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.