A die hard foodie discovers the secret to perfection in a far away land
As we prepared to travel to Japan, I had been asking myself, why do we want to travel so much? Is it to get away from life as we know it? The desire to meet the unfamiliar? To claim bragging rights of having visited a new place? A craving for wonder in a new place where the air smells different; where languages, sounds and voices are a tantalising mix of the familiar and unfamiliar; where tastes open you up to delights you never knew existed? Even as I wondered why this mattered so much, we geared up to get away to a culture more alien than any we had ever interacted with; with just a bit of apprehension about whether this, Atul’s first trip abroad, would live up to all the hype.
Eager to experience Japanese culture at close quarters, we had decided to give hospitality exchange a try. Research had led me to the wonderful global freeloaders site which in turn led me to Juan. With just a request via a message, we had a home to stay in Japan. The idea that someone could be willing to open up his home to complete strangers who he didn’t know existed, till just an email ago, simply out of love for genuine cultural exchanges and a desire to support travelers around the world, was humbling.
Our first meeting with Juan was an indication of what the rest of our time in Kyoto would be like. It is still one of my favourite memories of Japan – while we were still bundled up in the travel gear that we had worn across the world, the first thing Juan proposed was that we go eat dinner! And so, within hours of getting off the plane, we found ourselves gorging on Japanese food and getting drunk on copious amounts of hot sake with a generous stranger. What a fantastic way that was to arrive at a new place!
Our first platter of sushi in Japan. Check out the generous hunk of wasabi! The tuna was fantastic.
That night, in the thick of bone chilling winter, Juan and Yoshiko insisted we sleep in their warm bedroom while they slept on the floor, on makeshift beds, in an unheated room. Before we knew it, the strangers we were living with had seen us at our most dishevelled, argumentative, clumsy best; fed us, laughed with us and even offered to lend us warm shoes. The four of us soon settled into a wonderful routine – long rambling discussions that turned into debates against wine and sake-soaked cold nights; walks through the wet winding neighbourhoods in Kyoto; breakfasts of local fruit with fresh crusty bread, butter and honey; nightly Indian cooking sessions as we waxed lyrical about Japanese and Indian food. We were together for less than a week but it felt we knew each other better than most friends did. In a blink we had become more than friends.
During our stay in Kyoto, we made an excursion to Uji, a small historic town close by, for an incredible dinner organized by Juan’s students, who got a chance to practice their English on us. The dinner was cooked by a Geisha who journeyed all the way from Tokyo, foraged for wild vegetables and herbs in the surrounding hills that she then turned into sublime authentic Kyoto delicacies. From the caramelised fish in soy sauce to the okonomiyaki pancakes, crisp and sweet prawn & vegetable tempura, minuscule shrimp cooked with beans, sweet potatoes, yam, and the various kinds of wild greens; the 25 odd dishes that arrived at the table one after the other were beyond anything I could have hoped for. Hot steaming cups of the ceremoniously prepared hira-zake was an excellent accompaniment to this delicious fare – by this time, there was more sake than blood in our veins anyway!
Hira-zake – dried, char-grilled fins of the famously toxic fugu fish, seeping in the hot glass of flamed sake.
The food was out of the word, but the best part about the meal was the company. Mostly above 50, curious, chatty and effervescent, this was a very different group from what I had imagined ‘students’ to be. There was a whole lot of talking – much of it, all at the same time. Enthusiasm firmly undeterred by the entangling of accents, expressions and gestures, our endless chatter collapsed into giggles as the evening moved into a haze of sake, food, sake, more food and more sake.
The beautiful, painstaking marriage of simplicity and perfection we tasted in the Geisha’s food was apparent in everything we saw in Japan. Reflecting back on our delightful gastronomic experiences that lasted the length of the trip, I realized that all the food we’d eaten was assembled from a small set of ingredients – but in highly original ways and with a painstaking eye for detail. The simple earthenware that was used to serve the food was perfect in every line and texture. As Atul once pointed out, even the sewer covers were intricate in their detailed carvings of traditional scenes. Another unromantic symbol of the depth of detail that is Japanese was the much talked about toilets. Who but the Japanese would think of a button for music that would play the flush sound at will, politely obscuring forever those terribly embarrassing moments when everyone in the next room learnt far too much about your digestion.
I couldn’t help but wonder how they had managed to figure it all out. How was the sticky rice so perfect? What led them to discover sake? (yes being drunk does make me philosophical). How did they learn the precision that is a perfect cut of sashimi, and get it right repeatedly to create the timeless symphony that the Tsujiku sushi market in Tokyo plays in your mouth? More than anything else, how did they create the bowl of fresh, thickly cut udon ladled with the rich, milky soup and beautifully sautéed tender meat; made creamy with the raw egg poured directly into the steaming bowl, that was just what we needed for a cold winter day in Kyoto?
The beautiful temple of Kinkaku-Ji in Kyoto, made of solid gold
A possible answer occurred to me as we walked down Kyoto in the powdery rain on our last evening there. Ambling down the lovely philosophers path on the tiny banks of a stream punctuated with beautiful serene Buddhist temples, we chanced upon a man sitting on a tiny bridge that arched over the stream. Alone, a diminutive figure hunched in the rain, hidden under his umbrella. He was painting what looked like a postcard. Curious, we stepped closer and were struck by the detailed handiwork and the evocative mood of the scene he was painting. Complicated gesticulation and many smiling bows later, we realised that it took him more than an entire day of sitting in the rain to create a small postcard. But what left us awe-struck was that he drew the same thing on most days. Over and over again, in painstaking detail. Flipping through his folder of intricate hand-painted postcards, all evidently looking the same and yet each piece an achingly unique masterpiece, I felt I had stumbled upon the secret to the Japanese hallmark of perfection and simplicity – the Zen value of mindful repetition. Work becomes a voyage of discovery and each repetition an attempt to go beyond yourself. Perfection is a given. As someone who has a rather low threshold of attention and boredom and thrives on novel and complex cooking challenges, this was revelation.
We soon left Japan to come back home but even as we saw the islands shrink below the soft clouds, I knew this voyage wasn’t one that I was ready to end. Back in Mumbai, months after we have travelled, the journey hasn’t broken off yet. It plays itself over and over as I now see everything with new eyes. Myself, my relationship with work, with food. For the first time, the familiar shloka “Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana resonates at a personal level. As days pass by, everyday brings with it a new thought about the value of repetition. And a new approach to work. I needed to journey halfway across the earth to learn something about my own world that I never understood before.
And now I know why we need to travel. More than to find new places, perhaps the reason we travel, is to find ourselves.
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Reshmy Kurian is one of Mumbai’s leading food bloggers. She’s constantly looking for new cooking challenges and likes nothing better than fantasizing about the next dish she will perfect, or planning her next food-based vacation. You can read about her thoughts, recipes and food encounters at Bombay Chowparty.
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