Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Kaiseki Ryori & Shojin Ryori

kaiseki01

Refined, delicate, purposeful, seasonal, healthy, flexible… all of these words describe the essence of Japanese cuisine, or washoku. As part of our exploration of the essentials of Japanese cooking, we’ve learned about the ingredients and foundational foods at the core of this cuisine. This month, we explore the principles of the washoku tradition that guide kaiseki ryori and shojin ryori.

Washoku is often translated to mean harmony (“wa”) and food (“shoku”). According to Elizabeth Andoh, one of Japan’s premier chefs, in her book Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, “washoku, or the “harmony of food” is a way of thinking about how we eat and how [food] can nourish us. The term describes both a culinary philosophy and the simple, nutritionally balanced food prepared in that spirit.”

This philosophy is best illustrated by an ichiju sansai meal, which consists of a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup and three side dishes, typically comprised of a piece of grilled fish or meat or tofu, pickles and simmered vegetables. An ichiju sansai meal is the typical meal served at lunch and dinner in Japanese households and is loosely translated to mean “well-balanced meal”. Both kaiseki ryori, Japanese haute cuisine, and shojin ryori, Japanese temple food, rely on this framework.

ichijusansai

An example of ichiju sansai

Kaiseki ryori (as seen in the title image)?offers a richer, more elaborate but no less balanced version of an ichiju sansai meal. Kaiseki meals were originally prepared as part of formal Japanese tea ceremonies, and were later served to nobles as a sign of wealth and class. A kaiseki meal consists of four courses or “sets” offered in a prescribed sequence. The starters set includes an aperitif course (skokuzen-shu) in which a small cup of sake or wine is served, followed by an appetizer course, consisting of decoratively prepared bite-sized appetizers served on a long dish called a hassun. The starters are followed by the main set, which consists of a soup course (suimono), a sashimi course (otsukuri), a simmered dish (nimono), a grilled dish (yakimono), a deep fried dish (agemono), a steamed dish (mushimono) and a pickled dish (sunomono). The third set, called a shokuji set, includes a bowl of white rice, miso soup, and pickles (tsukemono). Finally, the meal is concluded with a small dessert of fruit, confections, sorbet or ice cream.

Though there are many dishes in a kaiseki meal, each dish is served in small proportions, slowly and with great attention to detail, and with the utmost in hospitality. Even seating, tables, flowers, quiet and privacy are considered in the preparation of a kaiseki meal! Today, kaiseki meals are served in Michelin-starred and fancy Japanese-style restaurants and high-end ryokan, or Japanese-style inns.

shoujinryori

Shojin ryori

Devotional or temple cooking, known as shojin ryori, hones the concept of “harmony of food” into a set of offerings that are based on Buddhism’s inherent respect for living a life that eschews doing harm. This type of cuisine became popular in the early 11th century when Buddhist monks used this way of “earnest commitment” to procure, prepare, serve and eat their meals. At its most fundamental nature, shojin ryori is vegan, consisting of no animal products, uses gentle seasonings and reduces waste as much as possible. A typical meal consists of a few vegetables such that all parts are used, the leaf, the root, the skins, prepared using simple techniques like blanching, simmering and braising, along with rice, soup, pickles, beans, legumes and tofu. Each item is prepared simply, without strong tastes such as garlic, chilies or wasabi. The entire meal is prepared with quiet thoughtfulness and eaten with reverence. Restaurants that serve shojin ryori meals offer more creative versions of this honest, simple food and are becoming more popular as people are gravitating towards a plant-based diet.

Both kaiseki ryori and shojin ryori style meals make a conscious effort to use seasonal ingredients, taking care to respect when foods are most fresh and full of their inherent flavor. These two styles of cuisine are also deeply concerned with how food is presented, including how ingredients are cut, arranged, plated and served.

The utter refinement of washoku in these cooking styles shows you the wonderful variety of Japanese cuisine. Which ones have you tried? Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Essentials of Japanese Cooking: ?Herbs & Spices

shiso01

As we’ve learned in previous posts, ryori no sa shi su se so and umami-rich dashi are the essential seasonings used in Japanese cooking. But what other flavorings does Japanese cuisine rely on?

In our post this month, we explore the most popular herbs and spices used in cooking both traditional and modern Japanese dishes. Let’s begin by answering these questions: What is an herb? What is a spice? And how are they different?

According to the Herb Society of America, herbs are “small, seed-bearing plants with fleshy, rather than woody, parts. They are valued for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal and healthful qualities, economic and industrial uses, pesticidal properties and coloring materials (dyes).” Commonly used herbs in European cooking include parsley, basil, thyme, sage, oregano and chives. In Japanese cooking, popular herbs include mitsuba, shiso and negi.

negi01

Herb negi

By contrast, spices are “any dried part of a plant, other than the leaves, used for seasoning and flavoring a recipe, but not used as a main ingredient.” Well-known spices include cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, ginger and turmeric. In Japanese cooking, popular spices are wasabi, togarashi and shoga.

Herbs and spices can sometimes come from the same plant. For example, cilantro, the herb, produces coriander, the spice made from its seeds. And shiso leaf (top photo), the herb, produces shiso seeds, the spice. Herbs and spices exhibit different properties during cooking and are prepared and stored differently. Herbs are best used while they are fresh and green, usually picked just before using. Spices are generally dried, with the exception of some spice roots, and are either ground, made into a paste or used whole. Both herbs and spices can be used uncooked and cooked, adding different tastes to food.

Japanese herbs such as mitsuba, shiso and negi are commonly used in Japanese dishes. Mitsuba, or trefoil, has a thin greenish-white stalk and a three-pointed leaf. It looks similar to flat-leafed parsley, with a flavor similar to sorrel or celery, and is most famously used in Chawanmushi. Shiso is a member of the mint family and has an earthy flavor. It is fried as part of tempura dishes and used to garnish and season various dishes such as Salmon Chazuke, salad and sashimi, or slices of fresh cut fish.

Mitsuba

Mitsuba

Negi is a member of the allium family and is used as an herb in many dishes. Both the white and green parts of negi are used in Japanese cooking, although different regional dishes use one or the other more often. Negi has a taste similar to scallions and leeks, with the white portion becoming sweet when cooked and the green portion used as a garnish atop dishes such as miso soup, cold soba noodle, and cold tofu.

Herbs generally add a fresh, light, green flavor to dishes. Spices, by contrast, add depth and intense flavor. Togarashi, or hot red chili peppers, are used both fresh or dried. Crushed into a powder, ichimi togarashi, which means “one flavor chili pepper”, is commonly added to soups and udon noodles just before eating. Ginger, or shoga, is another spice typically found in Japanese cooking. The freshly ground root is highly aromatic and pungent, and is often used in seafood dishes to mask any unpleasant smell of the fish. When pickled, ginger is served as a condiment alongside such dishes as sushi, okonomiyaki and takoyaki. One of our favorite summer recipes is Shoga-Yaki, or Ginger Pork, and we know you’ll enjoy it too!

wasabi01

Wasabi root

Wasabi is probably the most iconic of all Japanese spices. Made into a paste from the grated root of green horseradish, wasabi has antimicrobial properties that can keep food from spoiling. Wasabi is highly pungent and spicy and is most often served with Nigiri Sushi and other types of sushi or sashimi.

Subtle to strong, herbs and spices are essential for bringing out the flavor of Japanese foods. Which one is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!