Salon Magazine Review
the Japanese have made an art form of the tea ceremony, which dates back as far as the 12th century. It was adapted from the Chinese, whose tea parties were much-anticipated occasions for emperors to display their vast wealth. In the hands of the Japanese, the ceremony has become an embodiment of a seasonal moment -- evocative of such phrases as "flower snow flurry" or "wild geese crossing the autumn sky." Each element used in the ceremony, from the bowls to the tea whisk, has deep meaning, and those who perform the ritual must study for decades.
Kaseiki is the light, seven-course meal accompanying the tea ceremony -- an extremely rarefied experience filled with a series of dainty, artfully arranged portions that the Japanese pay dearly for. Bettina Vitell, author of the wonderful and healthy cookbook "A Taste of Heaven and Earth," has been a student of kaseiki, Japan's haute cuisine, for some years, and here she puts her knowledge and passion to great use for the Western palate -- the takeout-numbed and food snobs alike. As she points out, kaseiki has many similarities to California cuisine, with its emphasis on presentation, fresh ingredients, little fat and lots of flavor. Beginning with a jam-packed, 46-page introduction to the almost bottomlessly complex and symbolic meal -- not to mention the history of tea itself -- Vitell's "The World in a Bowl of Tea" covers as much ground as it can without scaring off the casual reader.
While I'm a great admirer of the tea ceremony, passages like "Whatever mood you choose, bring together seasonal foods, serving dishes, utensils, paintings, flowers, and words to create a deep harmony of host and guest in this one ephemeral meeting, this one time together" had me ready to dial Teriyaki Boy for dinner instead. Thus, it's safe to say that some readers may choose to head straight for the recipes; if you do so, I suggest you at least pause to read the basics. There's much more that goes into the making of one of these meals than can be easily comprehended by a Western-schooled mind, not to mention an array of tools and ingredients. (Vitell herself knows this, and has included an impressive list of resources for the curious and mail-order oriented.)
After I read that I would need to purchase a few sets of bowls, preferably in seasonally specific patterns, I decided to leave Martha-san behind and get cooking. The recipes themselves are inventive, easy to follow and use few ingredients. Vitell urges you to work with seasonal foods, combining them in new ways, such as a salad of jicama, orange and frisé. Hard-to-find ingredients have been either replaced or kept to a minimum, so that readers in Racine, Wisc., can play, too. But the basics, like dashi, the stock that's at the heart of broths and many sauces, do require items that will never make it to your local A&P. Even my sino-friendly New York health-food store didn't have the dried bonito flakes needed for dashi, so I made the mushroom broth instead, which wasn't as flavorful. Still, my meal of seasoned broth with tofu dumplings, spinach and ginger (served in white Crate & Barrel bowls to represent absolute nothingness), asparagus with walnut sauce and mustard greens with sesame dressing was a lovely success.
I enjoyed trying these new flavors and techniques, rolling the steamed greens in a bamboo mat and cutting them like sushi. The sauces were simple yet powerful. While the broth was bland, the dumplings were a hit, and also made a great appetizer served with a ginger-soy sauce. (Plan ahead -- Vitell asks that you drain tofu for an hour.) I was instructed to arrange the cut asparagus spears vertically, crafting a little sculpture. When the umpteenth spear toppled, I said, "Screw it" and threw them on the plate, drizzling them with sauce. My husband never noticed. As the seasons change, I look forward to following Vitell's lead, sampling dishes like miso-baked turkey, tuna with sake and lime and clear shiitake consommé with pumpkin ravioli. Maybe some rainy day I'll take the hours needed to do it right and share the moment with friends -- and the Teriyaki Boy delivery guy.
Christine Muhlke is managing editor of Paper.
RECIPE FOR AVOCADO AND GRAPEFRUIT WITH SHISO