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Authors: Victoria Abbott Riccardi

Untangling My Chopsticks

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For lighting the way of love
To eternal bliss

   Had it not been for my grandparents, Esther and Gordon Abbott (fondly referred to by their grandchildren as Gunga and Pama), the wonders of Japan and especially Kyoto might have eluded me. It was the postcard they sent me almost thirty years ago of two
(apprentice geisha) feeding orange carp in a mossy garden that made me want to visit Japan. I am grateful for their fascination with China, Hong Kong, and Japan and their desire to pass along the glories of these countries to their grandchildren.
   I am profoundly indebted to my parents, Gordon and Katharine Abbott, who have always encouraged their children to follow their hearts. Thank you for your extraordinary love, support, and guidance over the years.
   I am also grateful to my siblings, Christopher, Katrina, and Alexandra, and extended family, Lexanne, Ben, Shaun, JJ, Nina, and Michael, who helped immeasurably by cheering me on from the sidelines as I worked on this project.
   To my best friend, Margaret, thank you for always being there, before, during, and after Kyoto. Your weekly letters to Japan not only comforted and entertained me but also served as an invaluable resource.
   When I left Kyoto for the first time back in 1987, I knew I wanted to share the beauty of this city and the art of tea kaiseki with others. I owe a world of gratitude to my agent, Angela Miller, for sitting down with me one cold January afternoon in her New York office and asking me what I really wanted to write about, and then encouraging me to do so. Thank you for your interest, commitment, and unflagging faith.
   I am also immensely grateful to my editor, Jennifer Josephy, who expressed such enthusiasm for this project. Thank you for your insight, honesty, and thoughtful comments and suggestions all along the way.
   Also, many thanks to her assistant, Laura Marshall, and so many others at Broadway Books. I am tremendously grateful for all your professionalism and creative input.
   Allan Palmer was kind enough to spend time talking with me about the tea ceremony and tea kaiseki, as well as read through the manuscript. My sincere appreciation for your valuable role.
   Also, numerous thanks to Glynne Walley, for sharing your extensive knowledge of Japanese history, as well as your thoughts on the manuscript.
   I also appreciate the insight of Mr. Kaji Aso. Thank you forwelcoming me into your tearoom and sharing your knowledge of tea.
   My cousin, Susannah Gardiner, offered many thoughtful suggestions for the manuscript. Thank you for all your heartfelt input.
   Many thanks to my friend Alice Kelly, who offered immeasurable support from early on. Thank you for your generous involvement with the manuscript and many helpful comments.
   Miki Sakakibara, with whom I shared dozens of cups of coffee and tea, thank you for your valuable insight about Japanese culture, including chopstick etiquette.
   I am also indebted to all my friends in Kyoto for sharing with me the treasures of your city, the bounty of Kyoto's markets, the warmth of your friendship, and the spirit of Japan.
   During the years I have worked on this book, my husband, John, has provided more love, compassion, and support than a person could ever hope for. Thank you for all you have shared with me. I am forever grateful for your profound understanding of human nature, unique insight, editorial wisdom, and most precious spirit.



Walking the Roji


Untangling My Chopsticks

“Have a Riddle Taste”

Passing the Test

Japanese Julia

Tea Kaiseki with an American Twist

English Fun World

Sliding Open the Shoji

Christmas in Kyoto

Making Mochi

The Year of the Rabbit

Putting on the Obi

Two Birthday Gifts

The Ways of Tea

Through the Looking Glass

Garlic Thunder Comes to Kyoto

Lounge Lady

The Greening of Japan

Letting Go

“Welcome Back to Kyoto”

Author's Note


Even in Kyoto
how I long for old Kyoto
when the cuckoo sings
Matsuo Basho, translated from
the Japanese by Sam Hamill
Ever since I can remember, I have adored mixing up ingredients to experience new taste thrills. The first recipe I ever made was Betty Crocker's Polka-Dot Macaroni Bake, a dish of creamy elbows and cheese topped with salty hot dog slices. I was seven.
My passion for cooking grew as my mother taught me how to make her chewy cranberry bread, Dijon mustard vinaigrette, and Nantucket quahog chowder thickened with chopped clams, potatoes, and sweet onions. Then it reached new heights in college when I took a year off to study French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, where I learned to master a mean spinach soufflé, make a perfect sauce Bordelaise, and craft authentic shiny chocolate-topped éclairs. When I was hired as the sous-chef at Le Potiron (The Pumpkin), a Parisian restaurant near Les Halles, I used my newfound skills to transform tough cuts of beef into tender stews, improvise with sweetbreads, and bake cakes from memory.
While all these cooking experiences greatly enhanced my life, they did not significantly alter it. At least, not in any profound way.
Then, at the age of twenty-five, I went to Kyoto, Japan, and started studying tea kaiseki, an ancient style of cuisine that accompanies the formal tea ceremony. And the more I learned about this multicourse meal that evolved in Kyoto's Zen monasteries, the more my approach to food began to change. Eventually, my outlook on the world began to change too. For it is tea kaiseki's link to Zen Buddhism that would turn out to have the greatest influence on my life, although it would take thirteen years before it became apparent just how.


celebrated my arrival in Kyoto with a dinner of grilled eel, a sublime delicacy in Japan. In the water the fish resembles a ferocious jagged-toothed snake. But when sizzled over hot charcoal it looks like a fillet of sole that has spent the winter in Palm Beach. The skin turns crisp and smoky and the fatty white flesh, basted with a sweet soy syrup, becomes deeply tanned and as succulent as foie gras.

The restaurant was located in a cheery yellow mall beneath Kyoto Station, home to the southern bus terminal, north-south subway line, and Japan Railroad Tokaido Main, one of the four major bullet train routes. Being coatless and having underestimated how cold it gets in Kyoto in early November after the sun goes down, I had ducked into the mall in search of warmth and something to eat.

The restaurant lay at the end of a long corridor lined with
inexpensive clothing emporiums, elegant Japanese sweet shops, and trinket stores selling sandalwood fans, pottery tea bowls, and I Love Kyoto key chains. Like all the other eateries in the area, the eel restaurant displayed lifelike plastic models of the items on its menu in a brightly lit picture window. I chose a small wooden table for two in the back of the restaurant and sat down in the chair facing the kitchen. I was the only diner. The chef, sporting a clean, pressed, white cotton band around his forehead, came over to my table. He was apparently also the waiter.

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