The World Digested
"The thing is…he is…he is just so American."
The words were dropped, on the table, discreetly and carefully, as if in a game of Cheat. The reticent speaker placed those words onto the pile of words already stacked, casting shadows of innuendos. The words were heard and heeded. The speaker fidgeted, not because of doubt for he was certain of his opinion and his place in the game, but for a having spoken perhaps too early so that the other two players would use it against him. It was a familiar game, played in an all too familiar territory: a tasting game and a testing game, played by multiple players against every other participant. The silent combat was engaged by three hardened wagashi (Japanese confections) connoisseurs versus one wagashi creator on the surface, but another subterraneous, subtle mind game waged among the wagashi fiends, which might prove to be even more arduous because these fans were united purely by their love of wagashi, without any commercial interest or desire for public recognition. Their purpose in this joint campaign was to taste the wagashi of course, but also to test each other's depth of knowledge. Therefore, their ardor led often to new discoveries, on occasion to mutual respect, but also from time to time to contentions and contempt for each other's prejudices and lack of insight. For this last reason, the initial speaker showed hesitation in inadvertently becoming the first to show his hand before the final round of summation.
The stage of the battle was set at Kashiya (樫舎) - a Japanese confectionary shop in Nara. "Kashiya" is a play of words in Japanese - whose inexplicit inclinations and ad hoc adaptation often give rise to words with the same sound but conveying different meanings. Kashi - written as 菓子 - refers to desserts or sweets; but kashi - written as 樫 - is the name of a tree. In the same vein, ya - most commonly written as 屋 or 家 - signifies a house and, in commercial context, a shop (as most businesses were family-owned); yet ya - with the character, 舎, as chosen by Kashiya - refers also to a lodging, but it hints of a slightly more ritualistic and religious connotation. Therefore, the word itself - kashiya - is a common noun used to mean a Japanese confectionary shop; and yet, reading the word from another side, Kashiya - the proper noun - takes on a deeper significance as a place for stoic study of sweets.
Furthermore, even the common enough kashi-ya does not point to just any Japanese sweet shop where you can walk in and take out a dorayaki (Japanese pancake sandwich) or a daifuku (stuffed mochi ball with azuki bean paste). Although the distinction is largely lost in the modern era where classes are de facto suspect, at least in the traditional Kyoto, the old demarcation of "class" persists and kashi-ya refers to a higher-end maison where the dainty confectionaries are still made per order to accompany the tea ceremony (and these kashi-ya would also customize the sweets according to the themes and seasons of the tea ceremony). Accordingly, these kashi-ya are expensive - one sweet (to be eaten in two bites) costs 400JPY, comparable to the fanciest chocolate bonbons. Hence, for the casual wagashi de jour, one goes to either oman-ya for dorayaki and manju (steamed rice cake ball stuffed with azuki bean paste) or mochi-ya, which specializes in mochi (glutinous rice cakes) sweets.
Therefore, even before one sets foot in Mr. Seiichiro Kita's Kashiya - proper noun - his message is already loud and clear: the shop is not merely a sweets shop, but a spiritual sanctuary in honor of Japanese confection.
Assessing not only the name, but the location also gives us much insight into the workings of Mr. Kita's mind. Eschewing the cultural capital of Kyoto where most of the renowned confectioners reside and practice their inherited art, he had chosen Nara as the most befitting place to pursue his study of Japanese sweets: Nara - the ancient capital of Japan before the country had become "Japan," before it had even become Nihon (Nippon); as a matter of fact, it was in Nara, that the aggregation of people had coalesced into a nation with a centralized government and its inseparable (and inescapable) bureaucracy. Although Nara's central position was short lived - the imperial palace moved to Kyoto for a thousand years then the power shifted to Tokyo - the people of Nara have doggedly held on to the sense of entitlement for the last 1500 years, heedless of the changes in time and regardless of the national neglect. Nara was largely forgotten until the recent resurgence of foreign tourism, and the ancient palaces laid forlornly in overgrown fields by the train tracks, which nonchalantly bisect the ruins in the middle. Nara, in short, had become a page (or two) in history, which the students memorize by mnemonics to pass the examinations, and a page in guidebooks because compared to Metropolitan Tokyo, rowdy Osaka and classy Kyoto, Nara had too little to offer beside the roaming deer and the large Buddha.
Nonetheless, this lack of ready recognition must have appealed to Mr. Kita, the contrarian, for he had chosen to set up his own temple of sweets in Nara, instead of joining the established family wagashi business in Tokushima. The narrow traditional-style house has been renovated to include a dining space upstairs, which the customers must climb up a steep shelf-staircase to reach in order to sample his sweet bean soup (winter) and shaved ice (summer); but the real novelty is the installment of a counter where Mr. Kita personally serves made-to-order sweets directly to the customers à la mode de sushi.
Face-to-face and hand-to-hand, it is this counter that acted as the divider for the tasting course with drinks pairing, and the war of words and the fight for flavors had begun in a nebula of tension. Three wagashi experts attended to taste and test the season's best - yurine kinton and hanabira mochi. The game opened with Mr. Kita's first move - serving a higashi with cold bancha - an atypical, aggressive choice because the dry, powdery higashi - made of wasanbon (a type of sugar refined three times by a traditional Japanese method) and kuzu (a root starch with medicinal properties) - is typically served toward the latter half of the course in a tea ceremony, rather than in this manner of amuse bouche.
And the bancha - what a bancha it is! If you have tasted bancha before, you would know that bancha is a rather bland, brownish tea of murky quality, which people drink hot at home with meals or snacks. However, being a "cold" brew, Kashiya's bancha is always served cold even in the dead of January, using tea leaves from "secret" - with much emphasis from Mr. Kita - sources in the surrounding Nara mountains. Expecting a mild tea to wash down the dry higashi, the throat choked on the pungent, astringent liquid. Cold, yes, but fiery; with an evil complexity of herbs, exactly as if drinking a cup of Chinese medicine. Sweets and tea are a natural complement, yet in this case, the higashi also has a slightly papery, menthol aftertaste due to the kuzu, so that neither could ameliorate the harsh effect of the other, in fact, they together made it worse for the combination was a negative spiral into a bitter abyss. Hence, the first round went to Mr. Kita in completely sweeping the customers off their feet and setting the stage to his tone and pace.
"I observe how fast the people eat higashi," says Mr. Kita, as it was his gauge for the dryness of the customer's mouth, he explained. "Japanese have less saliva than the Westerns, and men less than women. That is why Japanese men are not fond of sweets, like women are, and why Western men like sweets more." While the two male participants surreptitiously exchanged glances, the third looked at her half-bitten higashi and smiled inwardly for she did not fall prey to the trick, ample saliva or not, which did not escape the notice of Mr. Kita in making the comment.
Rearranging their palates and reorganizing for the next two sweets, the three sat up straighter on the wooden floor one by one. The following would be the principal plates - the first one is the long-awaited yurine kinton. Yurine is the root of a lily, treasured for the starchy bulb, whose cultivation is notoriously cumbersome as it takes a minimum of three years to prepare the seed bulb and another two to three years to harvest, and each year, the bulb must be dug up in the winter and replanted in the spring. But that is not the end of it: to truly enjoy this starchy root, it is best to age it for a period of two to three months to let the carbohydrates being converted to sugar. Hence, these three had waited while others were eating the fresh yurine in November and December and bided their turn for the properly aged yurine in the coming January.
Not only that yurine is a special ingredient, but kinton is exactly the special type of wagashi that truly requires utmost freshness. "Right now, it looks much bigger because the strands are loose, but in 30 minutes, it would be 10% smaller," Mr. Kita expounded as he rotated the kinton in his hand as he worked on this delicacy. Usually, kashi-ya - common noun - puts the finishing touches on their order in view that the customers will have to carry the confectionary to the place of the tea ceremony, so that the time of consumption will be delayed by a minimum of 30 minutes, and that is why they require reservation to guarantee optimal condition for their products. Having said that, one exception is the delicate kinton, which should be eaten as soon as they are made. The reason is simple: it dries up. Kinton is made of skin-less white bean paste -in this case, the special yurine paste - which is strained through a mesh so it comes out in thin strands; these strands are planted around a core of a bean paste (usually a different type of beans from the strings). Picture that famous gateau Mont-Blanc at Angelina Paris - a kinton is a Japanese Mont-Fuji but fat-free and oil-free, with only sugar to hold the water molecules. Without any cream or butter, these strands start to dry as soon as they are squeezed out. Knowing the precarious state of kinton only too well, the tree sat motionless and ready to pounce once the kinton was finaly placed in front of them.
"No one makes the horse-hair mesh anymore," Mr. Kita sighs, "yes, you can ask the kimono textile weaver to make them, but it costs much, much more. But you know what, I am OK with that, because the reason that the profession died out is because the wages were too cheap." He sighed again, but in smugness over his own monetary contribution to the dying art of horse-hair mesh. Only half listening, the wagashi testers immediately picked up the wooden fork and began dissecting the kinton.
Even mashed and strained, the fibrous crunch of the lily bulb was detectable on the tongue, and the subtly earthy aroma reminded us of the hard, dark northern earth (Hokkaido) where it came from. The core was made of unobtrusive "white" azuki beans - much more costly than the obtrusive navy beans - and lightly sweetened. The whole concoction was light and airy, and yet earthy and somber. But unremarkable.
"The ingredients are everything, the farmers do all the work - 70%, 80% is done. We, the artisans, can only add a little texture to them and a little bit of preservatives in the form of sugar because that is what it is, a preservative." Although the words were humble, Mr. Kita's stressed proclamation, too often repeated, had come to sing his own propaganda; and his words had taken out the delicacy of his yurine kinton, and instead of the cleanness left by a truly sublime wagashi, the mouth felt gritty with a flavor of vacuous theatrics.
A common misconception of Japanese tea and sweets is that they are paired and are meant to be consumed together like tea and scone, but that is not so: wagashi for the tea ceremony precedes the strong maccha in tea ceremony, and the purpose of partaking the sweet first is to leave the palate subtly sweetened, but clean, to receive the bitter green tea. However, instead of cleansing, his bombastic words had so overwhelmed the senses of the listener that the earthiness of the lily bulb had turned into dirt. Fortunate, it was then, that his uber-secret-sourced maccha turned out to be mellow and sweet, with a thick and creamy foam cover up the gritty feeling in preparation for the next course.
The second main confection was hanabira mochi - a special sweet for the New Year. Kawabata Doki - a venerated Kyoto confectionary shop with roots going back 500 years; it used to bring sweets every morning to the imperial court before the emperor left for Tokyo - is credited to have created the first hanabira mochi. Based on a traditional New Year ceremony of the imperial court where the offering of rice cake, dried fish, radish and white miso (fermented soy bean paste) was given to the serving samurais and aristocracy, Kawabata Doki was granted the right to create hanabira mochi for the Urasenke (one of the major branch of tea ceremony, stemming from Senrikyu). Today, any shop can make hanabira mochi, but it is usually composed of white gyuhi (a type of sweetened mochi made from glutinous rice flour), red gyuhi, a sweet-and-salty miso paste and a strip of burdock confit (which takes the place of the salted, dry fish). The reason gyuhi is used instead of mochi is because gyuhi is softer and less elastic than mochi (due to the difference in molecular structure and water content), and therefore, more suitable for delicate wgashi befitting for the tea ceremony.
"Everyone thinks it is Kawabata Doki, but that is not true," scoffed Mr. Kita, "the tradition goes further back than Kyoto; it started right here in Nara," he concluded with a sniff toward his invisible competitor or the insensible public. (The three wagashi experts, having believed the Kawabata Doki story themselves, later tried to find data to corroborate Mr. Kita's Nara-as-the-origin theory; nevertheless, nothing so far has been found.)
While scoffing and sniffing, Mr. Kita's hands expertly rolled out the rice dough into a disk, then added a slice of red Kyoto carrot - instead of the common pink gyuhi - and dabbed a bit of the white miso paste and stuck a candied burdock, then folded the rice cake into half-moon sandwich like a taco.
Soft and velvety, yet the gyuhi had a supernatural heaviness, as if holding a limp,
small hand. However, the real surprise came as the teeth bit into the half-moon sandwich for the texture was the gumminess of a rubber hose - in fact, a very sugary rubber hose that is, not dissimilar to one of those fantastically shaped chewy gummy sweets sold by the pound in shopping malls. As the guests were occupied in the mute engagement of chewing and swallowing their individual piece of fancy, sweet rubber, Mr. Kita proudly went on, "I have my own way for making the gyuhi dough. I add high-temperature syrup to achieve this unique texture." Unique, it certainly was, and the instigator of this tasting course secretly cowered with embarrassment.
The said hanabira mochi was paired with, none other than, a coffee. "Many people may not like the oiliness from the flannel filter, but I rather enjoy the oil and the complexity of nel-drip," Mr. Kita gloated with a glint in his eyes. True to his words, his coffee was bitter and heavy and unctuous - but just so to stand up to his gummy and saccharine hanabira mochi: a match, not made in heaven, but by Mr. Kita's forceful matchmaking. Weary from unnecessary shocks and surprises, one taster eyed the proprietor and the brown liquid and its hideous tall cup, and declared, "I am actually quite full."
"You know, I pick all the cups and dishes, too. Really good things last forever. So even if the initial outlay is a lot, it is worth it in the end. 100 years, 200 years, they will last easily." The tea ceremony is considered by many to be the height of Japanese sophistication; however, the most unsophisticated part comes as soon as the guests finish drinking the tea: they are expected to examine and to praise the bowls and dishes of the host - turning and flipping the used and unwashed items around - and make "intelligent" remarks on the provenance and story of such historical (or expensive) wares. While disdainful of other conventionality, to this particular part of the tea ceremony, Mr. Kita - the renegade - seemed quite ready and happy to conform.
As has become somewhat à la mode in the world of counter course, Mr. Kita hands over the last item, a toasted monaka, directly to the palm of each customer. Before talking about the merits (or the lack thereof) of the monaka at Kashiya - the proper noun - a brief introduction must be made with respect to the monaka problem, or problems. A monaka is a thin rice wafer sandwich with azuki bean paste, akin to the French macaron, but it has two major problems which make even the die-hard wagashi lovers wary of this traditional confection: the stickiness and the sogginess of the rice wafers. Rice wafers are similar to the ice cream cones - airy and spongy and crispy - hence they are extremely susceptible to moisture. The Japanese rice wafers are made of mochi (glutinous rice cake), which is thinly sliced and then placed in a griddle - like a panini maker - and pressed and heated so that the mochi extends and becomes thin and crispy. However, regrettably as often is the case, the wafers, upon contact with the saliva in the mouth, separate where the top and bottom layers end up sticking to the upper palate and tongue respectively, causing a frenetic and quite inelegant urge to dislodge this offending object with one's forefinger. (This problem arises due to the quality and type of the glutinous rice used, or when cheaper non-glutinous rice is mixed in.)
While the first problem is in fact a sourcing problem as no confectioners make their own monaka wafers anymore, the second is a timing issue due to the time lag between the creation and consumption. Even the famous Sicilian cannoli - deeply fried to a hard shell - require the ricotta cream to be freshly piped into the shell upon order (although most are, of course, ready-made), imagine the thin, fragile rice wafers, which absorb the water molecules not only in the azuki bean paste but also in the air. Hence, most monaka are made with the changes of texture in calculation; and monaka fans often accord their favorites in relation to the number of days of the "aging." Even though in some monaka the permeation problem has been indeed turned into a part of the cooking, no soggy monaka can ever be compared to the pleasure of biting into a fragrant and crispy monaka and feeling the cool, dark bean paste on the tongue - the contrast of light and heavy, crispy and sticky is what monaka is all about.
Freshly toasted and sandwiched, Mr. Kita's monaka suffered none of the problems common to lesser monaka in Japan. Yet, it is not without fault of its own. "The sweetness has nothing to do with the amount of sugar," booms Mr. Kita, "for example, candies are made almost purely of sugar and yet, you don't feel too sweet, do you?" He continues without a pause, "it has everything to do with the speed of dissolution of the sugar. If it dissolves slowly, then it will feel less sweet than something that dissolves quickly."
Even before reaching the mouth, the smell of burnt rice wafted through the nostrils. Certainly, the wafers shattered briskly without fail, but instead of bringing to mind the delicate butterfly wings, the brown shell evoked those of a clumsy moth. In addition, since the wafer was burned (inadvertently or purposefully), none of the natural sweetness of the rice could be tasted, his dear brand-name rice, notwithstanding; nevertheless, the flavor was unmistakably familiar because it was the exact replica of the healthful brown rice "coffee." Equally disappointing was the red beans paste, flavorless and bland despite using the rare Nara azuki beans and, it was worse, because it committed the unforgivable sin of sweets: it was not sweet enough to be called a sweet. Mr. Kita's theory of sugar dissolution may well be right, and yet he had forgotten the rudiment of confectionery 101: sugar is used to sweeten.
Sipping roasted hoji-cha and sensing still the bitter aftertaste of the burned monaka, the three wagashi lovers were exhausted, with no sweet afer-taste. It is then the quiet one stated, "He is...too American."
"American?" - the other two were ready to dismiss such seemingly irrelevant comment when the topic of discussion was irrefutably about Japanese food, but their first-hand experience was more objective and it had soon dissected the taciturn remark and digested its significance. And, they, begrudgingly, agreed. "No, he is not very Japanese," responded the brainy one. "Like in the Iron Chef," thought the verbose one, but silently. No one watching the "Iron Chef" would consider Chef Morimoto truly Japanese, neither his daring dishes nor his dynamic demeanor, labeled him as Japanese, irrespective of the ingredients and methods of cooking.
Japanese culture is about wa - the grand harmony, the unifying cocoon which separates the "in" and the "out." Mr. Kita has taken each Japanese-ness and pursued it to the extreme - albeit using the best available ingredient and the most traditional method - and yet in utterly disregarding its proper place and relation in the whole, he has ironically committed the ultimate sin of un-Japanese-ness, and thus he has fallen "out" of wa. Overemphasized and overstressed, his indefatigable pursuit of Japanese-ness had blown it out of context and he has made himself his own caricature. His failure is due not to the improper (and unsuitable) use of butter and cream - for he would never resort to such cheap and easy solution as most wagashi makers do nowadays in order to fight the losing battle against Western cakes and ice creams - but due to the size of his aggrandized ego and ideology, which seemed to have blinded him to the more important truth: theory, history and heritage are all very well, but good taste is everything in the end.
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