Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cooking to savor and reflect

Untangling my Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto by Victoria Abbott Riccardi

Ms. Riccardi writes a fun and entertaining memoir of her time spent studying tea kaiseki in Kyoto, Japan. Tea kaiseki is a specialized meal that accompanies Japan’s highly ritualized tea ceremony. Rife with subtle meaning and composed of seasonal foods, tea kaiseki is designed to bring the participants closer in communication with nature, and, as it comes from Buddhism, ultimately to attain enlightenment.

Riccardi loved Japan and had dreamed of going there as a child. After attending college and hating her job, Riccardi decides she needs a change and head out to fulfill her dream. She teaches English to make ends meet and pay for her expensive tea kaiseki classes. She is taken in by a lovely Japanese couple who give her the opportunity to participate in real Japanese life. She also encounters the good fortune of having an English-speaking classmate who translates all the tea kaiseki classes for her and allows her to help him create several tea kaiseki meals for the ceremonies he holds in his backyard tea house. Riccardi ultimately finds that tea kaiseki teaches her patience and the ability to savor the present moment, as well as the delight of longing for more.

I enjoyed reading this book, mostly because the subject matter fascinates me, as it is part of my cultural heritage. I would love to someday have the opportunity to study Japanese traditional arts -- especially flower arranging and pottery – and I hope to become good at cooking Japanese food. This book is wonderful because Ms. Riccardi includes several recipes at the end of each cooking session. I plan to re-create several of these soon.

An aspect of the book that I did not enjoy was that Ms. Riccardi described a few of the people who were so kind to her in rather unflattering terms. I found this to be ungrateful, -- regardless of how true these observations may have been -- and it seemed to me that she could have omitted this, or put a different spin on it. If I was one of these people, and happened to read her book, I would feel hurt.

All in all, it is worth reading if you love Japan, cooking, or enjoy reading ex-pat memoirs. 

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