Monday, November 24, 2008

From Fiction to Reality

I was intimidated by the idea of traveling to Japan. Japanese culture seemed so formal, steeped in tradition and foreign. I was mostly intimated by Japan’s food culture, as well as being utterly intrigued by its beauty and simplicity. After booking our airline tickets to Tokyo I began researching Japanese cuisine and etiquette. I found an incredible array of uniquely Japanese foods from udon to miso to mirin to wasabi to incredible varieties of pickled vegetables to thousands of fish and seafood dishes.

My Japan travel research led me to find a culinary class taught by Elizabeth Andoh in a suburb outside of Tokyo. I was struck by the types of classes she offered, such as how to read the packaging labels of fish from the Japanese markets, various ways to cook with burdock, and traditional Japanese dry rubbed pickling. I was lucky enough to get one of the last two seats in her Cooking Fish Workshop.

Tokyo is one of the most densely populated cities in the world with a large number of restaurants and homes with small kitchens. Possibly because of these two reasons it is a rare privilege to be invited to a Tokyo person’s home for a meal. Amazingly, the class was held at Elizabeth’s apartment! I was actually going to see the inside of a Japanese apartment! When I arrived to the class, Elizabeth greeted me enthusiastically and offered up a pair of house slippers. While waiting for the arrival of the other students I marveled at her modern Japanese kitchen, the view of Mt. Fuji, the traditional snacks and beverages offered, and the sparsely decorated formal tatami room, which doubled as the bedroom with the futon neatly tucked into a hidden panel.

During the next 5 hours I learned about the concept of Washoku, the “harmony of food” or the natural flavors of ingredients that are skillfully drawn out intentionally. I learned about balancing flavors in a meal in order to never leave you wanting more salt, sugar, bitter, sour or spicy. We prepared dishes that were grilled, steamed, blanched and raw. We learned why certain fish are gutted from tail to head, why some fish are best split in half, while others are left whole. She explained simple techniques to manipulate fish and seafood into thinking they were still in their natural environments of fresh or salt water in order to draw out their delicate flavors.

Using Elizabeth’s beautiful collection of ceramic dishes we tried to capture the 15 principles of a Japanese meal – color (red, yellow, green, black, white), flavor (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, spicy) and transformation (simmered, grilled, seared, steamed, raw). I looked at my beautifully set tray and couldn’t believe how much knowledge I had gained of not only Japanese food, but the Japanese mindset. When I thought the class couldn’t get better, Elizabeth graciously gave the whole class a tour of her home and the ingenious ways Tokyoites live. A cultural and cooking experience I will never forget.

This post has been entered into the Grantourismo and HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition.


Lara Dunston said...

Wonderful stuff! We'll be in Tokyo in about 10 days actually - last time we were there was 17 years ago (!) so might come back to you for some tips! ;) Thanks for entering the contest - good luck!

Sarah1978 said...

Thanks for your entry Anne, this really takes me to the little apartment with you. I love Japanese food and this definitely makes me want to got here and follow in your footsteps!