Friday, January 28, 2011

Japanese Castles, Life at Court and Chawan-Mushi silky custard


Snow, snow and more snow.  Why is it that this weather drives me into my imagination???  What better way to indulge an inner dreamscape than to watch Leonardo diCaprio in Inception. One of the brilliant things about the movie was the use of an architect’s dreamscape -- the film’s Designer Guy Dyas had lived in Japan and made a 60’ architecture scroll for the director (referencing Wright and Mackintosh among others) to provide the setting for an ex-architect’s dream construct… wonky but right. Let’s not forget, dreams can lead to creative breakthroughs in the real world – the film’s director, Christopher Nolan, had been dreaming of Inception since he was 12!

Inception’s homage to the golden rooms at Kyoto’s 17th century Ninomaru Palace set me off in a reverie about the palace and Nijo castle … a place I had visited a million years ago.

I have such a clear memory of those golden rooms and the smell of ancient cedar, but also of the "nightingale floors" (uguisubari) … and the delicate sound of a thousand chirping wooden flutes that came with each step in the corridors surrounding the Tokugawa’s rooms. To warn against assassins, intruders or even to ward off being surprised while sporting with a mistress or wife, the sounds were the gentlest alarms imaginable.

I am not alone in getting pleasure from this kind of reflection -- escaping into lost pasts and places has been done forever.  Six hundred years before Ninomaru Palace was even built, Lady Sarashina (born 1008CE) wrote Sarashina Nikki, one of the most famous books of Japan's golden Heian period (794-1185).  I discovered that her guilty pleasure came from reading tales and dreaming of living a romantic life like those in The Tale of Genji (finished by 1021).  She went so far as to posit that she could have been more spiritually fulfilled (a deeper sense of mono-no-aware – meaning poignant feelings and awareness of things) had she spent less time with her fantasies.  Strange, since it was those fantasies and her travel diary, Sarashina Nikki, that made her immortal and set her in the pantheon of great women writers of the glorious Heian age in Japan (Heian means peace and tranquility in Japanese).

That their work has been celebrated while the writing of the men of the period disappeared came in a lucky twist of fate.  “The Japanese writing system began to incorporate its own phonetic alphabets. Hiragana and katakana replaced the use of Chinese characters to represent some spoken words for which no kanji, Chinese character, existed. Women of aristocratic families began to use the new writing system, as they were not trained in Chinese like their male counterparts. As a result much of the literature written in Chinese by male writers of the Heian has been forgotten, while the writings of the supposedly less educated women, who could only write in their native script, have become some of the most famous works of literature in the world today.”

The golden Heian Period was also the height of the Fujiwara Age.  The Fujiwaras were a powerful family of regents who ruled for the emperor, leaving the nobility free to pursue a rarified aesthetic life. “So secure and beautiful was their world that they could not conceive of Paradise as being much different.”  Can you imagine?  But even these powerful regents had the souls of poets, Fujiwara no Michinaga wrote of his formidable position (albeit reflecting his relationship to the moon and not the sun--- a relationship reserved for the emperors) in his diary in 1018 AD:

This world, I think,

Is indeed my world.

Like the full moon I shine,

Uncovered by any cloud.

For women it was something of a paradise… they were educated, their voices were heard and their ideal man wrote poetry every day (and the ideal man quickly sent a "next morning letter" to the woman he romanced the night before reflecting their glorious time together) as we see in a passage from Tale of Genji:

“Being of an adventurous nature, he has still not married, and now at dawn he returns to his bachelor quarters, having spent the night in some amorous adventure. Though he still looks sleepy, he immediately draws his inkstone to him and, after having carefully rubbed some ink on it, starts to write his next-morning letter. He does not let his brush run down the paper in a careless scrawl, but puts himself heart and soul into the calligraphy. What a charming figure he makes as he sits there by himself in an easy posture, with his robe falling slightly open! It is a plain unlined robe of pure white, and over it he wears a cloak of yellow rose or crimson. As he finishes his letter, he notices that the white robe is still damp from the dew, and for a while he gazes at it fondly”

It is also during this period that Sei Shōnagon wrote the famous Pillow Book  --  a journal of the comings and goings at court and full of brilliant insights as well as humor and a good deal of cattiness.  It is a diary that anyone today can relate to.

Tale of Genji, calligraphy

You've probably figured by now that the most famous writing of the day came from Murisaki Shikibu’s Tales of Genji.  Various contemporary (as in turn of the second millennium) diaries are full of excitement about reading Tales of Genji… it was a real scroll-turner. It is considered the first novel and was written about the same time as the English Beowulf.  Needless to say it is incredibly sophisticated by comparison and reads like a modern romance full of love, sex (the hero did sleep with his stepmother who bore his son and passed him off as the Emperor’s own) and rousing adventure with the hero, prince Genji -- described as the most handsome man in the world and nicknamed "The Shining Prince".  Her own diary,  Murasaki Shikibu Nikki  is much like The Pillow Book, full of court gossip, sniping (she did not like the author of The Pillow Book at all) and intrigue and much talk of what was worn (good and bad- she was hyper-critical).  

The Rozanji Temple (built 978) was moved to her family’s estate and a tile from her original house (that was destroyed) is at the temple.  She is still much admired and emulated in Japan.  A thousand years after she wrote Tales of Genji people flock here to pay homage to her.

So, you all are wondering, how did they eat????

Naomichi Ishige, in his book, The History and Culture of Japanese Food  said that chopsticks came to Japan with rice in the 5th century.  By the Heian period, food was eaten with hands, chopsticks and spoons on individual lacquered-legged tables called zen in high society.  During large meals more than one table would be deployed per person for different courses.

 “The 10th and 11th centuries marked a level of refinement of cooking and etiquette found in the culture of the Heian nobility…. Court banquets were common and lavish; garb for nobility during these events remained in the Chinese style which differentiated them from the plain clothes of commoners.” 

Some fashions were odd by today’s standards.  Woman dyed their teeth black, shaved their eyebrows and softly re-painted them an inch higher, wore their hair straight and a yard or more long and had lips  painted like red flower buds.  They also wore 12 layers of clothing (the naked human form was considered very ugly) with colors and patterns that changed with the seasons… they were very beautiful robes by any standard.  A sumptuary law in 1074 reduced the layers to 5! A froth of fall silks must have looked like a celestial forest of fall leaves with its layers and patterns.

Men often shaved their eyebrows and repainted them as well. Although they sometimes did wear tiny moustaches and beards, they shaved the rest of their faces and wore their hair up.

What did they eat?  Emperor Temmu (631-686) in A.D. 675 banned meat eating and so it remained in the Heian period.  The diet consisted mostly of fish, grains and vegetables and very little fat was used.  In fact most oil was considered distasteful save for very expensive sesame oil that was used sparingly.

Ishige also wrote,  “Documents from the Heian nobility note that fish and wild fowl were common on the table along with vegetables. Their banquet settings consisted of a bowl of rice and soup, along with chopsticks, a spoon, and three seasonings which were salt, vinegar and hishio, which was a fermentation of soybeans, rice, wheat, sake and salt. A fourth plate was present for mixing the seasonings to desired flavor for dipping the food. The four types of food present at a banquet consisted of dried foods (himono), fresh foods (namamono), fermented or dressed food (kubotsuki), and desserts (kashi). Dried fish and fowl were thinly sliced (e.g. salted salmon, pheasant, steamed and dried abalone, dried and grilled octopus), while fresh fish, shellfish and fowl were sliced raw in vinegar sauce or grilled (e.g. carp, sea bream, salmon, trout, pheasant). Kubotsuki consisted of small balls of fermented sea squirt, fish or giblets along with jellyfish and aemono. Desserts would have included Chinese cakes, and a variety of fruits and nuts including pine nuts, dried chestnuts, acorns, jujube, pomegranate, peach, apricot, persimmon and citrus. The meal would be ended with sake.”

In The Book of Miso, William Shurtleff, Akiko Aoyagi  reported, "In the epics of the Heian period, such as the Tale of Genji and Konjaku Monogatari, are found descriptions of all-night parties held by the court nobility in the Imperial palace.  A typical dinner consisted of seven courses, each served consecutively on separate trays.  Popular foods included abalone miso and red-snapper hishio, uri melons and eggplants picked in miso, and red snapper, carp or other sea foods lightly marinated with  miso sauces.  Both hishio and miso were also apparently widely used as table seasonings.  Among the palace women, miso was known as ko meaning "fragrance or incense" or higurashi meaning " a clear-toned summer cicada" whose song is said to be able to penetrate even the hardest stone.  Likewise the rich fragrance and fine flavor of miso were said to penetrate and season other foods.  For this reason, in the Kyoto area miso is still occasionally called mushi or bamushi meaning " insect or honorable insect".

Yusoku-ryori, an incredibly sophisticated seasonal cuisine that emphasizes all the senses is still practiced and is considered the haute cuisine of Japan… it was born in the Heian court and its strict rules come from that time.  A meal at the famous  Ryotei Kikunoi (you can see a meal presentation HERE) or 200 year old Mankamero will set you back hundreds of dollars but this style of restaurant is really where tasting menus were born and you'll get an idea of ancient Japanese cuisine when dining in these gorgeous places.

For me,  the months I spent in Japan were revelatory. Sadly, I have lost my ‘travel diary’ so I can’t share names with you… it was a long time ago.  The most extraordinary experience happened in Northern Japan where a journalist friend introduced me to a Living National treasure (人間国宝 Ningen Kokuhō) lacquer master.  I believe it was around Wajima.  His family had been making black and red lacquer for hundreds of years. 

I toured his workrooms and saw an ancient artisan painting faceted bowls that were carved so thinly that one could bend them before they were lacquered. Ancient wooden plugs were inserted in the bottom after the top was painted so they could dry on racks that were hundreds of years old (you can see this process HERE).  Then I was taken to a quiet, simply appointed room.  Various pieces of lacquerware were placed on presentation tables and I was to choose what I wanted to take. My price range had been discussed with my friend so no money was mentioned.  I choose 4 items and then was taken to lunch.  The items were beautifully packed when we returned.  And the lunch -- the lunch was sublime. 

We drove to an inn that overlooked a rocky, mossy creek and sat on a table that the lacquer-master’s great-great grandfather had made.  Some of the traditional lacquer dessert dishes had also been made by his great-great grandfather.  Both the table and the dishes had been worn (in the hundred odd years since they had been made) in such a way that the red lacquer layer and white clay layer had worn through creating a masterful sedimentary pattern… like modern art.  He shared an expression that has remained with me ever since… I cannot remember the Japanese for it but the English translation was “ time is the artist.”

The porcelain dishes used in the many courses were at least as old as the Meiji period (1868-1912) and they even used some Edo period (1602-1868) pieces.  All were chosen to compliment the food on the plate.  The most astonishing course was a Meiji dish with blue waves that had an edible roiling wave of white daikon ribbons, a violet sea of fish eggs and a shore of raw fish.  It was insanely beautiful as was the kimono of the server that was worth a king’s ransom (my friend told me later—it would have been rude to mention it at table).  She bent like a reed to serve with impeccable, impossible grace… I was astonished.

I thought I would share with you one of the dishes that I found so remarkable from that day and one that has been made in Japan for centuries… Chawan-Mushi (which means steamed in a tea cup).  It is a simple, briny custard of such innocent beauty… well, a swoon-worthy first mouthful will show you what I mean.  It is simple to make, and a comfort food to be sure.  You will forgive me (ごめんなさい-gomennasai)  for using an old Chinese stone bowl to make it… I don’t have the appropriate Japanese covered dish (you can’t steam lacquer)!!  My recipe is from Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz.  I have been using her Complete Book of Japanese Cooking for many years.

Chawan-Mushi, based on an Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz recipe serves 4

4 dried shitake or matsutake mushrooms (I got mine from Marx Foods)
pinch of sugar
8 small shrimp, split with shell
1 t sake
2 t light soy sauce
12-16 small spinach leaves
8 ginko nuts (optional)
3 eggs
2 cups dashi made from dashi granules (or stock/water flavored with Kombu seaweed -- it is the basis of umami!)
salt to taste

Soak mushrooms in warm water with sugar for 30 minutes.  Remove tough stems if necessary.

Put shrimp in stock for a few moments, then mushrooms.  Remove.  Add the spinach for 1 minute and remove… keep them warm

Stir the eggs to blend… do not beat…. They must not be foamy. 
Add to the stock with the soy and sake and combine gently.

Put a ginko nut at the bottom of each cup and pour the egg over them.  Cover each dish with foil (or lids if you have them) and put in a steamer rack over moderately boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes or until set with the lid of the steamer slightly ajar. Check them as temperatures vary... it is better to have the custard just set and not overdone.

Remove the foil (or lid), arrange the reserved shrimp and vegetables on the top of each one and serve. 

*you can change the ingredients as you will… I have used chicken, watercress and even steamed peas and shoots and it is always delicious.

Thanks to Gollum for hosting Foodie Friday!

At least Petunia loves the snow!


La Table De Nana said...

How interesting..and what a lovely presentation.I am always astounded at your Knowledge of so many things..of the time you take to prepare your posts..the research..the personal anecdotes.. Really ..well done!

Diane said...

What a great post and as I have never been to Japan is was a lovely tour with masses of interest. Are there any places in the world you have not been to?
Mmmm I love Japanese food. Diane

Erika Beth, the Messy Chef said...

Sounds like such a great time in Japan. I think I would be ok with 12 layers of fabric on right now with all this cold!

Unknown said...

I haven't seen inception, but your post makes me want to see it, and to visit Japan, and drink this soup!
*kisses* HH
p.s. I wonder if hubby would like it if i dyed my teeth black. Have u ever come across Monkey Brand tooth powder?
I tried it, and you can get an idea what you would look like ;) (its not pretty)

Barbara said...

Deana, you are truly a Renaissance woman! What a lovely post, with wonderful stories, personal experiences and books about Japan....and you have read them all! Very impressive. I have learned so much here today. Your eye to detail is so impressive.

We are fortunate to have the Morikami Museum and Gardens here in Boca. I have spent many happy hours and enjoying programs and exhibits(and food).
Sadly, I've never been to Japan. :(

Marjie said...

AT last, we see pictures of Petunia! My love of big dogs comes from a St. Bernard named Mohammed, who lived in an apartment down the way from us, and whose owner would let me walk him every day. So, Petunia in the snow made me smile.

Your shrimp dinner looks just wonderful, and thanks for the trip through Japan and her history!

El said...

What an enormous amount of research you did for this post. I learned a great deal so thank you. It's funny that they shaved their eyebrows. It looks like a few Hollywood types still do that based on their eyebrow shapes not found in nature! The dish you found actually looks really good. I'm a vegetarian so I may give it a try!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

Masterfully researched and presented once again, Deana! How wonderful that you were able to live in Japan for a time also. It makes your post even more interesting.

As much as I admire the beautiful grooming of Japanese men and woman of that period, I can't imagine painting your teeth black (or wearing 15 layers). It must have been awful for the menopausal women ;)

Mary Bergfeld said...

I love this type of post. You have seen the travelers Japan rather than that shown to the tourists. I appreciate the work that went into this. It is splendid. I hope you have a wonderful evening. Blessings...Mary

tasteofbeirut said...

Out of all your posts this one gripped me the most; as I know next to nothing about Japan I was mesmerized by the photos the stories the personal anecdote and of course the recipe. It is a world away, full of refinement and spirituality. Love how men used to write their notes the morning after. Painting one's teeth black and shaving eyebrows, well, look at the French and their wigs and their beauty marks (painted in strategic places to mean different things). Fascinating Deana, you did it again!

Jacqueline said...

This was absolutely fascinating. I loved reading everything, so much to take in. Imagine dressing like that. I now want to watch Inception again (really that movie takes a few times and then we really don't know!) Your dish is exquisitely presented. Thank you for sharing, this was delightful.

Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

Good morning dear friend and foodie! Not only is your perception of life, dance and the occasional moments of silence beautifully written on my page, your dance of historical treasures here is another feast. I was in Japan about 30 years ago, and savored the cuisine for two lovely weeks. Many temples were on my list to see, and I was fortunate enough to enjoy them. Next to French history and culture, I have to say the the Japanese culture and art, food and festivities are right up there on my love list! THank you Deana for your magic that you create, and your knowledge is softly translated into comprehensible prose for those of us not keen in history, but who love beauty, art and FOOOOOOOOOOD!

Kind regards dear friend, Anita

Ju (The Little Teochew) said...

Ahhhhh, Deana! Yes, I just realised we are neighbours on FG. :) And you did a post on JAPAN!! OMG ... how lovely. Your knowledge of things (all kinds!) is just amazing. I love chawanmushi very much and you most certainly made a most elegant version. Love the exquisite presentation!

Tasty Trix said...

To say that you are interesting is the most ridiculous understatement!!! I loved this post - how cool you got to live in Japan for a time; I would so love to visit there. One of these days. Black teeth ... it's all so fascinating how ideas of beauty are entirely cultural, isn't it? And of course the dish is utterly unique as always. And your pooch is soooo cute.

pierre said...

this shrimp dish is so delicate bravo Pierre

Sarah said...

Now, who is Petunia? Is she yours? I didn't know you had a pet! She is beautiful and great pictures. Another wonderful story that makes me want to try it.

2 Stews said...

I haven't been to Japan yet, but it is in my future, as it is in your past. Thanks for the whetting of the appetite. I just got a new Japanese cookbook and can't wait to delve in. Also, I've been exploring different umani....So much to try and see!! And your Chawan-Mushi could be next, it looks so warm, healthy and tasty. Just what I need right now. I wish I had your bowl to put it in. Lovely.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

What a great post Deana! I lived in Japan for a couple of years but had no idea about a lot of that information! Your chawan mushi looks delicious. When it is done well it is so ambroisial! :D

Fresh Local and Best said...

Inception is my favorite movie produced last year, and I was inspired as well with the Japanese scenes.

I've always affiliated Japanese cuisine with clean flavors. It's interesting that the cuisine always minimized fats, I wonder how that came about.

When I read about the fashions and make up style that people wore, I was taken aback, but realized that modern mainstream fashion can be odd today too. Perhaps we don't have black teeth, but I wonder what the Heian would have thought about the plastic surgery we have today.

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

You really do an amazing job of taking us on incredible journeys into the past. The shrimp dish looks lovely. I know so little about Japanese history and culture, but I am trying to learn more about the simplicity beauty of Asian cooking.

Faith said...

Another fascinating post! I'm also enthralled with Japanese cuisine/culture and I would love to visit someday...until then, I will make do with your lovely Chawan-Mushi!

Emily said...

Petunia is one cute dog and hopefully brings a smile to your face. It's incredible how you delve into such different periods, linking past and present so beautifully. I love Inception but had never thought back to the Pillow Book or Tales of Genji. Japanese culture fascinates me and I hope to visit the country myself one day but in the meantime you've given us a wonderful glimpse. Great recipe too!

Megan @ FeastingonArt said...

I could hardly wait to scroll to the bottom of the page to see what recipe you would make, you did not disappoint, so lovely.

Karen from Globetrotter Diaries said...

Gorgeous! Japan is a place I've been dying to go to. I love the Imperial architecture and art.. And I LOVE chawanmushi!! It's one of my favorite things to make and of course eat :) Forgiven-- the stone bowl is beautiful-- I want it!

Anonymous said...

A very informative post. Thank you for sharing this.

Stella said...

Hey Deana! Ooh, I love your dream world. I bet yours is so much more crispy clear than mine. I mean, since you're a history buff and all;-) And the Heian period is fascinating. From esteemed female writers (that was not how it was for women here or in Europe for a long time) to a no meat diet, all I can say is tell me more (smile).
Ooh, and your Chawan Mushi looks delicious-my kind of food;)!

Linda said...

Deana gorgeous son has spent time in Japan and is minoring in Japanese. I can not wait to show him your post!
I love to visit you!

Peter said...

Great post; those ceramics towards the end are wonderful. I solved the foamy egg thing (and getting a silkier texture to boot) by beating the eggs and stock thoroughly, straining them into a foodsaver container and pulling a vacuum. All the bubbles whoosh to the surface and the custard ends up mirror-smooth.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating for sure! I would love to go to Japan some day and learn more about their history and food, meanwhile perhaps I will watch that movie :) The Chawan-Mushi sounds incredible and it looks so perfect in that gorgeous cup!

Sue said...

Really inspiring post Deanna! I love your illustrations too - very evoking :-)

Magic of Spice said...

Such lovely writings and beautiful history...
This custard dish is truly remarkable, looks amazing :)