Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Just a Few Days Left

New things Japanese keep coming at me. The other night I was treated to my first tea ceremony by my new friends, the young professional couple. They kindly invited me to their house where they have modified one of the rooms in their house to be a tea ceremony tea room. They have raised the floor and placed tatami mats to the exact specification of a tea room and then placed the burner in the traditional placement for the tea ceremony.

I took this all in while appreciating that my new friends are very dedicated to learning and preserving their culture. I didn't use the term, Japanese Culture, because my friends are so involved with the various arts and so informative with regard to these arts that the art and culture of their country is actually theirs. They have been tremendous ambassadors while sharing information and instructing this foreigner in the ways of their culture.

I had read about the tea ceremony and seen short documentaries on the procedure but I learned a number of new elements with regard to the performance of a tea ceremony thanks to my friends.

Both members of this couple were again dressed in kimono which made the experience that much more authentic. I learned that the gentleman's kimono had belonged to his great grandfather and was over a hundred years old. It had been reworked and material from a second matching outer kimono had been used to enlarge the garment because Japanese men are larger now than they were a hundred years ago. The lady's kimono had belonged to her grandmother and had bright colors that showed no signs of being from long ago. They informed me about the techniques used to re-work and re-dye the silk in older kimonos so that they could be re-newed for use by younger members of the family.

They placed me in the seat of the most honored guest and presented me with a choice of sweets. This is to replicate the experience of have a tea ceremony after having eaten a Japanese Kaiseki (formal meal of simple tasty dishes) meal that concludes with a sweet. This was an aspect of the ceremony I didn't know.

My host, the gentleman hosted first, stepped to his position and kneeled before the burner with the pot of hot water, bowed and then began his preparations. These involved the proper placement of the utensils and then the symbolic cleaning of the utensils. For this he produced a dark purple silk cloth from his sleeve to wipe the bowl and scoop. Then he explained that he was going to make and serve thick tea. I'd not heard of thick tea so I watched as my host scooped a great amount of tea powder from the tea jar then added a small amount of water. He stirred the mixture to a thick but runny paste. For thick tea, the bowl is placed in front of the most honored guest first (there may be more than one guest but one is the most honored guest) with the central design on the bowl facing the guest. The bowl is picked up with the right hand and placed on the flattened palm of the left hand. The guest then bows to his host and admires the design on the bowl.

Next, the guest turns the bowl about a quarter turn on the palm of the left hand and brings the bowl to the mouth and takes a drink. After the drink the guest wipes the edge of the bowl, spins it on the left hand so that the central design on the bowl faces the next guest and places the bowl in front of the next guest. Thick tea is shared by all guests from the same bowl. Once the last guest has had a drink the bowl is returned to the host. The host cleans the bowl and places all the utensils back to their starting point.

The host then begins to serve thin tea. In our case we had a change of host and the young lady began to serve the thin tea. The ceremony she would perform is what I had seen before. I was offered an additional sweet. This time it was a small hard sugar candy that wasn't really hard. Once placed in the mouth and crushed, the sweet dissolved almost instantly. It is a very finely ground cane sugar pressed into different molds to produce small treats.

Our new hostess stepped to the burner and bowed then produced a red silk cloth to clean the utensils. It turns out than men use dark colors like purple when they are host and women use red, yellow or orange cloths.

She used a different tea jar because we were going to have a different type of tea, this time, macha. The jar was a small polished black enamel jar with bright gold inlay in the shape of stems and leaves. Bright materials yet the one small flower of the plant in the design was an inlay of mother-of-pearl and it shone out like the only star in the sky on a dark, dark night.

My hostess scooped a smaller amount of tea into a new bowl. They explained after that for thick tea a bowl with steep sides is used but for thin tea a bowl with more curvature, more roundness is preferred. She then scooped in hot water and placed the scoop on the open top if the water container on the burner (there is a second water container holding water used to replenish the container on the burner). Next she took the whisk and whisked the tea in the bowl creating the frothy top that you may have seen in pictures of tea ceremonies.

The bowl is placed in a similar manner with the bowls design facing the receiver and it is picked up the same way. The guest bows to the hostess as before then lifts the bowl to the lips but now things change. The guest drinks the tea in three sips. I had had this explained before but this time I was told something new. On the last sip when you finish the tea you are supposed to suck in the foam that remains on the side of the bowl. It is a sign to everyone that you have finished.

You then return the bowl to a place in front of the hostess with the design facing toward the hostess. The hostess starts the process over again, preparing a bowl of tea for the next guest. These steps are repeated until all the guests have been served a bowl of tea. Interesting fact I didn't know is the hostess or host does not prepare a bowl for themselves.

I felt bad that the young lady of the couple wasn't going to get a bowl of thin tea and then my two hosts asked me if I would like to try and prepare a bowl of thin tea. Indeed I did want to attempt the task. My hosts guided me through the steps and I learned more of the process. For example, when you scoop the water from the pot you only pour half the scoop into the bowl. When you whisk the tea you use your wrist and the term is tateru, to make stand. In this case you are making the bubbles stand on top of the liquid. After you whisk the tea you return the whisk to its position, centered. There is a small black tassel on the whisk that when facing forward means the whisk is centered.

The bowl I prepared I served to the young hostess so she was able to drink thin tea. I was relieved. They told me that the whole process should take just under and hour and in this case it did even with me blundering my way through one session as the host.

I asked them, what if on a Saturday afternoon you felt like having a cup of tea, since you have a tea ceremony room do you go through this process? They said no it wasn't necessary for all tea drinking. Using hot water with the tea in a rounded coffee mug or bowl would suffice but the whisking makes the tea taste better and adds a touch of the formality. They then presented me with a gift, a small container of tea, some bamboo sticks for eating sweets and a bamboo whisk. Now I can prepare green tea for my girlfriend when I get home.

I'm sure I've forgotten many of the things I was told but I think you may get a feel of the ceremony from what I have described. There is a link to a website with more information regarding the tea ceremony on my author page at my publisher's website, www.pensmithbooks.com.

It was time to head out for dinner and as I was putting my shoes on I noticed a flower arrangement on a ledge in the entry. My friend saw me looking and commented that this was an example of Ikebana (Japanese Flower Arranging). I asked if his wife had prepared it and he said that no, he had done it. His mother had been a teacher of ikebana and he had always been exposed to the art in his home. He had not been formally trained yet here was another example of my friends making the Japanese arts a part of their personal culture.

We went for Teppanyaki to a restaurant where the boyfriend of my young friend from La Rochelle works. I've written in a previous blog about Teppanyaki and this was similar in that it was a serious presentation of culinary style. The food was different but equally tasty.

The appetizer had three components. A small block of tuna on some micro greens with a small dollop of wasabi on top. A nice tasty starter. Then a shot glass filled with a foam of carrot and apple pure. A nice sweet palate cleansing taste. Third was a small chawanmushi (savory custard) that had small disks of mozzarella cheese. The texture change from the velvety custard to the firm yet soft cheese was very entertaining and delicious.

Next course was a shrimp tartare. The minced shrimp meat was placed on a small, raised edged block of wood. On the right side of the wood surface were seven lines of condiments, spicy sour cream, chizu paste, very small roasted rice balls, thinly sliced chives and so on. A small paddle about 2 cm (3/4 inch) wide was used to scoop up the shrimp paste and some of the condiments then a quick dip in a bowl of dipping sauce before you ate it. Every bite different, every bite delicious. When I saw the words 'Shrimp Tartare' on the menu I couldn't wait to see the presentation and check out the flavor. I'm betting you won't find shrimp tartare on many menus in North America any time soon but if you do then order it, no questions asked. It's a tasty and not too adventuresome experience. The flavor is mild so the adventure is in the anticipation of experiencing something you would never have thought of.

As in my previous Teppanyaki meal a salad was served but this one was unique. A glass tumbler filled with a slice of cucumber, stalks of endive, strips of radicchio and one or two other young lettuces served beside a ceramic bowl over a small flame burner. Inside the bowl was Kane Miso. Kane is the Japanese word for crab and I've mentioned miso before in the context of miso soup or miso flavored chankonabe but when the word miso is used with crab it means crab brains. In this case a slightly thickened broth of crab brains. The way to eat it is to dip the vegetables into the broth and munch them down. Crab brains have a very mild mouth filling flavor. It's possible there were some mushrooms in the thick broth because I was reminded of the musky flavors of mushrooms as I ate the crab brains. Crab brains should go on your list of foods to eat when ever possible.

The main course was 40 day dry aged beef cooked medium rare. Tender, juicy and an abundant portion. On the side, a small bowl of mashed potatoes with a touch of horse radish, a drizzle of demi-glace was served. Stirred together it was smooth and rich with the occasional hit of zing of the horse radish. I could have eaten a much more abundant portion of the potatoes but we North Americans over eat potatoes to a large degree so I chose to tell myself I was satisfied by the amount I ate while I craving more.

Finally the rice course, and this chef's version was out of this world. First he browned very finely diced garlic in oil and moved them off to the side. Then in the spot where he had fried the garlic he fried the rice to which he added a good amount of freshly gated white pepper. On another spot of the teppan he poured some demi-glace that he allowed to thicken for a few seconds after which he scooped the sauce up to drizzled it over the rice. The rice was mixed then portioned into bowls and topped with the browned garlic. But it wasn't finished yet. The chef then took the top off a bowl he had waiting to the side and scooped out a large scoop of reddish looking pellets. These went on top of the rice. The pellets were pellets of raw frozen beef. We were instructed to stir the garlic and beef pellets into the rice where it would be warmed and partially cooked. Unbelievable flavor. The warm garlic, the taste of good beef, the slightly sticky texture of the rice and all tied together by the distinct flavor of fresh white pepper. My taste buds didn't know whether to dance, sing or shout halleighluia.

Afterwards we were escorted to the lounge to have dessert and coffee.

It was a day of greats. Great friends, a great learning experience to add to my base of Japanese knowledge and a great meal. Many thanks to those who made it possible.

On the writing front, my editor returned my manuscript with his input the other day. It's up to me now to go through the manuscript to consider the changes he is recommending. At first glance there are a tremendous number of punctuation corrections that will certainly be accepted. Comas and there placement baffle me. Where I think they aid in the flow of reading doesn't seem to agree with convention so I apologize to all of you for what I have been subjecting you to while you read this blog. Cormac McCarthy has the right idea when it comes to punctuation. He only uses periods. Everybody knows where they go and he does it expertly. It takes a few pages to realize what's missing but then you don't notice it and he's such a good writer that the meaning of the words and thoughts come through with out needing the punctuation. He writes long sentences but you don't lose your train of thought as you read through them.

I should be through my run through of my manuscript in a week or two then its back to the editor for any final discussions. Once we get past that it's all technical activities. Formatting for the print service, cover creation then into product availability. I'll have an excerpt from my new novel available on my author page at my publisher's website, www.pensmithbooks.com in about two weeks.

Novel number three is moving along at a pace I'm happy with right now as well. Developing characters and arranging events to support a plot are difficult but rewarding. This most creative stage of writing a book is also the most enjoyable. Time flies because you brain is so busy, yet you don't notice the rapid escape of time when you are controlling this small universe of a story within your head.

I loaded a picture or two of my tea ceremony experience on the right side of the blog page at www.Zonajin.blogspot.com. If you read this blog at a different site you will have to go there to see the pictures.

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