There is even a word to describe “looking at flowers” – I learnt this at Flavour of Hanami, at Isetan’s The Japan Store in Kuala Lumpur. Come spring in Japan, flower viewing becomes a national frenzy when everyone walk around with love in their eyes, head rolled back, sake cup in hand, for cherry blossom viewing.
Cherry blossom or sakura flower is the symbol of spring in Japan. When the snow of winter starts to melt and feed the streams and rivers, and nature awakens from its long slumber, it’s also time to celebrate the changing of the season.
The sakura is not the only pink bloom at this time of year. Starting with plum blossoms in early March, followed by peach and then cherry, the trees are awashed in pink and their fallen blooms blanket the world around them.
To stand in the middle of this sea of petal pink must be an emotional experience.
One reason the Japanese has a special affinity for cherry blossoms are their flitting and graceful nature. The flowers blossom for just a few days before falling to the ground all too soon, a sad reminder of the transient nature of beauty and life itself.
“Their short life makes the Japanese feel that they are even more beautiful,” the storyboard on the wall in The Japan Store’s The Cube exhibition space narrates.
Hanami – flower viewing – is celebrated with bento boxes, sake and green tea. Chefs like to present something new and innovative in their bento boxes for flower viewing.
Each colourful box expresses a unique spring world. Ingredients may be cut into flower and leaf shapes. Food is usually seasoned so that it goes well with the sake drank for hanami.
The salt and vinegar used also help to preserve the food for outdoor consumption. These picnic bento boxes are so beautifully crafted, the beholder sometimes forget about the sakura on the trees!
Here to present his hanami washoku is chef Hideki Shimoguchi, 46, of Chikurin restaurant in Uji, Kyoto’s famous tea town. Chikurin is nextdoor to the Byodo-in Omotesando temple, one of 17 Unesco world heritage sites in Kyoto.
From the second floor of the restaurant, one can watch the Ujigawa River view unfolding like a beautiful silkscreen painting. Some 2000 cherry blossom trees line both sides of the river and it is the site of the Ujigawa River Cherry Blossom Festival in April.
Trained in the art of kaiseki at the two Michelin-starred Roan Kikunoi in Kyoto, Shimoguchi prepares beautiful bento boxes for picnic under the trees or to take on river cruises during hanami season, to enjoy with the five senses awakened.
A hanami experience in KL
At The Cube, the traditions and crafts of hanami and Japanese cuisine are introduced in the omotenashi or “self-less” spirit of hospitality through photographs, videos and experience-based events.
You are ushered to a cherry blossom viewing gallery featuring a photo montage of the hanami culture in Japan. A photographer is there to capture your pink 2-D hanami moment.
In the room is a mini exhibition of four featured chefs and their bento boxes – you can read about them while sipping green tea or the two types of light and refreshing sake being offered, a sparkling (Mio) and a sake infused with yellow cherry blossoms (Hana Kizakua).
Move on to the theatre for a high definition screening of the four seasons in Kyoto and the story of the foundation of Kyoto cuisine.
The highlight of each Flavour of Hanami event is the live cooking show by the featured Kyoto chef. Shimoguchi is the third chef in the Flavour of Hanami lineup – the organisers have teamed up with the young chefs of four famous Kyoto restaurants to bring us cherry blossom viewing bento boxes to convey the world of washoku, or traditional Japanese cuisine.
A member of the Japanese Culinary Academy, Shimoguchi enjoys promoting Japanese cuisine outside Japan. For hanami, he prepares dishes using the green tea Uji is famous for, but stops short at calling them his specialties.
To him, a kaiseki chef needs to be good at everything, “t
here’s no such thing as having a specialty dish.”
He starts off the session with a serving of gyokuro – the highest grade of Japanese green tea. I am struck by the surprisingly savoury taste of the tea; it is almost like dashi broth.
“High grade tea has an umami, glutamate flavour,” explains Shimoguchi through an interpreter.
For his first dish of roasted tea-infused chicken, he roasts two tablespoons tea leaves in a saucepan, stirring briskly, until a toasted tea flavour ensues in a cloud of smoke.
The streets of Uji near his restaurant are lined with tea shops. “On a good day, they will be out roasting tea and the air will be filled with roasted tea aroma,” he tells us. “I usually make this roasted tea dish using duck but it’s chicken today,” he says with a shrug.
The chicken fillet is rolled in the roasted tea to coat it well before being cling-wrapped and steamed at 50ºC for 90 minutes. He cautions against using high heat which will denature the protein and result in dryness of meat.
The fillet needs to rest overnight before the next step of marinating it in a bag with sake, soy sauce and mirin in a 3:1:1 ratio (yakitori marinade is made with the same ingredients in a 1:1:1 ratio). The fillet is steamed again for 90 minutes and allowed to cool for three hours before serving.
To serve, the roasted tea-flavoured chicken is sliced, and placed on a pickled sakura leaf and decorated with kinome, the leaf of sancho pepper, which adds a peppery and minty flavour to the dish.
“Traditional Japanese cuisine often looks simple, has a very subtle taste, but needs skill and takes a long time to prepare,” Shimoguchi says.
The second dish is sushi with a (literal) twist. Salmon is lightly salted, given a brush of rice vinegar, wrapped in kelp and left overnight. The fish is sliced thinly to get a long strip of 8 to 10cm. The salmon sliver is laid on a square of muslin cloth and a knob of rice is placed on the fish. The cloth is gathered up to enclose the fish and rice and twisted to shape its precious parcel into a sushi ball.
Unwrapped, the end of a chopstick is used to punch a hole in the sushi ball and a pickled sakura petal is tucked inside. The innovative sushi ball is placed on a fermented sakura leaf to serve alongside stir-fried pea sprouts, mushrooms and freshly grated sesame seeds.
A course of tempura is then served. Instead of the usual tempura batter, the prawns are coated in colourful popped rice beads and served dipped in matcha salt made by grinding tea leaves finely and mixing with a dry salt like rock salt.
“Many people actually say tea has a scent of the sea,” says Shimoguchi. The matcha salt is a rather genius way to add a green tea flavour to food, I thought, an idea a lazy cook might like very much.
Shimoguchi – aided by his lovely wife and daughter – also serves the roomful of 25 or so participants cawan mushi.
He explains that he first makes dashi with 1,800ml water and 30g kelp. Then, to every cup dashi, he adds two large eggs and 5g soy sauce and steams it on high for 7 minutes, and low for another 7 minutes. He adds a final touch of citrus zest on top to “balance and contrast” the flavours.
Wobbling like a newly poached egg, the cawan mushi is unbelievably good to eat.
After the show, I wander through the store’s food hall to look for the matcha and gyokuro tea. In case you are interested to know, the gyokuro is an eye-watering RM280 for a 100g packet. I put it back on the shelf, vowing to be rich enough to come back someday.
If you want just a taste of the tea, there is a tea cafe next to the tea shelves that serves the various grades of tea by the cup.
Expect the gyokuro to come in a tiny shot good for a sip or two. And the first infusion is the only one with an intense umami flavour. There is only one first infusion, so cherish it well.
The cherry blossom season is from the end of March to May, starting from the southern parts of Japan. Flavour of Hanami is on until March 25 at The Cube, 3rd floor, The Japan Store, Lot 10, Jalan Sultan Ismail, Kuala Lumpur. The final event on March 18 & 19 will showcase the cuisine of Takuji Takahashi of Kinobu, an 80-year-old Kyoto restaurant. Admission fee inclusive of food tasting and drinks is RM100. The sessions are from noon to 1.30pm; 3pm to 4pm, and 6pm to 7.30pm.