Essentials of Japanese Cooking: Kaiseki Ryori & Shojin Ryori

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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.

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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.

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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!

 

What Is Rice Really?: The Tradition of Growing Short-Grain Rice

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Growing short-grain rice in Japan is critical to feeding the people of the country and feeding the spirit of its traditions. We continue our series from last month about growing short-grain rice with a look at how it is harvested and the traditions that embody the hopes of the Japanese people as they cultivate this important crop.

As we discussed in our previous post, rice is cultivated in four stages: sprouting, planting, growing and harvesting. Once rice is mature, usually at the end of summer, rice fields are allowed to dry in the sun or are drained. Harvesting machines, such as combines, gather and thresh the mature rice, so that rice seeds can be transported to drying facilities. Once at the drying facilities, warm air is forced through the rice to remove moisture so it can be stored and further processed. The dried rice is sent to mills where it is cleaned and dehulled, leaving the nutritious bran layer intact, resulting in brown rice. The brown rice is then packaged and sent to market or further polished to remove the bran layer, resulting in white rice. This short-grain white rice is also packaged and sent to market, where it is purchased by home cooks and chefs alike. By the time the rice reaches a person’s plate, it has been touched by many hands and by many days in the sun, water and wind!

Growing rice is a very important part of Japanese culture, and Japanese people participate in rich traditions that celebrate the entire process from initial planting to the harvest.

During the planting season in spring, the people of Sumiyoshi, in Osaka, believe that an auspicious beginning to the season will help the rice grow. To create a happy atmosphere that fosters good energy for the year’s crop, the community asks eight ceremonial maidens, called ue-me, to sanctify the rice seedlings at the local shrine. These blessed seedlings are given to the shimo ue-me, another group of women who participate in the festival, to plant them in the rice field to begin the season.

This elaborate and beautiful play is a delight to watch:

Planting leads to growing, and growing rice depends on abundant rain, fertile soil and lack of disease and pests. The people of Tsurugashima gather for a tradition called the Suneori Amagoi, during which they supplicate their water-loving snake god for abundant rain to help grow their rice crops. They build a giant decorative snake from bamboo and straw, imbue it with symbolic sacred charms, and parade it through the town to Kandachi Pond, where it is symbolically brought to its sacred home.

…and we mean giant snake:

During the summer months, pests can become a problem in the fields, so the people of Yata celebrate a tradition called Yata-no Mushi Okuri. During this festival, the people build a straw effigy of Saito Sanemori, a warrior from the Taira clan, who became angry when he was defeated in battle and whose grudge was transformed into an insect. They parade this effigy through the rice fields, with the goal of burning it at the end of the procession. The burning effigy is said to attract and kill the insects and pests in the area, and by doing so, release the crop from the warrior’s grudge.

As the summer turns into autumn, and the rice crops mature, rice-growing communities pray for an abundant harvest, giving thanks upon the season’s conclusion, when the land and the people can rest.

While traditions may vary from region to region, each of the seasons at the rice fields are beautiful, and if you’ve traveled to Japan to see them, we’d love to hear your stories.