For a girl who grew up on milk and cookies—chocolate chip and Oreos to be exact—and then graduated to nuts, brownies and trail mix in days of hippiedom, I was recently caught off guard in Japan. My current, cleaner palate loves miso soup, seaweed and tofu dishes but Japanese snacks are an entirely different matter. I was not ready for the unimaginable offerings such as beef tongue, persimmon gelatin, green tea marshmallows and dried squid. But I did sample chili pepper rice crackers, wasabi peas and mugwort wrapped in bamboo leaves. And considered, but didn’t feel quite extravagant enough for, the $200 musk melons (graded according to their quality: fuji, yama, shiroi, yuki and the lowly kizu.
In the States, Chinese restaurants vary with Szechwan, Hunan and Cantonese, each offering their local dishes. French wines range from fruity Beaujolais to full-bodied Bordeaux. Yet Japanese food, sake and snacks are clumped together as one commodity. In Japan I learned about some of the many regional specialties to eat and drink while collecting tidbits of lore and traditional sake songs, which are on their way to becoming an endangered species.
Tea ceremony snacks are not about dried fish or bizarre pickles; they are an entirely different matter. We are talking sweet here. But first, proper etiquette means not stepping on the cracks between the tatami mats on the floor of the tea room (I am flashing on Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets), although I have been to countless tea ceremonies before without this important snippet of information. The sweets accompanying my tea include seasonal delicacies such as the cherry blossom-flavored, fan-shaped melt-in-your-mouth offerings, round green wakakusa cookies made from young green grass, and the white bean pastry with a peach inside to connote the feeling of spring.
Usually the snacks to accompany a tea ceremony are ultra sweet. Perhaps this is because the tea is always unsweetened and to some tastes tart. The tea ceremony, whether performed in a garden or a skyscraper, warms my heart and soul. The sound of water trickling out of a bamboo faucet is calming along with the rhythmic counterpoint of the whisk brushing the powdered green tea against the one-of-a-kind, often seasonally selected pottery bowls. It’s all part of a total sensorial experience. One of the tea masters, who had a name like a poem—Dancing Snow Pine Bamboo—selects a tea cup (actually a bowl) for me with painted irises, unaware of my name.
But not all of my tasting qualifies in this cosmic category. Sometimes, looking at the delicacies, I think they are soap rather than food. Like the specialty from Aichi (home to a fantastic World Expo 2005) the wirou confection made from persimmon, cherry or powdered green tea. The cat-shaped food (Hello Kitty!) turned out to be a sponge cake with a bean paste inside. Rice cakes, which previously conjured up images of plain, dry crackers, are quite different in Japan. Soft rice cakes may contain cream with chestnuts, mugwort and walnuts or the crisp variety may be coated with sesame seeds, soybeans, black sugar, green tea or shrimp paste. And in Niigata, home of many sake breweries, I happily sample their famous, crunchy rice crackers shaped like the seeds of a persimmon.
Snacks to accompany sake—the alcoholic rice beverage often referred to as rice wine, but which is actually brewed—are pretty fishy, literally. “Sake cleanses the palate after eating fresh fish and eating fish makes us want sake,” says Kenji Ichishima, the president of the Niigata Sake Festival, which introduces 100 boutique sake houses to the public. Many journey to a convention center in Niigata, the Napa Valley of Japan, to taste the new sake brews annually, just after harvest in early spring. Sake snacks are usually salty, such as squid with sweet vinegar, horse mackerel, salt dr