Saturday, July 26, 2008
Day five: “The Shadow of Young Leaves” / 若葉蔭
Toraya at Isetan, ¥420
As I write this, the temperature hangs in the mid-nineties and the humidity is hurrying to catch up. Within minutes of getting dressed, I feel like I’m wearing damp dishrags; I won’t even describe how I feel or smell at the end of hard day’s touristing.
At times like this I often think of one item from a list of tea ceremony tenets commonly attributed to the 16th century master, Sen no Rikyu: “In summer suggest coolness; in winter, warmth.” Physical sensation, in other words, is more a matter of mind than of matter. In order to promote the comfort of their guests, tea hosts apply this principle with a wide brush. Summer calls for lighter incense, dewier flowers, and gossamer fabrics printed with swaying grasses or swirling streams. Likewise summer sweets, which may be crafted to resemble glass, water, or frost, and are often served on glass dishes and sprinkled with droplets of water.
Today’s sweet is a testament to the power of just such suggestions. In this charming and season-specific vignette, a plump koi darts in and out of the shadows in a leaf-strewn pond. The “water” is made of kanten, the seaweed-based gelatin that we Americans call agar agar and mostly waste on petri dishes. Like the konnyaku discussed in a previous post, kanten has some spectacular properties, including a high melting temperature and a glass-like clarity. In this case, kanten is poured in gradual layers around fish and leaves sculpted from gyūhi, a mix of rice powder, malt syrup, and sugar that handles like firm plasticene.
Back in my social scientist days, I had a serious research interest in novelty sweets. I mean, sugar is already delicious, so why go to the (very considerable) trouble of making it look like something else? What kind of value is added? What’s the point of a bean paste fish swimming in a seaweed sea?
I don’t pretend to have an answer, but I will say this: while this was far from my favorite sweet in terms of taste and texture, it was the first that I was really sorry to have to eat on my own. Maybe there is something to the idea of shared pleasures, after all.