Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chigusa, a Cinderella Story

I recently visited a fellow tea adventurer in Virginia and she took me to see the Chigusa exhibit at the Freer-Sackler Museums of Asian Art at the Smithsonian. COOL!  Chigusa, a tea storage jar of Chinese origin from the thirteenth or fourteenth century, tells an important story related to chanoyu history.  But let me begin with my story of visiting the museum and a docent named Lois.  She guided us through the museum, our small party discussing ancient Chinese artifacts.  Then she escorted us to the Chigusa exhibit where we enjoyed a private tour.  She knew of our interest in tea and she took a portion of her busy day to spend extra time with us. Thank you Lois! Now allow me to tell you the Cinderella story.

Chigusa started as a humble storage jar, mass-produced in China for export. But in Japan, tea people had yet to make this glaze, and it was appreciated for its color and texture. In addition, the size of the jar allowed for storage of an ample amount of tea.  (One of the things that struck me about seeing the jar in person was its size.  It's larger than I anticipated.)  The third desired feature was the lightness of the jar, due to a special manufacturing technique in which the top curve is flattened to reduce heft. So then the jar received its name, Chigusa - myriad grasses or thousand flowers - and its dressings of finery (the blue cording). All dressed up, and like Cinderella, Chigusa went to the ball living a celebrated life as a special named object.


Chigusa is important to tea people and historians because of the story it and its accouterments tell.  There is much documentation about its life and ownership progression.  For example, the boxes above were added by a series of owners, each contributing documentation to the story. Chigusa has also been written about in the tea records of the period, allowing scholars to understand how these tea utensils were valued and used in the period from several different perspectives.

If you happen to be in DC before July 27th, the exhibit is well worth your time.  (And it's free!)  I also learned that if you are in DC after the exhibit closes, you can contact the museum to arrange for a private viewing of Chigusa.  (They do that!)  If  you've seen the exhibit, I'd love for you to share your highlights.

Here is an excellent article about Chigusa: 

Images from the Freer Sackler museum.  The exhibit did not allow photography.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Making Shiro An (White Bean Paste)

"Mountain" of Shiro An

Shiro an, a white bean paste that is lightly sweetened, is the base of so many Japanese  tea sweets.  And I love it.  Love it.  LOVE it!  I know that sweetened bean paste sounds funny to Americans, but it really IS good!  When I began studying chanoyu, I had no idea how much I would come to love the sweets that go along with the tea.  What a wonderful surprise!  And sweets with shiro an are one of my favorites.

While it's possible to buy the red bean paste in the Asian markets around here, it is not possible to find the white paste.  So earlier this year I tried making it myself.  My sensei had prepared me well for the all-day process!  You can find her detailed steps here.  If you attempt this, please do use her recipe.  My notes below don't include all the steps.

First you buy dried Lima beans and sort through them, then let them soak overnight. Then comes the part that was hardest for me: Peeling the skins off the beans.  I was making a big batch (because you don't want to do this very often!), and so I had a lot of skins to remove.  Fortunately, they slip off easily.

Then you enter into several rounds of bringing the beans to a bowl and changing the water.  Repeat, repeat until the beans are falling apart.  Then you send the beans through the food processor.  Now you let the liquids and solids separate, draining off the liquid (this also takes several rounds).

Finally, you are ready to add some sugar.  Add the sugar in small increments and stir, stir, stir until  it is the right consistency.  Whew!  
Still needs to be a little thicker - keep stirring!

Fortunately, shiro an freezes really well and will make for many happy tea times in the future!  The bean paste is very mold-able and flexible.  It can be colored and made into interesting shapes, traditionally something that suggests the season.  If you ever get the opportunity to try a sweet made with shiro an, please do!  It's naturally gluten free and fat free, too.  And there's only a little sugar.  Big on taste and texture!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Everlasting Summer

Margie sensei making tea

Toko Natsu Zuki
Everlasting Summer

Everlasting summer - A lovely poetic phrase that reflects today's long hours of sun.  

I had the intimidating but wonderful privilege today to be host and make tea at the Japanese Garden, my first time giving a demonstration tea here. As is true each time I make tea, the experience is unique and full of lessons.  Despite my shaking hands, I managed to make it through reasonably well. After making tea, I also enjoyed the gift of being a guest.  

Below I will share some pictures and the flow of being a guest.

We walked to the tea room by way of the peaceful garden path

Oh, I should mention that today is the first time I dressed in kimono all by myself.  :-) It only took 2.5 hours.
Receiving the sweet before the tea

Scooting forward to retrieve my bowl of tea

Joining the first guest to drink a bowl of tea

Enjoying the delicious bowl of tea

Taking a farewell look at the tokonoma, with the scroll and flower

The day was glorious!  An easy temperature; not hot, not cold, a subtle breeze, a fat robin hopping around with a worm. What a wonderful way to spend the solstice!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Astoria, OR

View of the bridge crossing the Columbia River from Oregon to Washington.  And just beyond, where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean.  This is one of the most treacherous shipways in the whole world.

Last weekend, the DH and I took a short trip to the Oregon and Washington coast.  Our first night was in Astoria, OR.  Astoria is the first non-Native permanent settlement in the Pacific Northwest.  It's a vibrant shipping town.  While it has developed some tourism commerce, the community hasn't lost that sense of its hard working roots.  I appreciate that. We very much enjoyed our time here.  We walked the riverfront and roamed the neighborhoods.  There is a very good maritime museum that explains how ships enter the Columbia from the Pacific. (It's a wild ride!)

Rose River Inn, where we stayed.  Our room had a small sun porch with a view of the river.  It was great!

An Astoria Riverpark that looks over the ships waiting to head further up the river (many to Portland)

Making tea on that Riverpark.  That's me, all bundled up.  It was breezy and cool, but still quite pleasant.  I think the photo makes the weather seem worse than it really was.  It was dry!  :-)
Astoria Column, a tower that overlooks the city.  It was built by a descendant of John Jacob Astor.

The trolley is a lot of fun.  For $1, you can get an hour's guided tour about the town's history and the riverfront.

Have you been to Astoria?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

In Kimono...

Stephanie and fellow Chanoyu student

Here's a picture from a recent Japanese Tea event.  We were celebrating the 35th anniversary of a local Urasenke tea association.  It was a big-deal event!  Representatives came from all over the United States to help celebrate this anniversary.  I was "Hakobi" which means I carried bowls of tea to the guests.  They would have been sitting on the tatami mats behind me.  It was a lot of work, a lot of fun and I learned a lot, too!

Friday, June 06, 2014

Red Bench Tea

 Last weekend, I took my thermos and some Japanese green tea to the garden.  My goal: deep relaxation.  I sat and watched the DH (dear hubby) do his thing.  We have an agreement.  He grows it; I love it.  

Sencha, strawberry and thyme flowers

How do you like to relax?

Monday, June 02, 2014

Meatless Monday: Sorrel-Hazelnut Pesto (Vegan)

 Sorrel pesto

This pesto is so good, I promise you, you won't miss the Parmesan cheese! And if you don't have a source of sorrel, don't worry.  Sorrel adds a vibrant lemony flavor to this dish, but the recipe works well with other greens.  This pesto would make a delicious filling for a tea sandwich.

This recipe originally came from Portland Magazine.  

Sorrel-Hazelnut Pesto (Vegan)
1 cup sorrel, loosely packed
1 cup parsley, firmly packed (OK to keep stems)
3 green onions, roughly chopped
1 clove garlic
1/2 cup hazelnuts (we use raw hazelnuts; OK to leave skins on; they get chopped up)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
1/2 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 lemon, juiced (1.5 Tbsp)
  • Pulse first 6 ingredients in a food processor  until finely minced.
  • Add oil in a steady stream, scraping down sides as needed.  (I can't add oil while my processor is running so I add a bit, whirl, stop and scrape, add a bit more, whirl, etc.)
  • Add salt and lemon juice; whirl to combine.
Keeps in fridge for a week.  Freezes well, too!