Spring in Tokyo could compete with spring in Paris. Sakura (cherry) flowers bloom at the end of March (earlier this year). Suddenly, everywhere you looked, the trees burst into ruffled, feminine pink clouds that soften even the most hardened businessmen.
To celebrate, the Japanese attend parties called hanami where guests drink a lot of sake. The purpose of these trees is the fragrant sakura flower; Japanese cherry does not bear fruit. During the two-week viewing and festival, Japanese people enjoy sakura treats such as chocolates, cakes, mochi sweets or teas. Sakura flowers even inspire kaiseki.
Kaiseki is a 500-year-old tradition that began in the Zen temples of Kyoto to accompany the revered tea ceremony. Supreme in warmth and hospitality, the name comes from the hot stone (seki) that Zen monks gave travelers to place near their heart or chest (kai) to warm themselves.
Originally vegetarian, the kaiseki meal is presented in a series of seven to 10 small ritual dishes. It has blossomed into an art form for restaurant chefs. It is an opportunity for the chef to feed not only the palate of the guest, but also all the senses. The Japanese say that you need the right materials, the right aromas, the right spices and the right heart.
The celebration of food at its peak is called “stay away”. The Japanese are sensitive to the moment when the strawberries are at their sweetest or when the fish is at its tastiest, and they look for the best they can afford. Dishes, art, clothing and activities such as cherry blossom viewing are all part of Japan’s celebration of the seasons.
Kaiseki poetry offers the body seasonal nourishment. It consists of a strong formal structure within which chefs improvise.
A kaiseki meal traditionally begins with an appetizer. The first course is suimono (soup), followed by seasonal sashimi courses and a variety of seasonal foods from the sea, mountains or fields. The following dishes are cooked food and may include grilled, cold baked, steamed or pickled.
This is followed by a meal of rice, sometimes with a cooked dish such as stewed fish.
Dessert, perhaps seasonal fruit like fresh peaches with peach sorbet, then whipped matcha green tea finish off the meal.
A spring sakura celebration dinner at a kaiseki restaurant might start with a clear “dashi” soup with spring peas, followed by spring cucumber stuffed with shrimp. Delicious squares of grilled seasonal fish follow, and each portion is small but satisfying. There is no tiring of flavors here. The meal will turn into rice flavored with preserved cherry blossoms, and can be finished with sherbet or jelly infused with sweet preserved cherry blossoms.
One day a famous chef from Kyoto visited a Zen monk.
“Tell me in a few words,” said the monk, “the reason behind your kitchen.”
“Exactly mirroring nature,” replied the chef.
The monk was silent.
“Are you only reflecting nature,” he gently corrected, “or is it your awareness of nature? When you cut a radish, shouldn’t you be aware of where it grew, the rain that fell on it, the farmer whose labor it produced?
Great meals are a thoughtful dialogue in which chefs strive to delight their guests. The spirit of kaiseki can offer rich and meaningful conversation. If trying for Japanese perfection is too much, bring the spirit of kaiseki to your spring party: look for the freshest seasonal produce and prepare it simply.
Smoked salmon or prosciutto Onigiri
Onigiri is an easy way to satisfy your sushi cravings. Come up with new fillings. Leave the smoked salmon or prosciutto, and fill the balls with chopped leftovers of grilled or boiled shrimp, fish, vegetables or meat. The cherry blossom rice balls are filled with a few Japanese cherry blossoms preserved in salt and maybe a little umeboshi plum paste.
Makes about 12 balls
2 C. white sushi rice; do not substitute with other rice
2 T. unseasoned rice vinegar
1 to 2 green onions, finely sliced OR 12 small dill sprigs OR cilantro leaves
12 thin slices of smoked salmon OR prosciutto, each about 4 to 5 inches square
4 T. cream cheese OR 1 avocado, halved and diced
Put the rice in a strainer and rinse well with cold water. Leave the rice to drain in a colander for 15 minutes. Place the rice in a heavy saucepan. Pour in 2-1/2 cups cold water and 1 teaspoon sea salt.
Boil the rice. Immediately reduce to a simmer and cover the pot; simmer for exactly 15 minutes and remove the pan from the heat. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons of rice vinegar mixed with 2 tablespoons of cold water over the rice and cover the pan. Let the rice stand for 15 minutes. Fluff the rice with a fork and turn into a non-aluminum baking dish into a layer of about one inch. Do not flatten or break the rice grains. Cover the rice with a damp tea towel. Cool to room temperature.
Meanwhile, cut twelve 8-inch squares of plastic wrap. (If using green onions, place sliced onions in a colander and rinse with very hot tap water for 30 seconds. Drain and pat dry.
Line a small bowl (about 1/3 cup volume) with one square of plastic wrap. Place a square of smoked salmon or prosciutto in a bowl. Wet your hands lightly and gather about 1/3 cup of loosely compacted cooked rice into a ball. Place on salmon or prosciutto. Make a hole in the middle of the rice and put about 1 teaspoon of cream cheese or a small cube of avocado inside. Season with a little salt.
Gather the plastic wrap and roll it tightly to form a ball from the rice and salmon or prosciutto. Unwrap and garnish the top of the fish or meat with green onions or herbs. If you don’t want to consume the onigiri right away, leave the plastic wrap on and refrigerate the onigiri; decorate when you take them out of the mold. The rice will harden if kept in the fridge for too long.
Rapini with spicy miso sauce (Nanohana no Karashi Miso-ae)
This popular spring dish is served in elegant kaiseki restaurants where it is served in small portions in beautiful, seasonal dishes. Swap asparagus for rapini.
— From the book “Discovering Global Kitchens” by Nancy Krcek Allen
Makes about 3 cups, 4 to 6 servings
1-1/4 lb. bunch of leaves (broccoli rabe) or asparagus
2 T. mirin
1/4 C. white (shiro) miso
1 t. dry mustard or Japanese dry hot mustard (neri-karashi)
Additional decoration: 1 to 2 t. toasted sesame seeds
Fill a 4 liter saucepan with cold water and bring to a boil over high heat. Season the water with salt.
Prepare the rapini: Cut 1 inch off the bottom of the stems. Cut the remaining rapini into 1-inch lengths to make 7 to 8 cups. Place rapini in boiling water, reduce heat to medium, and cook until tender, about 3 minutes. Drain immediately through a strainer and rinse with cold water. Do not immerse in ice water. Drain the rapini well with light pressure.
Prepare the dressing: pour mirin and sake into a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour into a medium mixing bowl and stir in the miso and mustard powder. Pour the dressing over the well-drained rapines. To serve: Place the Rapinije in small bowls and garnish with sesame seeds if desired. Serve at room temperature.
All Season Pickles (Ichinen Ju no Shio Zuké)
Japanese chefs traditionally serve pickles with main dishes and rice. They make a delicious sushi-maki filling.
— From the book “Discovering Global Kitchens” by Nancy Krcek Allen
Makes about 2 cups
7 oz. trimmed daikon radish, peeled
8 oz. zucchini, ends trimmed
1 oz. shredded carrot, peeled
2 rounded t. kosher salt
1 t. i am a willow
Thinly slice the radish diagonally and cut into 1/8-inch thick matchsticks to yield about 1-1/2 cups. Repeat the slicing method with the zucchini to get 2 cups, and the carrots to get 1/4 cup.
Place the vegetables in a bowl and add salt and squeeze lightly. Transfer the vegetables and liquid to a Japanese press or bowl. Press the screws firmly. If using a bowl, place a clean plate to cover and weigh down with a 2 pound weight (two 16 oz. cans) place in a clean bag.
The brine will form after an hour. Allow the pickles to ripen for 4 to 6 hours at room temperature or in the refrigerator overnight. Rinse the pickles and dry; they are ready to eat. Store pickles in the refrigerator for up to 3 to 5 days. To serve: Pour soy sauce to taste.