain potato), takuan (pickled daikon radish) and daikon sprouts, served on genuine Wajima lacquerware renowned for its durability and elegant beauty.
Chasoba-zushi may not be a sushi restaurant staple but it makes for an easy and satisfying dish at a cha kaiseki meal
“It took me six to seven years to find this set,” says Sugiyama, reflecting the thought that goes into selecting serving ware that enhances both the aesthetics and seasonal theme of the meal.
The dishes are often garnished with real leaves and flowers, as well as edibles in the shape of plants and animals.
The wanmori (soup dish) is a perfect example. In traditional kaiseki, this course is the heart of the dinner. Sugiyama builds a landscape comprising a tofu dumpling studded with green edamame and red adzuki beans (the “mountain”) lying on a bed of mizuna (mountain greens) and garnished with a single shiitake and pine needles made from lemon zest. The bowl is lidded and served. “Open the lid to enjoy the scenery,” instructs Sugiyama. “Then lift up the bowl to smell the fragrance.”
According to Sugiyama, the third dish is always grilled (yakimono). “It is usually fish, but now matsutake (yaki-matsutake).” The soy- and vinegar-marinated matsutakes are grilled over binchotan charcoal that imparts a distinct smoky flavor.
Next, the shojin gomadoufu, a tofu-like sesame dish, is served in a pool of soy sauce and garnished with a delicate maple leaf. Made from sesame milk set with kuzu, an arrowroot-like thickener, this dish is like nothing I have ever tasted before. The delicate flavor of sesame fills your mouth as each bite melts like a pat of butter on your tongue.
Soft and silky shojin gomadoufu decorated with Japanese maple leaves
Petite rectangles of kabocha (Japanese squash) topped with a dollop of mustard are served swimming in a red and white miso broth. This is the takiawase (simmered dish). White miso is usually consumed in the winter, while salty red miso is popular in summer, says Sugiyama. “When seasons change, you change the ratio of miso. Since August is over and it’s a little cooler, you mix two to three kinds.”
The skin of the kaboch is peeled at random to create a pretty pattern
The kabocha is eaten with rice served in a lacquer bowl Ichimoji-style, with the rice sculpted into an ichi, or number one using a paddle.
Ichi rice or number 1, signifying rice’s place in the Japanese diet
The kaiseki progression usually includes diverse ingredients hailing from the mountains, fields, forests, rivers and oceans. Modern chefs tend to stray from this convention but still endeavor to strike a balance. The next dish of satoimo taro and green beans represents ingredients from mountain and field, and also serves to cleanse the palate.
At the meal’s conclusion, the tomewan (literally “stop bowl”) is konomono (Japanese pickles) made of seasoned Japanese cucumbers, eggplant and takwan.
With each dish, the presentation is flawless and the flavors dazzling. However, the underlying Zen influence keeps chakaiseki focused on the holistic experience, a peaceful place where host and guest are in harmony with each other and with the natural world.
The Hiroko Sugiyama Culinary Atelier is located at 22207 N.E. 31st St., Sammamish. For more information, call 425-836-4635 or visit http://www.hirokosdolly.com