Noto Suzuki performs the Japanese Shijo knife ceremony. (Betty Hallock / Los Angeles…)
Noto Suzuki, wearing a peach and light blue silk kimono with its flowing sleeves strapped back by two of his three assistants, held above his head a pair of chopsticks as long as a conductor's baton and a fierce single-edged knife. Kneeling at a low wooden table that already had been ritually cleansed, he readied to perform a Japanese knife ceremony that dates to the 1st century.
The zither-heavy music had stopped and a packed auditorium at the Japanese American National Museum on Sunday was silent as the ceremony unfolded -- traditionally a show of hope for an abundant harvest and gratitude for all ingredients that might be sliced by a knife.
Los Angeles sushi chef Katsuya Uechi, owner of the Katsuya restaurant group and president of the U.S. branch of the Assn. for the Advancement of Japanese Culinary Art, helped organize the ceremony "to share this tradition here in the U.S. to show how important a role the knife plays in the Japanese culinary world."
The founder of the Shijo knife ceremony (or houchoushiki) was imperial chef Shijo Chunagon Fujiwara Masamoto, who is considered one of the originators of Japanese cuisine and created rules and procedures for knife skills. The ceremony's centerpiece is the table that serves as a cutting board, its center representing the sun and the four corners representing the seasons.
Suzuki, also of the Assn. for the Advancement of Japanese Culinary Art, meticulously cut into a whole snapper in slow, deft, theatrical motions -- first removing the gills and severing the head, removing the belly, then cutting the rest of the body and tail into equal pieces. The cut pieces are arranged on the table using the knife and chopsticks (it's forbidden to touch anything with the hands), each in their symbolic place as an offering.
"It is very rare. I haven't seen this performed for 35 years," Uechi said. "Very rare even in Japan."
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