Formal, playful and metaphorical, this is the meal made for tea

HIROKO SUGIYAMA reaches for a bowl to make a welcoming brew of hot water with fragrant yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit. Even though there is not a speck of dust in her kitchen, Sugiyama rinses the bowl with tap water before she fills it with simmering water from the cast-iron tea kettle on her stove. In fact, she rinses every dish as soon as she takes it down from the shelf.

“Each time you use a bowl,” she says, “refresh it with water to make it more alive. If I were a real kaiseki master,” she continues, referring to the kind of chef who prepares formal meals to accompany Japanese tea ceremonies, “I would have spent some time and thought on the right kind of water. I would carry special water down from Mount Rainier, maybe, so you could taste the snow.”

She may not view herself as a master, but Sugiyama is a lifelong student of the tea ceremony, and she directs a culinary atelier in her home. She has studied at the Cordon Blue in Paris and at the royal school of Thai cooking in Bangkok. An active member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, she has earned respect around the world as an authority on the art of the “kaiseki,” the meal served with tea.

While a kaiseki meal doesn’t have a main course in the Western sense, a particular highlight of the meal is the “Wanmori,” or soup dish. Sugiyama made sarimi of fresh cod. A tender dumpling lightened with egg whites, it’s garnished with turnip tops and lemon zest. The dahsi, or broth in which it’s served, is made with dried bonito (tuna) and kelp, then spiked with sweet mirin, dry sake and light soy sauce.

Most kaiseki meals include a grilled dish or “Yakimono,” but for this November dinner, Sugiyama chose an “Agemono,” or fried dish. Small, round Asian eggplants were fried and then topped with red miso, sugar, sake, mirin, and ginger. Hand-carved bamboo chopsticks would traditionally be placed on the communal platter.

This “Azukebachi” dish, which means “leave it with you,” provides the host an opportunity to leave the table and make arrangements for the next course. Chestnuts, rare fresh ginkgo nuts, and green beans are served with fried burdock roots, as well as two kinds of sweet potato cut into the shape of leaves, evoking the forest in an autumn wind.

Usually presented as a “Tomewan,” or final dish, rice is sculpted with a paddle into an “ichi,” or numeral one, signifying its place in the Japanese diet. A wheat cake, studded with millet grains to evoke the season, takes the same shape and floats in a bowl of miso soup. Ground by hand with a wooden paddle in a clay bowl, the deceptively simple and perfectly smooth miso is a labor of love.

The meal that Sugiyama prepares in the hours that follow is simultaneously contemplative, playful and metaphorical. Each course is calculated to fall precisely within the parameters set by generations of tradition. And yet, like the tightly ordered lines of a haiku that capture the fleeting experience of a single moment, each of the seven courses of the kaiseki is utterly original.

This particular meal commemorates the new year for tea. In Japan, new tea containers are opened in November, so the meal is both festive and autumnal. The celebratory meal affords chefs an opportunity to use their most precious dishes. At a kaiseki dinner at her favorite restaurant in Kyoto, Sugiyama was served one course in an heirloom bowl worth more than $3,000.

“It was wonderful to be served from that bowl,” says Sugiyama, laughing shyly. “It means that the chef trusted me enough not to break it. But the most important thing about any kaiseki meal is ‘shun.’ ” Pronounced almost like “shoon,” it means seasonal, the height of ripeness. But surely, just as important is the less tangible sense of a unique time and place. This is expressed as ‘ichi-go, ichi-e,’ which may be roughly translated as “once in a lifetime.”