It was like falling in love. Lyrics to songs make sense, descriptions of seeing god seem real. I was blind and now I can see. And I never wanted to close my eyes again.
We’re in Soujuan in Keio Plaza Hotel, Tokyo, exploring the wonders of kaiseki. Kaiseki is the pinnacle of traditional Japanese cuisine. It is, executive chef Eiki Sasaki tells me, a celebration of the seasons, of nature and, the role of the human in growing and preparing the gifts of our planet.
I’ve snuck in before our meal to watch him work. In karate, kata (a slow, sure and choreographed pattern of actions) is practiced as a way to memorise and perfect the movement being executed. Watching Sasaki at work, his thirty plus years of training, of waking at four in the morning, of his ongoing study of nature and different ingredients, they are evident in the precision of each his movements.
Here, the ingredients, the preparation, the execution and the presentation of a meal, is an art form.
The Japanese will soon be celebrating Hina-masturi, or Girls’ Doll Festival and Sasaki has composed (for it IS a symphony) an array of dishes to honour the female.
There are seven of us eating together, all women, four from Australia, three from Japan. And we cross the cultural divide amid squeals of delight as each new dish appears.
Each piece of crockery has been specially chosen by Sasaki to complement the season and the ingredients. And it’s all so pretty that when a dish arrives we sit in silence, arms raised over heads, cameras aloft, searching for each dish’s best angle.
Sasaki smiles when I ask what he thinks of people photographing their food. It is important to appreciate with the eyes as well as the mouth, he says, and a little promotion never goes astray either.
When we eventually tuck in we discover flavours, textures and ingredients we have never encountered before and marvel at how Sasaki has raised something so seemingly common to a place of near worship.
The young peach, the simmered pumpkin, the glistening orange slice are not new to us, but one bite in and we are shocked by flavours we’ve never before known.
But it was a simple homemade sesame tofu that broke me. All other tofu will be inferior to it and each mouthful was an acknowledgement that life, like this dish, will not last forever.
Each bite takes you to where the soybean is grown, the soil it is grown in, and the man who makes it sing.
I leave the restaurant with a heavy heart. It is like having been shown heaven only to be told I can’t stay. And I think of that old cliche and wonder if it really is better to have loved and lost than to have never had Sasaki’s homemade sesame tofu at all.
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