Modern Mitate at Gion Matayoshi

hassun.gion.matayoshiWriting about food is such a pleasurable experience. While recalling the flavors and reviewing photos from a particular meal, one has chance to re-live the experience. And recently, we had a meal worth remembering at Gion Matayoshi, a tiny ryotei (traditional dining establishment) that was upgraded from one- to two-Michelin stars in 2012. It is the current featured article on Savory Japan.

gion.matayoshi.tsukimiIn the article I talk about mitate, a term used in the world of tea: That rarified, yet omnipresent way of thinking, seeing and living that makes Japan, well, Japanese. I didn’t have the space to explain it fully there, so I will attempt to do so here. Mitate means to “see with new eyes.” To arrange something in a new way so that it represents another idea, form, or time — so as to bring beauty and poetry, as well as a feeling of gratitude — for both. Take, for example, Matayoshi’s opening course, pictured here. What do you see?

What at first glance appears to be an egg yolk is actually a soft sphere of delicate and creamy corn kuzu, topped by two elegant slivers of sudachi rind, immediately bringing to mind the yellow-orange glow of the full moon, adorned with another version of itself,  a crescent moon. Even before Matayoshi set the bowl before us and said, simply “tomorokoshi no tsukimi dango” (corn moon dumpling), we appreciated the poetry, contemplating for a moment the beauty of the moon reflected in a bowl, set gently in a pool of inky sauce, like the night sky.

For those who know what tsukimi dango look and taste like, how radically different was Matayoshi’s version, so much more fitting for the season than a rice cake with red bean paste? But why do I call it modern mitate? Because one could argue that true mitate is always modern because it is new. However, there are plenty of examples in Japanese culture where the mitate itself becomes old. At any rate, I call it modern because it opened our eyes. Not only were the ingredients unexpected — with corn coming from the new world and not traditionally used in Japanese cuisine — but here we could see two phases of the moon at once; a time-shift that we barely noticed at first.

And the taste? Sweet and gentle, like only corn can be, the texture so silky and soft as to barely hold together; the tosa-su (a kind of vinegar) sauce and sudachi lending just the right tart acidity to complement the sweetness. So fitting for the season of the harvest moon of early autumn, when the nights are still warm.

Just think. Four paragraphs just for one dish. Yet, I don’t know if I could properly convey the concept of mitate. The meal revealed more examples of modern mitate, so be sure to read the entire article and view the photos here.