Japan is truly a country of four seasons, and “if memory serves me right” the 4th April was a true expression of spring. We were in Uji, Kyoto prefecture for Hanami or cherry blossom viewing. Hanami is hungry work, and the best way to satisfy your hunger on a day like this is by enjoying a spring inspired Kaiseki lunch.
By the banks of the Uji river is Uji-Tatsumiya and it’s a welcome sight to get away from the masses enjoying the pinnacle of cherry blossom viewing. The restaurant is a typical low slung tatami and wood lined building with an army of kimono clad Obasan fussing over every detail. Unfortunately typical also means sitting cross-legged on the floor, which an 80kg white guy will never grow accustomed to no matter how many times he visits Japan.
The first course lies awaiting us laid out en masse for the 60+ dining companions in our party. The room has light aroma of aged vinegar and ume (Japanese plum), which dresses a selection of tiny cuttlefish and spring vegetables set off by a side of rape plant sprigs, Haruko (tiny toffee’d fish), bamboo shoot, lightly poached octopus tentacle, mountain yam and a garnish of freshly picked sakura (cherry blossom).
Next course is a perfectly sliced plate of sashimi featuring firm almost crunchy textured Tai (snapper), melt in the mouth maguro (tuna) and a medium textured hamachi (kingfish). Although we are inland it’s as though we are at a seaside fishing village showing off the local catch.
Starting to feel a little uncomfortable on the floor but distracted by a swift course change to some poached eel wrapped around egg yolks in a small bowl of dashi. Fresh peas and some sticky rice wrapped in a lightly pickled tea leaf complete the dish.
The pain now welling in my left hip and shooting down my leg is offset by the arrival of some crisp renkon (lotus root) that arrived with sake (salted salmon). Momentarily I ignore the pain as I enjoy the lightly dressed accompaniments of spring vegetables on the side. Maybe I should self prescribe some alcoholic beverages to help ward off the pain.
OK the pain is really starting to set in now but my all time favourite dish is set down in front of me – chawan mushi. This just set custard has tiny puddle of caramelised yuzu juice and foie gras sitting proud in the chawan (dish). A superficial dip of the spoon reveals a generous portion of sea urchin roe that starts the head spinning. Not sure if it considered rude to lick the bowl in Japan but what the heck, Gaijin tend to get away with anything.
Soon after the chawan is whisked away, a selection cuttlefish, sea scallops and cucumber arrive in a vinaigrette style dressing enhanced with ume and cherry blossom. A light refreshing dish to cleanse the palate after the slight creaminess of the chawan mushi.
The arrival of white rice enhanced with spring tea leaves, tsukemono (pickles) and miso soup herald the traditional end to drinking (also heralding the return of the pain in my left hip). Tsukemono are a magical thing, they are crisp, lightly acidic and salty all at once and refocus the palate to enjoy the simple pleasure of perfectly cooked rice and a heady aka miso soup.
Dessert isn’t something as westerners associate with Japanese cuisine but rest assured the Japanese are mad about the stuff. Soon a tiny plate of kiwi fruit, orange infused agar jelly and matcha cheesecake arrive. The matcha cheesecake is a mind-blowing combination of slightly sweetened cream cheese and fragrant yet lightly bitter matcha. Not surprisingly this is excellent as we are in the matcha growing capital of the world. The agar jelly has a crunch and bitterness to offset the cheesecake and the sweetest kiwi fruit I have ever tasted.
As I sip my houjicha I have only two concerns:
- Will I ever walk again without a limp and
- How will I ever find my shoes amongst the 100’s of pairs in the foyer.
I discover Kaiseki is a reflection of life. It’s about pleasure and pain, it’s about eating in tune with the seasons but most of all its about enjoying the myriad of foods from the mountains, the earth, the sky and the sea.