[Food] Of Japanese cuisine and the law of the universe

Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959)

Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959)

The Japanese gourmet Rosanjin Kitaooji [北大路魯山人] (1883-1959) (actually he is a man of many hats – aesthete, chef, writer, ceramic artist, calligrapher, painter, seal carver, philosopher, entrepreneur, cultural critic, socialite –  but for the purpose of this post let us think of him as gourmet) once wrote about a conversation he had with a guest that is almost like a zen koan of its own:

Guest: Sensei, please tell me about the the essence of cuisine.

Kitaooji: It is something you produce in order to eat.

Guest: So we produce cuisine in order to eat. Then, sensei, what it is that we eat for?

Kitaooji: We eat in order to live.

Guest: Then what do we live for?

Kitaooji: We live in order to die.

If you simplify this into a formula: to cook => to eat => to live => to die. In other words, we cook in order to die.

The reason why I mention him is because he is the one who solved a mystery that has been on my mind for many years – namely, why is cuisine called ryori [料理] in Japanese?

According to Kitaooji-sensei, ri [理] refers to “the natural law of the universe,” while ryo [料] means ‘to measure’. Everything in this world has a law of its own that is a part of the greater universe. Ginger has its own law. Fish has its own law. Cabbage has its own law. Soybean has its own law. The human body likewise has its own law. Good cuisine, therefore, is an act whereby you work with the natural laws of foods and individual human beings to the right measure.

But what is ‘the right measure’, you may ask? I think the answer may be in a NHK documentary film about the celebrated contemporary chef, Kenichirou Nishi [西健一郎]. Among other things, when chef Nishi cooks at the counter of his restaurant (which only serves a grand total of 9 customers each day), he actually observes the physical well-being of his customers, how full or hungry they may be, what kind of mood they are in, and adjust his cooking for each customer accordingly.*

‘The right measure’ – I think – is the right method using the right material to be served to the right person in the right amount at the right moment.

* You may wonder if it is possible to observe such things in one’s customer. I don’t really answer except what I come by anecdotally. For example, some years ago I was reading book called Gion no Kyoukun [祇園の教訓] written by a former geisha by the name of Mineko Iwazawa [岩沢峰子]. Apparently there is a name for people who look after the customers’ shoes at tea houses (yes, there is actually a name for this job!) – they are called gesokuban [下足番]. According to her, one such gesokuban once observed to a long-time customer that the shape he made in his shoes looked unusual and he had better go for a medical check; the customer did and it turned out that he was indeed having some serious disease without even realizing it.

Now, this makes me think of a quotation from a book of physiognomy called Bing Jian [冰鑒] written by one Zeng Guo Fan [曾國藩] (1811-1872) (who is likewise a man of many hats, but let us think of him of an expert of physiognomy for the purpose of this post). It says: ‘observe the feet and heels of a person to gauge his longevity’ [壽夭看腳踵]. (Actually, it roused my curiosity so much that I actually went out of my way to look for the actual text of Bing Jian, but for some reason I cannot seem to find such saying in it. Either that was a misquotation, or it was a quote from a different edition of the same book.)

Anyway, the gesokuban must have understood this one way or other – owe it to his experience (he may have other customers making unusual shapes in their shoes kicking the bucket in no time) or what-have-you. My point is, this is level of professional dedication that even a gesokuban has – I don’t know if a Japanese thing, but at least so far I have not heard of similar anecdotes from other parts of the world.



5 thoughts on “[Food] Of Japanese cuisine and the law of the universe

  1. Personally I always thought it was pretty obvious of a word to me. Cooking is a science in an out of itself and by loking whether somebody likes to cook, you can already guess, whether this person might have an interest in chemistry, which is more rather closely related and where even the tiniest bit of a diffrent amount can make a huge diffrence. To me the art of cooking has always been all about the right measure for “harmony”. Or “health”. Or “taste”. or “natural”. [Or “being cheap, but still tasty/edible”.] It’s actually a pretty big thing with several people in my family. One ancestor (who I unfortunately never met) was obsessed with the “warm food” and “cold food” attributes of food and would consider the weather, season and the attibutes and cook only in acordance to this. (Appearantly the food was not very popular in the family, as it did not taste well, which also wass not the cooking style’s primary purpose.)
    My father is one cook who pays a lot of attention to the kitchen stock and actually does a lot of manipulating. In accordance of the amount of salt and other seasonings he will coax (force) us to eat less of one dish, when there is less of it in the fridge, or cook things diffrently, when there is too much of something in the fridge to be consumed as quickly as possible. He also always pays attention to the season, so buying potatos in spring-summer will make him make a weird face and the warm-cold attributes have some influence into the meals and buying the kitchen stocks as well. (Like mandarines in summer are a no go.)
    What he however ever made fun of (it strikes me as irony) is that Chinese kitchen never uses a scale for cooking. They use it when buying, not for cooking. Western recipes will list you in very much detail the amount of spices and other ingrediences and most of the Germans I ever saw will have a scale in their kitchen and also use it. It’s like the recipe is THE thing and everybody would just copy it. I also often hear people talking about alterations of recipes and it almost almosts comes along with a justification that they change the recipe, because of a lack of ingredient or some other person disliking some part of the ingredients. Chinese cuisines seems to me be far more about the rough idea and adjust the details to the present state of the enviroment or person.
    Actually I think, this is an even more general diffrence between the Wast and West. The East obsesses far more about what other people would think. To get an idea of what another person might think, of course they would have to pay attention to their appeatant health or emotional condition, since it influences the moods a lot. My parents have repeatatly told me, that by Chinese measures, I am a little child, because I am not as observant. Here, I often get a “Don’t overevaluate it so much, it’s nothing!”.

    But you shoes examples reminded me of some sensational news I caught a few month ago on some webmail portal. I just looked the news up again:
    So it appear like it’s not something that doesn’t happen in the West at all. But the fact, that this news got so “sensational” does speak for its rarity.

    All things said, I’d still think there certainly this level of professional dedication in the VIP/high society. The nobles back in the days spent their times of leisure and boredom a lot with paying attention to other noble people and I think this still carries over. Just looking at the Norman Hartnell dresses like the coronation dress of Queen Elizabeth certainly doesn’t look like a lack of dedication to minute details and specific customization to the customer.
    But those societies are probably somewhat closed up among themselves; over here it’s more of a elitist VIP-treatment, whereas in the east everybody is an important customer.
    (Really, if one is weak minded, easily depressed and needs a ego boost in self esteem, I’d almost recommend this person to go shopping in China or Japan.)

    • In Japanese there is a word for “measuring cooking portions with your eyes” – 目分量. The fact that they have a word for it may well testify that not every corner in the world cooks with precise measurements.

      A Japanese friend once said to me jokingly that recipes are passed down through genes – somehow you just end up creating the same taste of a dish by your mother or your grandmother, even though there is no recipe and no one ever uses scales/spoons to measure the portions and you have never even studied closely how a dish is made. It’s as though birds just know how to build nests without ever having been taught how to do so.

      There is a touch of wisdom in why your parents think you are still a child because you are not observant. I think it happens a lot with Chinese parents who raised their children outside of Greater China regions. I don’t know if it is the right way to describe it – but the bar to adulthood is much higher in China. For example, you are expected to have the worldly sophistication of an average 40-year-old in the West even though you are still in your twenties. You are expected to see through very clever lies (because lies abound), navigate your way around an unjust system (because injustices abound) and so forth. Naivety is not fatal in the West as it is in China.

      As for the idea that everyone is an important customer in the East – mostly true in Japan but for China it depends on which sector and which location. As for ego boost – well, I also hear the opposite from people in the East that they enjoy shopping in Europe because the sales people are less intrusive and leave them alone in peace.

      • This is indeed really interesting vocabulary!

        I think it’s less about genes, than simply overserving the cooking and other kitchen chores or deduce them unconsciously by just looking at the result. Which in my cases has also led to some minor troubles, because it seems, I soaked in a lot of western traits of cooking. (Like e.g. to even have cream in my ingredients repository to begin with.) Nobody ever taught me that specifically and I am definitely also not using a scale when I add cream, the idea is just somehow there that I know how much roughly needs to go in there. It just makes my father grumble, because he dislikes cream, except on an occasional cake. My mother (otherwise a decent cook) also picked up some weird seasoning traits, of which we are all still guessing, where the heck that came from. She doesn’t even know herself. (Like one really imo extraordinarily bad tasting dish of aubergine; it definitely doesn’t come from my grandparents, I tasted their aubergine dishes already and they were actually edible despite me disliking that vegetable. And I never ever found a second person making anything eve close to that ugly dish.)

        I’ve heard stories within my family and I also saw it with my own eyes when I went there on my two trips to China when visiting my widespread family. In my case it seems to be like going into two extremes; I am sometimes even naive by Western standards and sometimes appearantly so cunning, people consider me almost downright evil, when they gain knowledge of it. Although I suppose that is still nothing by Chinese standards.
        But I definitely agree with the bar – I have had taken a look at the basic curriculum of Chinese education and western education certainly is a complete joke against it. The Chinese have far more general education stuffed in their school era and since so much history is also taught, they get a lot of case-dependant experience-proofed behaviour patterns. What I notice through from the native Chinese I have met in University, is that they are… Uhm, like “textbook smart”? When it’s a taught pattern, they are all fine. When it’s not, well, let’s go by whatever the majority does. Majority will be right after all. And if there is no solution in that, oh well, somebody will take care of things for them somehow. Something like that. This is like that here too, to some degree, but far less. (Nobody will ever question the custom of e.g. a handshake and a lot still go with the flow, the flow is just not as as filled with all encompassingly detailed patterns.) Here logic seems to be more of a tool.
        One major diffrence I also have noticed is in the case of how you deal with making mistakes when educating children. The Germans go more like “It’s not the job of a parent shelter the child from falling down and hurt himself. The child must hurt himself to learn that it hurts, take resposibility for it and find means to avoid falling down itself, when it doesn’t like it.” Whereas I grew up more like it’s all about “Look at other peoples mistakes, learn from them and avoid them instead of doing the same thing all over again.” Since all knowledge on that mistake is already available, because somebody else did it, it’s the resposibility of a parent to make this knowledge available to the child and have it study the mistake and avoid it by itself in the first place. This usually gets faced with a “You didn’t even try, how can you know it’s going to be like that?! You’re just scared!”
        The biggest hurt point of my father was always that my Chinese has so bad and I could not study the classics with him, which he really loves to read. When I was a child I simply could not catch up on that at all. (But then, even going by normal textbooks: How is a 5 year old supposed to understand what “Flowers need the red sun to bloom. We are all flowers and the red sun is the commonist party” is supposed mean here? Like the whole notion of politics only starts with class 8/age 14 here and even when I looked up what gong zang dang meant in the dictionary, it was still a completely empty designation to me.) At high school age some things coming to me by the by. I also see it as a real pity, that my Chinese sucks so much, but I also feel like it’s way to late to catch up properly anymore. There is still a lot I just don’t get the faintest idea of, because of a lack of cultural background. (A lot of idioms do use geographic or historic references…)
        [Although my impression is, that in the last decades this “think yourself, discover yourself, do it yourself” is vaning a lot in Germany at least. People go far more with the flow without using their heads anymore. A lot of people blame that on cell phones, video games and whatnot. But I am not so sure, if that is really all.]

        I also agree on the fundamental difference of why naivety is bad in the East. The default idea of the West is that people are inherently good or at least trying (because they must). That most likely also came with the church (only the good get to go to heaven). The East seems to think of completely the opposite. My parents kind of sheltered me from almost all Chinese contacs (not that there were many back then to begin with) and thus their influences when I was a child as to not “corrupt me”. I was born around when the 1989 incidents took place and anybody told my parents to stay away and they probably have kind of settled to that I will stay in the West for the rest of my life. This has to vast degree surely caused my naivety, but then I think it should also be more suitable to live with in the West. If you have and attitude to always see and think about the worst and act accordingly, this will make you very alien over here. It’s something I have to increasingly pay attention to, now that I started to catch up on more and more things from the East, because now I can understand them more. People here seem to much rather blame anybody’s incompetence and lack of brain or willingness to take responsibility than blame their intentions or them being sly, wry or intentionally scheming.

        Coming from the East and living in the West, how is your impression from the reversed perspective? I’d be curious to know. =D

        Hmm, yes, I suppose in China there is, there are a lot of self-opened shopws by not-so-very-educated people, the service of such people varies a lot. I was having bigger stores like department stores in mind when I wrote that.
        I think, somebody who is not used to it at all might really get an ego boost by visiting it for once in a while. People in Asia most likely are resistant to that, because it’s normal and ever more likely will really not trust the clerk’s opinions in the first place.

        As for intrusiveness, that reminds me of something else I spotted in London in Soho the few times I crossed the streets there. There was this street full of restaurants and like all of them where crowded and full and some even had long queues. Except for one restaurant, which kind of stood out as being totally uncrowded. Well the building was kind of inconspicious, because the glasses were tainted and you couldn’t look into the place so well, but also because there was always a young women with menu cards standing right before the doorstep. The place even had a public menu card in a showcase right before the entrance and the woman would always stand right before that, so nobody could look at the public menu card in peace.
        Every time I passed this one restaurant, I always wondered, whether sales wouldn’t just go up by removing this young girl from before the door. (Who didn’t look like she was enjoying that job much either.)
        I usually have the impression, that too much service care in the West is already like that you are under surveillance and some suspicion of theft being casted on you.
        I wonder how the East Asian do this sort of “going shopping, but actually never buy anything” sorts of thing. (Not just window shopping, also visiting like all the shops.) A school classmate once took me a typical normal teenie girl shpping tour, after 9 hours she was all happy to have had her fill of shopping, but hadn’t bought a single thing. (And I was massively exhausted…) In these hours not a single clerk had asked, if they could help us or what we are looking for. How are such people are dealt with over there when they are prowling around, but never really buying anything? Do people just ignore each other after the first question is evaded?

  2. Linguistics and etymology will never cease to appear magical to me! It’s also amazing what observation skills some people may have.

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