Books / Reviews | ESSENTIAL READING FOR JAPANOPHILES

'Untangling my Chopsticks': Searching for the origins of Japanese fine dining

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

A student of the finer things to be found in the world’s kitchens, Riccardi, armed with a degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, spent one year in Kyoto studying kaiseki ryōri (Japan’s formal multicourse cuisine) and chakaiseki (tea ceremony cuisine). The author was fortunate in forming contacts who were able to open doors, including an entree into a prestigious Kyoto tea school, one with connections to a rarified world inaccessible to most foreigners.

Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto, by Victoria Abbott Riccardi.
304 pages
BROADWAY BOOKS, Food.

The tendency in Japan to tinker with culture, to “improve” on the original is evident in the reinvention of kaiseki. In much the same way that the teahouse, a simple hut, became a temple of aesthetics, kaiseki restaurants now serve mini-banquets of exquisite, exorbitantly priced dishes. Riccardi’s account traces her search for the purity of tea kaiseki, whose minute dishes she compares to a French degustation.

A number of tried-and-tested recipes are included in the book, which may interest some readers. With no immediate plans to rustle up miso-pickled romaine stems wrapped in smoked salmon or citrus-infused duck wanmori (a boiled or stewed dish), I have to admit to speed-reading these insertions.

Given the popularity of books on Japanese cuisine by visiting writers such as Michael Booth, it’s surprising that this well-researched and engagingly written title has slipped through the floorboards. Almost two decades since its publication, Riccardi’s achievement is to enjoin the reader as a spellbound companion to a culinary journey, which enlightens us about cuisine that makes the seasons edible.

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