‘Kaiseki’: Japanese haute cuisine
News about the resignation of the Japanese prime minister focused on an accounting of his administration (the longest on record). Then there was mention of “ulcerative colitis,” an incurable bowel disease that can be debilitating and even embarrassing for someone so prominent, making Abe’s resignation doubly gut-wrenching. (How come Inquirer editors follow the Asian order of surname before first name in stories about China’s Xi Jinping or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, but reverse it for Shinzo Abe who, in Japanese fashion, should be Abe Shinzo?)
I met Mr. Abe four times: in Manila in 2007, and in Tokyo in 2015, 2016, and 2018. A visit to the Kantei, which serves as both the Japanese prime minister’s office and official residence, is an experience. It is a modern complex grand in proportion, with a judicious use of granite, glass, and steel designed to make first-time visitors feel small in the corridors of power. My first impression of the Kantei? It had the feel of an airport.
In contrast to the Kantei, the prime minister’s residence, Sorei Kotei, is more human in scale. Having been invited to dinner twice, I found the dining room formal yet intimate, with art deco elements preserved from the original 1929 building inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel (1923). Mr. Abe will not remember me, a lower-ranking guest seated six places from him. Protocol determines your proximity to power in this setting, and luckily I was not banished to the farthest end. In the Philippine setting, the ends of the table or the “kabisera” (from the Spanish cabeza or head), are reserved for the head of the household or the oldest person. The “Noli” depicts the contest between Father Damaso and Father Sibyla over it.
A multi-course dinner or kaiseki at the residence of a Japanese ambassador is part of cultural diplomacy, and some of the memorable meals in my life have been at the Jakarta residence hosted by Ishii Masafumi, and in Manila hosted by Urabe Toshinao and Haneda Koji. Each kaiseki course is a shameless display of skill, because the Japanese eat with their eyes. Black lacquer trays bring out the colors of the various bowls, plates, and saucers that contain artfully arranged food not limited to taste, but are complementary in texture, aroma, shape, and color. The sensory experience makes up for the small portions.
In 2016, Mr. Abe hosted a dinner for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the former president of Indonesia. I can’t share the table talk, but the menu was: “Terrine of Foie Gras with Mango. Sea bream Dumplings with Crab Sauce. Braised grouper with Kudzu Sauce and Soybean Curd with Yuzu Flavor. Taro, Carrot, Mushroom, Mizuno Green, Yuzu and Green pepper. Fried Balloon Fish. Fried Mountain Vegetable Kabosu Citrus. Salt with Sea-kelp. Halal Chicken with Hanbe Fu in Puff Pastry. Romanesco Broccoli and Glazed Carrots. Curry Udon Noodle. Assorted fresh Japanese fruits. Coffee or Tea. Wines—Ch. Mercian Nutsuru Chardonnay 2013 and Izutsu Wine Nao Merlot Barrel 2012.”
Substitutions were made for some courses of the Indonesian guests who toasted with fruit juice rather than sparkling wine. In 2018, a dinner for then Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was a full Japanese spread:
“Appetizer: Soy milk Tofu with sea urchin. Boiled vegetables cold style taro, squash, okra, taro stem, winter melon, carrot. Grilled cutlass fish. Rolled Burdock. Simmered eel with Sanshou pepper. Small Crab meat sushi. Egg cake and friend red pepper with dumpling.
“Sashimi: Hata grouper, Chu-toro, prawn and yellow jack.
“Steamed: Red snapper and vegetables with crab meat sauce and grated lotus root.
“Grilled: Japanese spiny lobster with Miso and cheese. Brandy flavored Japanese beef teriyaki with garnish of grilled white asparagus.
“Rice: Steamed Japanese Rice with Corn and Edamame served with Miso soup and pickles.
“Dessert: Assorted fresh Japanese fruits.
“Wines: Takahata Zodiaque Chardonnay 2015, Solaris Shinshu Komoro Merlot 2014, and ‘Sake Eisen (Fukushima).’”
Such a meal can still be had in Tokyo for about $1,000 or more, without drinks. I won’t even try unless I am hosted by someone with a fat expense account. Besides, the two haute cuisine dinners at the residence of the Japanese prime minister, as part of public diplomacy, was probably already a sampling of the best ingredients and cuisine in Japan.
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