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Japan: Tea and Sweet Potatoes?

October 17th, 2009 · 1 Comment · Eating, Travel Memoir

Food writer Judith Pierce Rosenberg unexpectedly finds a sweet potato restaurant in Kyoto.

In one of the most elegant and minimalist shopping plazas in Kyoto, a city of elegant and minimalist Zen architecture, a city known for its tea shops serving mochi, traditional sweet rice cakes, is Chaimon, a restaurant devoted to tea (cha) and sweet potatoes (imon).

My twenty-something daughter, Tina, and I were visiting Kyoto when we happened upon Chaimon. As soon we stepped inside, we noticed the two piles of sweet potatoes, one golden, the other purple, beside a grill, along with a display case of delicate petit fours. Tina and I were led to a table along the back wall and handed two menus. The table was edged in dark wood, with a square metal hot plate in the center. The menu was entirely in Japanese, and although I had been studying nihongo for over a year, the only word I could make out was the ideogram for “tea.” There were no plastic models in the window and the couple of tiny pictures on the menu were for decoration rather than explanation.

When the server came to take our order, I indicated in my halting Japanese that I would have the same as the woman at the next table, although I wasn’t entirely sure what she was eating. Having already decided that she wanted a whole sweet potato, Tina led the server back to the front to make her choice. When the waiter asked what we wanted to drink, I answered tea, but had no idea how to reply to his follow-up question of which kind. I racked my brain but the only two types that came to mind were matcha, the bitter bright green powder used in tea ceremonies, and genmaicha, a low-caffeine green tea with roasted rice kernels. The waiter suggested sencha, a high-quality green tea, and reached under the table to turn on the heating element connected to the metal plate, which would keep our cast-iron teapot warm. To drive away the chill of the early spring evening, I also ordered a glass of the lovely, fuschia-colored liquid I had seen on the counter, which turned out to be shochu, the Japanese equivalent of vodka. Although made with sweet potatoes, this shochu didn’t taste at all of the vegetable, but instead had the same roughness as other grain-based alcoholic beverages.

Waiting for our food to arrive, Tina and I noticed that the walls of the cozy jewelbox of a room, painted the color of garnets, were subtly adorned with sweet potatoes, painted a slightly darker shade of red-violet, an unexpected touch of humor.

The waiter set down a selection of delicate sweets in front of me: a small pile of candied, matchstick sweet potatoes, a scoop of off-white ice cream, and two little wagashi, the Japanese cakes usually made with beans but in this case, with sweet potatoes. One of the cakes was golden and topped with a fresh cherry blossom in honor of the season, the other dark pink. Everything was delicious. Tina’s single oval, purple sweet potato, carefully placed on the diagonal of a square, matte black plate, was more refined than any I have encountered before or since. I don’t know if this unusual café is still in business, but for me Chaimon encapsulates, as clearly as any Zen temple, the Japanese aesthetic, developed over the centuries in the ancient city of Kyoto.
© Judith Pierce Rosenberg, 2009. Used with permission. Judith Pierce Rosenberg is the author of the award-winning cookbook memoir, A Swedish Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences (Hippocrene, 2004) and A Question of Balance: Artists and Writers on Motherhood (Papier-Mache, 1995). Her work has appeared in Publishers Weekly, the Boston Globe, and other publications. Read more at her website: http://www.swedishkitchen.com

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Margaret

    Speaking of elegance–this excursion into Kyoto dining by Judith Pierce Rosenberg featuring sweet potatoes is as pure and spare as a haiku. It reads like a ceremony with a delicate, rare flavor.

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