Monday, September 09, 2013

Cha-Kaiseki: The Meal at a Japanese Tea Ceremony

Me, drying dishes after cleanup of the meal at a recent kaiseki class

I have some serious foodie friends who will enjoy this post...

If you are invited to a full Japanese Tea Ceremony, you will first be treated to a delicious, light and healthy meal in the tea room prior to enjoying the tea.  The idea is to ensure the guests' comfort during what can be a lengthy and leisurely tea event.  The food helps keep us contented, and some people's bodies are better able to enjoy the matcha with a little something in the stomach.

You may have heard of, or even been to, a "kaiseki" restaurant.  Most people associate this style of dining with many small dishes of very fancy food.  In the cha (tea)-kaiseki, the food itself is more humble as well as seasonal and local.  Rather than being the focus, the food is there to ensure your comfort and lead you to the highlight of the experience, the serving of the koicha (thick tea), which comes after the meal.  

The cha-kaiseki actually reminds me a bit of the British afternoon tea in that the food is meant to blunt the appetite, not to be a large meal. The portions are petite and there are many small morsels to try, each presented in a beautiful dish to highlight the food's qualities. 

In my tea class, we've been studying how to handle the many bowls, cups and trays in the tea room.  And this weekend, I had the chance to attend a kaiseki cooking class where we prepared a meal.  And then, our two Sensei served us so that we could enjoy the food and practice handling the bowls.  Lucky us!  

A cha-kaiseki menu includes:

* Mikozuke, often a raw dish like sashimi served on the far side of the tray and arranged to face the guest
* Rice and miso soup, each served in its own lidded bowl
* These three are served together on a tray and enjoyed with sake

* Nimono, this simmered dish is brought out next and served in its own lidded bowl
* Yakimono, a grilled dish brought out for guests to serve themselves
* Hashiarai, a clear broth used to cleanse the palate and rinse the chopsticks, served in its own lidded cup
* Hassun, small morsels of "food from the mountain and food from the sea".  At this time, the host pours a bowl of sake for each guest, who in turn pours a bowl for the host.  It's worth noting that the bowls of sake are very flat and hold just a couple of sips each.   
*Yuto, broth with rice that has been crisped in the bottom of the pan, served with pickles

Additional items can be added, but these are the basics.  I experienced the process from shopping, cooking and savoring and I can tell you that much thought and attention goes into the preparation of these dishes.  Delicious, beautiful and subtle.  It's also worth noting that while fish is quite common in the meal, it's also easy to have vegetarian (even vegan) kaiseki meals.

And yet...all of this is not the highlight of the tea ceremony.  After the meal, you would be served a small sweet and then invited to take a stroll in the garden.  When you return, it's time for koicha!


Marilyn said...

This all sounds wonderful. I am glad you are enjoying this very special tea time. I don't think I have the patience to sit for so long, but would love observing.

La Tea Dah said...

What an amazing experience! Thank you for sharing with us!!!!

Teafan said...

Wow - I had no idea.

amherstrose said...

This would have been something I would have loved to share with you!
Oh, what a lovely feast for the body and soul. It would be wonderful to learn more about this custom, Steph.

Sending you a hug,
Mary Jane

Angela McRae said...

Much as I love my "frou frou" tea habit, I always love coming here to learn about other types of teatime and SO wish I could join you! You seem to have learned and absorbed so much from the many wonderful teachers you've studied with. I think the writer in me appreciates the *mindfulness* of these types of tea ceremonies. Anything that makes us slow down ... is good!