Monday, August 31, 2015

Preparations for a Feast Part 4

As I said in a previous entry, one of the things I felt the need to touch on was how important the image of the food was to the meal itself. Yes the mood had to taste good, yes the food have to taste CORRECT (which I covered in Part 3); but almost as importantly the food had to LOOK artistic as well. Especially considering the “optional” food dishes, this is a topic I want to discuss in depth here.

    In Japanese high culture, art was the thing. The house was designed with art in mind, the clothing was an art, the weapons and armor had an artistic bent and to that even the food was artistic in nature. It was a sign of high culture, of refinement, that you were able to produce not only a good tasting meal but a good looking one at that. Understanding the artistic styles and applying them to food was an amazing gift that was meant to be shared, this is an aspect I am trying to emulate upcoming feast.

    So let’s talk about that, shall we? The food itself is to be a work of art, so it must look the part. Sauces will be carefully placed, not to smear or dribble about in presentation. Vegetables and fruit will be cut as square and clean as possible, to show off the angles of the cut. Plating will be warm and inviting, food will be arranged to create shapes or images (like my Triskle Chesnut design I’m gonna do) and the colors will be vibrant to stand out against the stark white serving gear. The idea for this artistic display is to heighten the taste of the food and appreciation for the skill of the artisan crafting it. It wasn’t just what was served on, it was the served items themselves.

    Another aspect to this style is food designed for appreciation, not so much for eating. A massive show of wealth, these were dishes that used inedible ingredients for color/shape or were often not that tasty. You were meant to reflect upon the nature of the dish, see what the dish meant to you, perhaps hear a haiku read about such a dish or just appreciate the artistic touch gone into crafting it. I have three such dishes, mine will all be edible because food science has given me a modern edge, and each is unique in its theme. The Pine Cone Tofu will be a baked tofu shaped to look like a pine cone and covered in sweet spices, it is shaped to look like a pine cone before it releases its seeds in promise of new life. The Uji River is designed to resemble the mighty river in the thaws of spring and new beginnings, Udon noodles dyed blue will run along the caramel colored sauce with pieces of Nori carefully placed along the sides to represent the green hills. Lastly is my Blue Sea Soup, a chilled cold soup of fruit juice dyed blue and topped with fresh made whip cream waves (fish shaped mochi topped with red bean paste will be served on the side which go delightfully well with the tasty dessert). 

    These dishes will be something amazing to look at, and I eagerly look forward to sharing them with my guests. This whole feast experience has been amazing, and I want to thank you for following along with me thus far. I have one last post to write before the big day, on how people who eat the food to get the full experience, which will come out soon. Stay tuned!

Monday, August 24, 2015

Preparations of a Feast Part 3

Couple of things before we get into the meat and potatoes of this post:

I recently did a redesign of my blog layout. I wanted it to be easier for everyone to read, I tagged similar posts so you could read specific posts and hopefully made this a better experience for you. Any feedback you have would be appreciated!
I did change my URL for this blog, so if you keep me bookmarked please update with the new URL above!

It’s still a work in progress, and I plan on doing more redesign work in the next few weeks. Stay tuned!


In my last post, one of the things I said I wanted to discuss was the flavor profiles of the food for this feast. The food here will be different than what most people with a Western palate are used to dining on, even more so for period food in the SCA. Japan, and other “Eastern” cultures in many extents, had a unique flavoring and seasoning palate for their food. For Japan, especially during the Edo Period, this style of cooking was already well settled into the cultural ideals and thus we have a fantastic view on not just how they viewed food but culture as well.

In French of English cooking, the use of spice and varied cooking techniques was designed to transform the food. Take the steak and vegetables, change the flavor with spice and styles of cooking, adjust and transform. All this is wonderful food, and I have cooked plenty Western styles of dish to a rousing success. But I can’t do that here...that’s not how it was done in Japan. In their style of cooking, the Japanese did not test their culinary art in how they could change the flavor of the dish but how they could accept and highlight the natural flavor of the ingredients and dish. This has been a challenge!

Take for example my Fresh Crane Soup. There are a number of challenges involved with this dish that I had to struggle with, and I want to use this as an example of Japanese flavor profiling. The Japanese viewed crane as a delicacy, something for the upper nobility, and thus this was a carefully crafted dish. The soups of Japan were more like broths, meant to prep the body for a meal and not to be a meal unto itself, so had light flavor and were served warm-to-hot to enhance the flavor. You boil and cook with natural complimenting ingredients so the flavor isn’t lost, and the soup is the lead in of another major dish. Had miso before? That’s another great example.

And thus the challenge begins. Crane is not something viable for me to get in bulk, so I had to substitute for duck (which one document I read says happened regularly as the the flavors were very close in taste). I had to unlearn everything I knew about making soup, just to perfect this dish. Instead of a chunky meal-type dish, I had to minimalize the amount of meat that would be in the soup without sacrificing flavor. To enhance I’m adding mushrooms and light spice to season, these will compliment the taste of the bird as well as enhance the flavor of the soup. I will serve is more on the warm side than the hot, to mellow a bit of the sharpness from one of the ingredients added as it blends best when warmed. The portions will be small, maybe 4/6oz of soup at MAX to not overindulge the flavor onto the guest. This way you are getting the natural, enhanced flavor of the soup expressed how it “should be”. This will be done for every dish.

That’s another thing I feel needs to be discussed with flavor, portion sizes. Along with the correct flavor, the correct AMOUNT of the flavor is also an important thing to take note on. In Western styles of cooking you would pile meats and sauces and vegetables high, you ate larger portions because there would be (on average) less dish options available. In this Japanese style each portion is carefully measured and weighed out to match not just the flavor but its place in the meal. My first course is SEVEN dishes, which means portion sizes will be small and gradually increase in small doses as the meal progresses. What that means is each guest will be given a 4/6oz portion of soup, 2/3 bites of pickle, 2 bird skewers, 3/4 chestnuts, one long and thick chopstick wrap of oolong noodle, etc. Each bite is carefully planned for so by the end of the meal the guest is comfortably full, each flavor is appreciated in kind and no one dish overpowers another. 

On my next post I will be discussing the illusion food aspect that I will attempt with each dish, how important it was to the dining experience and what you can expect to see at the event!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Preparations of a Feast Part 2

So in my last post we did a general overview of what is to be served at 30th year, today we discuss exactly what will be served. My menu for the event is thus:

Main Tray (Course 1)

(Fresh Crane soup)
(White Rice)
Kushi ni chīsana tori
(Small Birds on Skewers)
(Uji River)
Painkōn tōfu
(Pine cone Tofu)

Second Tray (Course 2)

Fujisan no sarada
(Mt. Fuji salad)
(Miso soup)
Jā-yaki sunaipu
(Grilled Snipe in Jars)

Third Tray (Course 3)

(Sweet rice)
Mikan to anto furūtsu
(Tangerines and Ant Fruit)
(Blue Sea Soup)

That sure does look like a lot of food, doesn’t it? A proper meal arranged like this does contain many dishes, but portion control is king in this style. One of the things to remember is that the primary eating utensil of the time was chopsticks, so each bite is designed to be properly sized for chopsticks. As well, each person can only eat so much food, and it was rude to snub a dish that was provided for you so culturally at least a bite was required. Over so many dishes, across such a wide variety of food, you would end up eating small amounts of each dish to be full in time for the end of the meal!

So when my guests sit down to dine at 30th year, they will not see mountains and piles of food on a plate but delicate and calculated portions. This is important for each of my guests to understand, so much so that I have created special cue cards for all my servers detailing not just things like ingredients/allergies but also portion sizes. Yes you may only be eating 2-3 pieces of sushi...but after already so much food will you really notice?

Another key detail is talking about some of the food itself. When a Western culture-raised individual thinks of a soup, perhaps you imagine hearty chunks of food and a creamy broth in a full bowl. You’re not wrong, and I’m hungry just thinking about it but that is not the Period Japanese style in terms of soup. A soup for them was light, sometimes savory or sweet, a deep rich broth filled with unique flavor. The soup was not a meal in itself, it was meant to be a part of a meal. With my Fresh Crane Soup for example, there will not be huge chunks of meat floating around to snag; it will be a delicate broth meant to add flavor, heighten anticipation for the next item and compliment the meal. 

Flavor profiles are something huge I also need to discuss, and will in my next post to more detail. Japanese valued a simple style in their art, and food was most definitely an art! You were meant to appreciate and admire the flavor of the white rice, the simple pleasure of melting tuna in edomaesushi, the crisp bite of eggplant or the rich soy flavor in a noodle. These are dishes not heavily spiced, or flavored to change the taste profile; these dishes were meant to be enjoyed as the flavor stood. Light seasoning to enhance the flavor will happen, and there is so much more I need to touch on this that i will on my next post.

In one last example, and another that I’m realizing needs a post all to itself, Japanese food of this period relied heavily on illusion and subtly. The art was not just in how it tastes, but how it looked. This is where things changed dramatically, yes the white rice was supposed to taste like rice but it was also supposed to be sculpted and shaped to look like a swan! Illusion food was such a commonplace that much of the text doesn’t even talk about how you should go out of your way to accomplish this; at the end it offhandedly talks about how you should make the food look. There are even dishes that are served that you are not required, or sometimes not even intended, to eat! The whole purpose of these dishes is to admire, reflect on what they mean to you and let their appearance and beauty enhance your eating experience. I have 3 such dishes in this feast alone; the Uji River, the Mt Fuji salad and the Blue Sea soup (all of which I will be discussing in detail in said next blog post).

What you can take away from this is that the food is going to be art, not just in visual style but in taste. It is my goal to preserve and enhance the natural flavors within each dish, to shape them to be visually pleasing and give my guests a unique dining experience they many not have had before in Trimaris. Portions will be small, but the whole meal will be filing with each bite.

Next time, I will dive deeper into the flavor profiles of my meals. Stay tuned!