Tea time

Karl Wells
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Our restaurant reviewer slows down to experience the ceremony - and sweets - that accompany a Japanese tea

My friend Sheilagh called the other day. "We're having a Japanese tea party at the house. Babyface, you've got to come. You'll love it. Bye." How could I refuse? It's not every day that I'm invited to a Japanese tea party. Besides, my curiosity had to be satisfied.

Sheilagh's parties were often themed affairs. I remember one where we all had to do a painting. (I won second prize, despite having had a glass of wine in one hand and a paintbrush in the other the whole time.) Then there were the western parties where people wore 10-gallon hats. For all I knew, this party might resemble a scene from "The Mikado." Would her home become Titipu? Would Sheilagh answer the door as Yum-Yum? Might I have to reprise my music festival rendition of "A Wandering Minstrel I" dressed as Nanki-Poo?

Tomoko Fukudome poured tea into tiny ceramic cups and presented several varities following Japanese tradition. Photo by Karl Wells/Special to The Telegram

My friend Sheilagh called the other day. "We're having a Japanese tea party at the house. Babyface, you've got to come. You'll love it. Bye." How could I refuse? It's not every day that I'm invited to a Japanese tea party. Besides, my curiosity had to be satisfied.

Sheilagh's parties were often themed affairs. I remember one where we all had to do a painting. (I won second prize, despite having had a glass of wine in one hand and a paintbrush in the other the whole time.) Then there were the western parties where people wore 10-gallon hats. For all I knew, this party might resemble a scene from "The Mikado." Would her home become Titipu? Would Sheilagh answer the door as Yum-Yum? Might I have to reprise my music festival rendition of "A Wandering Minstrel I" dressed as Nanki-Poo?

Beautiful garment

Turns out Sheilagh had something much more sedative and authentic in mind. I had forgotten that her son Robyn had been living in Japan. Rob Guy was now back in St. John's and playing host to a visiting Japanese friend, a ravishing woman named, Tomoko. She - and only she - wore a traditional kimono. It was a beautiful garment. Set off by a pure white scarf that Tomoko wore flat around the neck underneath, the kimono was wrapped around her and held in place by an orange waistband and braided orange belt. The kimono was cream coloured and covered in predominantly orange and green designs that featured flowers, as well as cranes in flight.

Tomoko Fukudome had a smile worth a million bucks. The 29-year-old came from a place called Kakogawa in Hyogo Prefecture, Japan. Kakogawa is near Kobe (famous for its sake and beer-fed Wagyu cattle.) She trained as a chef and, believe it or not, her specialty was Italian cuisine. Tomoko became fluent in Italian and cooked in Italy and Japan. She was wearing a kimono, not because she looked fabulous in it (which she did) but because it is required that the host of a Japanese tea party wear a kimono.

Japanese tea parties are very small, calm events with only four or five participants. Tomoko greeted each of us with her attractive smile and a short, quick bow. She spoke in broken English; so much of our communication was accomplished through nods, smiles and gestures. We all sat quietly around a low coffee table formally arranged with bowls, Japanese teacups, a wooden whisk and teapots.

Long history

Many hundreds of years ago, Buddhist monks from China introduced tea to Japan. A powdered green tea called matcha was used in their religious ceremonies. It became the tea of choice for Japan's samurai warriors. A chap named Sen No Rikkyu, who died in 1591, was credited with actually creating the Japanese tea ceremony. The tranquil and spiritual setting of Buddhist tea drinking heavily influenced him.

It's customary to serve sweets before Japanese tea, to add to the enjoyment of the tea. Tomoko had brought gift (omiyage) sweets with her from Japan. Before serving tea, she presented us with a large plate of these treats, attractively arranged on pale blue paper and garnished with a deep blue origami bird and a green ribbon. Both types of sweets appeared to have been molded by hand, one into an egg shape and the other into the shape of a small ball. Daifukumochi were the larger, egg-shaped sweets made from jellied rice cake stuffed with sweet red bean paste. (I liked them best.) The smaller ones - matcha manjuu - were pale green balls made from a green tea-flavoured paste. Nice, but not as interesting as the daifukumochi.

Next we watched as Tomoko went through the ritual of preparing the tea. It was then that I understood why the Japanese tea ceremony has been described as "calming" and designed to put you in touch with your spiritual side. Just watching this serene woman going about the simple task of making tea for us was relaxing to me. First she put the powdered green tea (matcha) into a large cafÉ au lait-sized bowl. Then she poured boiling water on top and began to deliberately stir the mixture with a small wooden tea whisk. Her movements with the whisk were practised and patterned.

Bows and sips

After whisking, Tomoko picked up the bowl and offered it to Sheilagh, the guest of honour. Both women bowed to each other. Sheilagh sipped from the bowl. The bowl was then turned a notch and we each in turn took three or four sips of the tea. It was the greenest green tea I have ever seen, with a viscosity that would be unfamiliar to drinkers of regular green tea. I'm told this powdered green tea is especially good for you because it has a 90 per cent content of catechins, the main component of tea. Green tea boosts the immune system and lowers blood pressure.

Tomoko went on to prepare several other types of Japanese tea for us: twig tea (which tasted like boiled twigs from my garden hedge) cherry blossom tea and toasted rice tea. I thought the toasted rice tea was darn good. Yes, it tasted like toasted rice but I was pleasantly surprised to find the flavour in liquid form to have special powers. It was a wonderfully soothing and refreshing drink. Who knew? All of these final teas were made in a traditional teapot and served in tiny Japanese teacups.

We left Tomoko and company with more bows and smiles. It was a lovely interlude in a busy day. I didn't get to see Sheilagh in a kimono and Sheilagh didn't get to hear me sing Nanki-Poo's song. But, meeting Tomoko was, for all of us, a beautiful experience.

Karl Wells is a restaurant panellist with enRoute magazine. To reach him, log on to his website: www.karlwells.com.

Geographic location: Japan, St. John's, Hyogo Prefecture Italy China

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