Discovering Texture

Azuki closeup

Many years ago, I read an article about Michel Richard, a French pastry chef who moved to the U.S. in the 1970s and now sits at the helm of a veritable restaurant empire. In the course of his cross country travels, Richard discovered that Americans seemed to be singularly obsessed with all things crispy. More precisely, he noted that there was a premium placed on the textural play between interiors (moist) and exteriors (crunchy), Kentucky Fried Chicken being the prime example of this sort of texture-driven cookery. Indeed, the fast food establishments that increasingly dotted the American landscape were particularly adept at a particular kind of culinary alchemy, which melded a relatively sophisticated understanding of sensory pleasure with mass-market tastes (and, of course, standardized supply chains). It was this discovery, claims Richard, that led him to rethink the way French food was prepared and presented in this country.

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Tea and Sweets

Matcha and kinako mochi

Matcha and kinako mochi in Kyoto

The ritualized consumption of matcha (i.e. the Japanese tea ceremony) has intrigued me ever since I first read about the practice in a Japanese art history course I took in college. The professor, Hans Thomsen, was particularly interested in the objects used for the tea ceremony. We learned that the tea ceremony originally had its roots in Buddhist practices, which were themselves imported from China. As a result, elegant and refined Chinese ceramics were long considered de rigueur for the tea ceremony.

In the sixteenth century, tastes began to shift toward a more rustic aesthetic, thanks largely to the influence of a tea master Sen no Rikyu. This new style of bowls, plates, and other utensils were crafted to reflect wabi sabi, the concept that there is beauty in imperfection, incompleteness, and impermanence. (For more on wabi sabi, see this page on Japanese aesthetics.) The rough surfaces, cracked glazes, and uneven colorings of these objects were thought to enhance the experience of drinking tea and raise it to the level of a spiritual exercise. Today, the tea ceremony is still associated with elegant simplicity, understatement, and measured refinement, a testament to Sen no Rikyu’s lasting influence.

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