December 7, 2016
Japanese Dining Traditions
People often ask me what my favorite type of food is, or what type of food I like to cook. The truth is, like many Chefs, it depends. It’s like trying to pick a favorite song. Food is like music, as they both give you an experience while you enjoy them. It depends on the time of day, time of year and my current mood. Some days, AC/DC’s Stiff Upper Lip plays on repeat, while others might be a John Fogerty or Willie Nelson kind of day. Restaurants and Chefs work very hard to give everyone a great dining experience. After all, eating out has become a form of entertainment for many. Enjoying the company you’re with, restaurant ambiance, and the proper steps of service all add to the overall dining experience.
Recently, while going through my cookbook collection, I came across one of my favorites— Chef Kunio Tokuoka’s Kitcho: Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experiences. I had the pleasure of meeting Chef Tokuoka at the 2013 Worlds of Flavor International Conference & Festival, where I attended his presentation on umami and sake pairings. To be frank, the sake initially pulled me in, but what I saw and learned opened my eyes to the beauty of Japanese cuisine. The class really inspired me to reach out of my comfort zone. A lot of the information in this article I have learned from Chef Tokuoka’s Kitcho, but it just barely scratches the surface of all the great information the book offers. If this is a subject that interests you, I recommend picking up a copy of Kitcho. It’s a great book to add to your collection.
There are three main traditions in Japanese cuisine: Kakeai Ryori, Honzen Ryori and Cha Ryori (or Kaiseki, a more food-focused Cha Ryori experience). Kakeai Ryori is a more casual style of service where food is cooked and passed over the counter to the diner. Think about Anthony Bourdain strolling the markets of Japan, stopping at counters and ordering food prepared on the spot. This is the style of service that tempura and sushi originated from. Honzen Ryori is a very formal, full course meal that started back in the early 1300s. Diners are served on low, four-legged tray tables called “zen”. Typically, service is offered from one to three trays, but as many as seven trays depending on the event. This is seen today at banquets, weddings and other large gatherings. Different soups and many sides are typically served in the Honzen Ryori tradition. Nobles of the court, on the other hand, enjoyed Yusoku Ryoru, which featured more than 30 different dishes per person. All the dishes were served at the same time. Nobles only ate the items that they wanted and the rest were a feast for the eye.
Cha Ryori, “cha” meaning “tea” and “ryori” meaning “cook” or “cuisine”, is food that is served as part of a tea ceremony known as Chanoyu. Cha Ryori consists of small courses that are enjoyed in moderation, as to not take away from the tea ceremony itself. The emphasis in this culinary tradition is placed on the enjoyment of one another’s company. The host takes great care in preparation of the tea ceremony. Hosts make sure each detail is perfect and reflects the season, from selecting foods at their seasonal peak, to the appearance of the garden, decorations and flowers, even selection of just the right scroll paintings and the perfect utensils for the preparation of tea. Guests appreciatively savor the experience and the lengths that the hosts go through to make each Chanoyu an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
As you can see, there are a lot of nuances when it comes to Japanese dining culture. Definitely more than can be covered in a short article. We haven’t even scratched the surface on the ingredients used, or the food itself. Japanese culinary culture is a fantastic journey of the senses. It is one cuisine that I plan to keep learning from, and attempting to incorporate into my own cooking.