Embracing the concept of “wakon kansai,” Tomoya Kawata’s restaurant, Sazenka, explores new evolutionary possibilities in Chinese cuisine. For Kawata, tea is a vital partner, not only in his cuisine but in his very life. In this second half of the article, I ask him to explain a little of the philosophy behind his tea pairings.
Kawata selects his tea pairings in consultation with Sazenka’s manager, Taiyo Oshita.
“We place great value on our first instincts when we taste the new dishes I come up with,” he explains. “Based on that initial image, we then flesh it out to come up with the perfect tea that will complement that dish.”
Kawata tells me that he acquired the necessary knowledge to create tea pairings during his tenure at the Japanese restaurant Ryugin.
“I see one of the characteristics of Japanese cuisine as the intentional creation of space to be filled. A simple example is wagashi, Japanese confectionery. Wagashi confections are designed to be sweet and to dry the mouth, which makes the diner want some moisture. In one sense, they deliberately place stress on the mouth to create a space to be filled by drink. As I see it, both Japanese cuisine and French cuisine have developed by creating spaces that are filled by complementary beverages. On the other hand, Chinese cuisine consists primarily of dishes which are complete in and of themselves.”
Chinese cuisine has no traditional concept of pairing its food with tea or alcoholic drinks. “As I get older, though,” says Kawata, “and I find myself preferring lighter flavors, I have come to appreciate the spaces that tea can fill.”
Black vinegar sweet and sour pork, paired with spiced Yunnan black tea
One of the dishes from which Kawata’s pairing stance can be most clearly observed is this sweet and sour pork. Steamed for three hours in a qingtang broth, the pork, still on the bone, is then battered and deep fried, and glazed with a black vinegar sauce containing Sichuan peppers and cumin. This straightforward expression of the pork’s umami is paired with a Yunnan black tea blended with herbs and spices. The pairing allows the tea to function as an “aromatic sauce.” To ensure this, Kawata deliberately makes use of only the simplest spices.
“The spices blended with the Yunnan black tea are rose buds, lemongrass, cloves, cinnamon, maqaw, and bay leaf. These are placed in the siphon and boiled for 30 seconds. The idea is to create a sauce that is completed in the mouth. I make similar selections of wines with certain spicy flavor notes when making wine pairings.”
Steamed abalone paired with Taiping Houkui
Ezo abalone contains a strong flavor of marine minerals, reminiscent of the umami of kelp, and combines seamlessly with the taste of green teas with deep mineral flavors and earthy fragrances. Made in China’s Anhui Province, Taiping Houkui is renowned for its powerful mineral notes and clean, refreshing taste.
“We use these long glasses when we serve this tea at our restaurant, in large part to assist in the visual presentation of the tea leaves. It also provides a gradation between the lightness of the first sip and the richer flavor at the bottom of the glass after it has continued its infusion for some time. Even though it is cultivated in a mountainous region, it features seaweed-like flavor notes, allowing this combination to provide a link between the mountains and the sea.”
Brewing tea is like creating tang soup
“I am not a professional of the tea world, and I do not possess the extensive knowledge of a tea master,” admits Kawata. “Instead, I treat tea as another ingredient for my cooking, just like fish or meat.” Kawata’s pairings are designed to use tea either as a form of sauce to complement the flavors of his cuisine, or in the same way as a wine that cleanses the palate of oils and leaves a lingering aftertaste. “The beauty of tea is that it can fulfill both roles,” he tells me.
Kawata uses a range of teaware and water of different types and temperatures, depending on the variety of tea he uses and the flavors he wishes to draw out. He uses two types of water filtration: a mineral-rich version to fully elicit the aromas of the tea and a more solid type that produces a more robust flavor profile. At times, he has even used very hard mineral water.
Kawata’s teapots can also be divided into two categories: those which use the oxidation firing process (and tend to be a reddish-brown color), and those which use the reduction firing method (and are blue or black).
“There are also subtle differences between each individual teapot, so it is dangerous to make too many generalizations, but those made using oxidation firing tend to produce teas with a stronger aroma, while those made with reduction firing create tea with a deeper and more satisfying throat feel.”
Even using the same tea leaves, an almost infinite number of taste variations can be produced using water of differing characteristics, different brewing temperatures and times, and different teapots and teacups. “Brewing tea feels to me a lot like making tang (soup in Chinese cuisine),” explains Kawata. Even via the simple medium of water and tea leaves, he can draw out the unique flavors of the Japanese ingredients in his cuisine. More than seeing it as a beverage, Kawata approaches tea-making as another branch of his culinary arts.
“The more I learn about tea, the more I come to appreciate its complexity and depth,” says Kawata. As magnificent as they already are, Sazenka’s tea pairings look set to continue to evolve still further in concert with its cuisine.
A unique Chinese restaurant embracing the concept of “wakon kansai,” the marriage of Japanese spirit and Chinese scholarship. Since its opening in 2017, its creative cuisine and warm hospitality have made it a firm favorite among connoisseurs. Its classic yet adventurous dishes combine simplicity with a wonderful depth of flavor.