January Wanmono

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The wanmono 椀物 course of a kaiseki meal is a seasonal offering served in a lidded dish, called a ‘wan’. The following is a translation of the description of Gion Sasaki‘s wanmono course for January.

Milt Tofu – Mock Mochi

For Chef Hisashi Sasaki, his wanmono soup course starts with the preparation of the dashi soup stock, using konbu and katsuo (bonito). The night before, the konbu is placed in water and left overnight to steep. In the morning, the konbu is removed and the stock is heated until just before boiling point, then a generous amount of shaved bonito flakes are added, which gives off a wonderful aroma. Ascertaining just when the dashi is ready is quite nerve-wracking but once that moment is decided you breathe a great sigh of relief.

Being the New Year, January is a celebratory season. So, what should be put in the wanmono course to reflect this? New Year is traditionally marked in Japan by eating ozōni, a soup containing mochi rice cakes and vegetables. In the Kantō area the soup has rectangular cut mochi, but in the Kansai area the mochi is round.

Instead of using conventional mochi, Chef Sasaki chooses a special ingredient that appears to be mochi but is culinary trompe-l’oeil. Milt. Cod milt, which can be made to resemble tofu, is prepared as a substitute for mochi. After carefully kneading the milt into shape, it is very lightly charred so that it looked like grilled mochi.

First the milt-tofu is placed into the bowl, then local Kyoto carrots and young winter greens are added, before pouring the dashi into the bowl. As an auspicious token, gold leaf is added as a finishing touch.

The lacquer bowl has a motif of camellias, anticipating the spring. Usually the wan bowls at Gion Sasaki have the decoration on the inside of the bowl. However, for January only, this gorgeous bowl, with the pattern of camellias on the outside, is chosen instead.

The lid is lifted. The aroma of the dashi escapes as soon as the lid is lifted and tickles the nostrils. At first, just the dashi is tasted. The clean taste and the richness of the dashi slides easily down the throat. Next, the milt tofu is eaten along with the dashi, which really brings out the full impact of the umami. And yet when you’ve finished everything, you still left with such a sense of lightness.

Every month, Chef Sasaki considers the menu from the perspective of the wan bowl itself. To the extent that “if the wan bowl isn’t a perfect fit for that season, then the feeling of the whole dish is ruined,” Chef Sasaki always takes time to carefully reflect upon which will be the most appropriate bowl for that month.

Actually, when he first became independent seventeen years ago, Chef Sasaki wasn’t able to serve a wan course at all because he hadn’t yet collected any bowls. Gradually he built up a collection of six bowls and from that time the wan bowl has been an important focus of his thinking in preparing his cuisine. “Although there just twelve months in a year, in Japan we further divide the year into 24 distinct seasons, so I thought I’d better collect 24 different wan bowls!” So over the course of a few years, with the help of some well-known antique and curio dealers, Chef Sasaki was able to build up his unique collection of bowls.

From this we can gain a sense of the deep connection between Japanese cuisine, which is so quintessentially aligned with a sense of the changing seasons, and the dignified commitment Chef Sasaki has to that ideal.

Gion Sasaki is considered one of the most difficult restaurants to get a reservation in Kyoto. Located in an iconic machiya in Gion, the head chef and owner, Hiroshi Sasaki, believes not only in offering the most exquisite kaiseki menu, but to provide a complete dining experience for the sixteen customers who sit at his counter, which he refers to as “Sasaki Theatre”.

 

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