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Book Reflections – Untangling my Chopsticks by Victoria Abbot Riccardi

Cover of Untangling My Chopsticks

Cover of Untangling My Chopsticks

Victoria Abbott Riccardi wrote Untangling my Chopsticks – A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto after spending time in Kyoto learning how to prepare chakaiseki (tea kaiseki) with one of the three traditional tea houses in Kyoto. I read the book in preparation for our trip to Kyoto. The writing style is easy to read and Victoria does not big-note herself or inject herself unnecessarily into the account of her time in Kyoto. I was a little concerned when Victoria said that tea is grown on a plant related to the magnolia but as far as I can tell Camellia sinensis is not related to magnolia, so I’m unsure of how that ended up in the book and I hope that the editor did a more careful job of checking the veracity of other aspects of the book!

Victoria had always wanted to visit Japan after her grandmother regaled her about her annual travels to Asia. When her grandmother died her father gave her the motivation that she needed with the simple words:

The clock of life is wound just once.

In 1986, two years out of university and restless at her job with an ad agency, Victoria left New York to spend a year in Kyoto, where she lived for a few months with a progressive Japanese couple, the wife (Tomiko) taught English lessons from their western-style home. Tomiko and Victoria became firm friends. There was a great passage where the husband swam on New Year’s Day in an icy cold lake with his swimming group as part of an annual tradition. Victoria describes the participants entering the icy water silently and without the screams that would accompany such a pursuit in the west. I reflected on that observation more than once on our recent trip to Kyoto while observing quiet and discrete Japanese people interacting with great deference towards one another. Particularly I was stuck at Tokyo Disney where Japanese people queued quietly and orderly without the yobbishness and disorder that marks such gatherings in Australia.

Victoria attended an elite school devoted to the study of kaiseki, a highly ritualized form of cooking that accompanies the formal tea ceremony. From her adoptive “family” she learned about Japanese home cooking and Kyoto’s food markets. At the kaiseki school, she was introduced to an art form in which everything is symbolic, from the food and utensils to the colors of the guests’ kimonos. Immersion in Japanese cuisine taught her about the country’s history, culture and art as well as its cooking, so that even a meal in an ordinary restaurant left her feeling that she had “visited a museum, heard a fascinating lecture, opened several gorgeously wrapped gifts, and consumed the essence of spring in Kyoto.” In her delightful and unusual culinary memoir she includes 27 recipes. A few are for dishes she was served at a Zen temple, some are from kaiseki meals in which she participated and others are representative of everyday fare.

I enjoyed reading about Victoria’s culinary exploration of Kyoto, including

  • the awkward meal at the fancy restaurant near her home with a menu she couldn’t read and staff who couldn’t help but fortunately she was saved by knowing the names of 6 types of sushi,
  • her exploration of traditional food shops like rice and miso where she tried dozens of varieties of rice before selecting her favourite,
  • her tour of a supermarket with Tomiko who explained all of the mysterious ingredients to her,
  • her tip-off from other Guesthouse boarders that the massive food halls in department stores like Daimaru and Takashimaya offer free samples. Victoria sampled sweets, pickles, hot food served by waiters like at a cocktail party. Japanese women would taste the dish and buy some whereas Victoria would slink off to a different section to look for something more affordable. When we went to the Daimaru food hall we did try a few samples but there didn’t seem to be anywhere near as many on offer as Victoria described in 1986.

I also liked Victoria’s approach to life in Kyoto, preferring to slow down and explore alleyways to catch glimpses of the old Kyoto. During our 10 nights in Kyoto we stayed in a traditional townhouse (machiya) in a quiet neighborhood in Kyoto and by doing that we experienced more than the top sights. I liked this quote:

Most tourists who flock to Kyoto miss the city’s small back streets… With limited time, they hit the top ten temples, shrines, museums, and gardens, ticking them off like errands on a to-do list. But to truly feel the soul of the city, you need to tear yourself away from the bright lights and slip into the shadows where you’ll find the shops, homes, and people that embody the traditions and values of Kyoto’s elegant past.

Tea first came to Japan in the 6th century CE through Japanese Buddhist monks, scholars, warriors and merchants who travelled to China and brought with them back tea pressed into bricks. In 1191 CE Japanese Buddhist priest Eisai brought home fine-quality Chinese tea seeds and grew them on the grounds of several Kyoto temples. Following the traditional Chinese method, Japanese Zen monks would steam, dry, then grind the tiny green tea leaves into a fine powder (matcha) and whip it in boiling water to create a thick medicinal drink to simulate the senses during meditation. With time some monks became tea masters and began whipping green tea for the imperial court.

Matcha tea

Matcha tea

When guests attend a formal tea ceremony they usually receive a kaiseki meal to prepare their stomachs for the tea, which can be quite caustic. Similar to the French degustation meal there is a series of tiny exquisite dishes that change with the seasons. After these delicacies, the tea master serves each guest with a bowl of thick tea, followed by a bowl of thin tea. Sen no Rikyu, in the 16th century, is universally heralded as the most important tea master who ever lived. He studied Zen for decades at various temples and considered the tea ceremony as a spiritual and artistic communion with nature that should embody harmony, respect, purity and tranquility.

Tea house in Kyoto

Tea house in Kyoto

Rikyu wanted the tea-house to blend in with nature and become more of a backdrop for the tea ceremony. Over time, the teahouse became a simple hut set in a garden with mud and plaster walls, a thatched roof, a bamboo lattice ceiling, tatami mat floors and small paper-covered windows. Designed to resemble a mountain retreat, it became a sanctuary in the city where samurai, lowly merchants, and even the emperor could come together on equal footing and focus on the sensory pleasures of the tea ceremony, including the gentle bubbling of the tea water on the brazier, the seasonal flower arrangement in the alcove, and the smell of the incense chosen for the time of year. We had freshly whipped matcha tea at a few tea houses in Kyoto, kneeling on tatami mats, looking out onto contemplation gardens, and admiring the scroll and flowers in the alcove.

Rikyu had 3 grandsons who each founded a Kyoto tea school to carry on Rikyu’s unique art of tea. It is at the Mushanokoji school, founded by one of the grandsons, that Victoria learns how to prepare tea kaiseki meals. Every aspect of the teahouse is ritualised, from the delicate seasoning of the tea kaiseki meal so that it does not compete with the tea in flavour, to the lack of make-up and bright jewelery, to the colour and weight of the kimono, which should be subdued. The tea kaiseki dishes are highly creative, both visually and symbolically but use everyday temple food like miso, tofu and seasonal vegetables, and cooked using basic techniques. We did not get to participate in a tea kaiseki meal but I did have a restaurant kaiseki meal which was exquisite and used seasonal vegetables.

Entree of restaurant kaiseki meal

Entree of restaurant kaiseki meal

The fanciest grade of green tea in Japan is called gyokuro and is made from the newest leaves of the oldest tea bushes in the plantation that have been protected from the sun under a canopy. The leaves are either boiled in water or ground into a powder to make matcha, the thick tea served at a tea ceremony. The middle grade of green tea is called sencha and is made from unprotected young tea leaves. Everyday tea is bancha which consists of the large, coarse, unprotected leaves. When the leaves are roasted they can be combined with popped roasted brown rice to make genmaicha. I tried thin matcha and genmaicha in Kyoto and both were lovely. The matcha tastes less bitter than sencha and the genmaicha has a delightful smokey flavour.

Based on early Indian Buddhist practice, Japanese monks were allowed only two meals a day, breakfast and lunch. However, since the monks often engaged in physical labor, such as scrubbing floors and raking leaves, they became quite hungry toward what would normally be dinnertime. To trick themselves intro feeling full during evening meditations they often tucked hot stones into the front fold of their kimonos, the pocket-like area that forms when the left side folds over the right. These stones, which had been heated in piles of burning leaves and twigs and then wrapped in cloth, triggered the release of gastric juices when pressed against the stomach. This, in turn, brought about a sense of satiation. The monks called these stones yakuseki (literally, “medicine stone”).

Over time, the hot stones gave way to small dishes of simple vegetarian foods prepared in a minimalist manner, a bit of streamed rice, miso soup and some vegetables. This modest repast became known as yakuseki. The monks called it such because by considering this small meal “medicine,” they were healing the “illness” of hunger and, this, not opposing Buddha’s teachings. This eventually became the tea kaiseki meal served in teahouses.

Japanese gardens come in numerous styles including:

  • paradise gardens which are meant to evoke the Buddhist paradise through the use of water dotted with stone ‘islands’;
  • dry-landscape gardens which are usually tucked away in Zen temples and use dry pebbles and stones to create minimalist views for quiet contemplation;
  • stroll gardens which offer changing scenes with every step; and
  • tea gardens which provide a serene path from the external world to the spiritual one of the teahouse.

I fell in love with Japanese gardens and took many, many photos of them!

Stroll garden at kaiseki restaurant

Stroll garden at kaiseki restaurant

Other reviews:


7 comments on “Book Reflections – Untangling my Chopsticks by Victoria Abbot Riccardi

  1. Daniel
    April 26, 2014

    Sounds good, I’ll have to check that out

    • strivetoengage
      April 26, 2014

      Thanks Daniel. Have you been to Japan? I see from your blog that you do travel a lot…

      • Daniel
        April 26, 2014

        Yeah I actually grew up in Japan until I was 16. I love it and I am considering moving back

      • strivetoengage
        April 26, 2014

        I saw many things to love about Japan. How did you feel about always being a gaijin?

      • Daniel
        April 26, 2014

        Well, that’s what I’ve always been I guess. I find that if you speak Japanese, people you know will treat you the same. Of course people you don’t know treat you differently but you get used to that

  2. Alva
    May 14, 2014

    Great post.

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This entry was posted on April 26, 2014 by in Non-fiction and tagged , , , , , , , .
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