Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto
by Victoria Abbot Riccardi

Broadway Books, 2003. ISBN 076790852X.
Reviewed by Nancy Dasenbrock
Posted on 11/08/2007

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Travel/Adventure; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

Having just finished Untangling My Chopsticks by Victoria Abbot Riccardi, I fix myself a cup of tea. Inspired and infused with the tea kaiseki and the way it fits into the culture of Japan , I have, of course, chosen green tea. As the tea surrenders its aroma, I am brimming with respect for the traditions that are still practiced, and am filled with a deep appreciation of the culture which they reflect. Because I love to cook, I was looking forward to learning more about Japan's food. However, I quickly became more involved with the meanings that surround the food itself.

Victoria Riccardi weaves a journey in her culinary memoir that has taken me into the mysteries of Japan and old Kyoto. She has introduced me to the elements of tea kaiseki, an essential part of the famed tea ceremony, where green tea offers a chance of enlightenment. To follow her through the streets of Kyoto is to be introduced to the beauty and soul of this ancient city. She manages to be accepted to Mushanokoji, where the art of tea kaiseki, the food served at a tea ceremony, is taught. She learns the seven different kinds of tea kaiseki and explores, step by step, the process of choosing just the right element for each while she learns to prepare the appropriate dishes.

As I traveled with Victoria through the year, I was introduced to fresh local foods, each appreciated in their own season. Japan is a country in which all of the seasons (and I learned that there are many more than just four) are anticipated. Each holiday is celebrated with food that is symbolic of the occasion. Colors, textures, and number of dishes are all important symbols. To understand all of the various levels of the tea kaiseki takes a life dedicated to study. But just as a poem can be appreciated on many levels, so can these ceremonial choices.

Along the way, I enjoy meeting the friends who enrich Victoria Riccardi's sojourn. Her employer, Tomiko, befriends her and offers her a room in her home, giving us a chance to see how a typical family lives. Victoria rounds out her experiences at the tea school by taking us along to meet Stephen and his partner David, who host tea ceremonies in their older home with its own tea pavillion. We share her experiences as she earns money to pay for her tuition at the school. And we meet John, her future husband, when he comes for a visit.

Victoria eventually realizes that she wants to leave Kyoto "slightly hungry with a desire to return." Thirteen years later, she returns to visit to a monestary in Kyoto. There, her study of tea kaseki comes full circle as she explores its zen origins. She also comes full circle in that she realizes that she "wants to live each day as if there were no tomorrow." You will enjoy the depth in which Victoria Riccardi explores the culture and have a greater understanding of the tea kaseki as a microcosm of the Japanese way of life.

Victoria Abbott Riccardi works as a freelance food, travel and health writer. Ms. Riccardi studied classical French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, France—and tea kaiseki at Mushanokoji tea school in Kyoto, Japan. A graduate of Harvard College with a B.A. in psychology and social relations, she lives with her husband, John Riccardi, in Newton, Massachusetts. Visit her website.

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