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Untangling My Chopsticks: A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto

3.60  ·  Rating details ·  621 ratings  ·  77 reviews
Two years out of college and with a degree from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, Victoria Riccardi left a boyfriend, a rent-controlled New York City apartment, and a plum job in advertising to move to Kyoto to study kaiseki, the exquisitely refined form of cooking that accompanies the formal Japanese tea ceremony. She arrived in Kyoto, a city she had dreamed about but never seen, ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published May 11th 2004 by Broadway Books (first published 2003)
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3.60  · 
Rating details
 ·  621 ratings  ·  77 reviews

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Ever since I read this book, I have wanted to eat a kaiseki meal. That desire is still unfulfilled. There was a kaiseki restaurant in Vancouver when I was there five years ago, but my then-boyfriend had no interest and I did not want to go by myself.

The narrator in this book is young, so while she seems to be a lovely person, her voice is not the most compelling. In some ways, this is a coming-of-age novel, which is not my favorite genre. She is, however, a keen observer of a world I will probab
Mar 11, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: food, travel
Untangling my Chopsticks, by Victoria Abbott Ricardi is a delightful book. It made me hungry just reading it. I wanted to change the way I read books (right before bed) so I could actually try and eat after I finished a chapter. I never did change my reading habits, but I will admit to some mightly fine food dreams.

I have not tried any of the recipes she posts at the end of each chapter. It isn't hard for me. I know I could cook some of this stuff. Plus I live right beside the First Oriental Ma
Mar 10, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018
An informative and relaxing read for anyone interested in Japanese food culture -- specifically, the tea kaiseke, an intricate culinary, cultural, and spiritual practise around foods served as part of the Japanese tea ceremony.

The narrative meanders among vignettes of specific tea kaiseke experiences, explanations of the cultural and spiritual roots, and full recipes inserted among
the chapters (the okonomiyaki is delicious!). There are detailed explanations of the foods, and of every element th
Nov 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars
well done but not mind blowing
Aug 05, 2012 rated it liked it
I started to read this book before my first trip to Japan but ran out of time. Then I finished it after my return. Because I love to make things out of cookbooks, and this book is basically a biography/cookbook, I thought I'd try two items from the book. You can see my posting with pictures of the recipes I made at:

Bottom line: I thought the book was a good characterization about how difficult it is to travel to a completely different culture and try to f
Feb 25, 2018 rated it liked it
Easy read, more or less enjoyable. Really enjoy the inclusion of recipes and the way the author's passion and appreciation for good food enjoyed with good people shines through. I'm a grouchy cook and I'm going to make more of an effort to look at cooking as a gift, rather than a chore. Was already excited to go to Kyoto, am now even more so.

There were several parts that I felt were both unnecessary and kind of sensationalist, playing on the tired "wow Japan is so crazy and weird" trope that I
Aug 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed this book although it made me regret being so busy with work when I lived in Japan that I didn't concentrate enough time on learning about food. She gives some amazing details that would, no doubt, bore someone who is not completely into Japanese food or culture. Her focus is on tea kaiseki, which is the food that is based around one of the many types of tea ceremony. Since I'm obsessed with tea...uh...and with food, I thought this was great. But, like Fuschia Dunlop's book Shar ...more
Mar 09, 2019 rated it liked it
I picked this book up because I am making a trip to Japan in the near future, and it was on a recommended list about learning about Japan. Had I not also done a good deal of other research on Japanese culture and foodways, I suspect a lot of the information here would have been new to me. As it is, I had learned a lot of those things elsewhere. This is not a terribly new book, and details the author's experience in Japan in the late '80s, when far less was known about Japan in the West. I apprec ...more
Aug 04, 2017 rated it really liked it

I've been to Japan and reading this helped bring back a lot of good memories. It's a fun book to read if you want a simple overview of life in Japan that doesn't sound like a tourist brochure or if you need a refreshing review of the culture. The book focuses on tea kaiseki but it does a wonderful job tying in how it relates to the culture, history, and language.

Where I marked it down though was that I had to remind myself often to read it. There wasn't a sense of "What's next?" after I fin
Sep 16, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: japan, nonfiction
I think I find this book hard to evaluate because I lived in Japan. Reading it brought back a lot of vivid memories so I didn't want to put it down, but I'm not sure that it was constructed well and would give me the same feeling without that experience.
Feb 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
I read this book in preparation for an upcoming trip to Japan. It was mesmerizing to read about Japanese culture and food in great detail. The country is far more compelling than the writer in the end, but I appreciated her detailed observations.
Mar 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
if you love food, this is the book for you! Every single page made me crave Japanese food, and by the end of it I felt like Victoria was one of my friends.
Aug 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I really enjoyed the way Riccardi interwove story with history, philosophy with experience. It made for a very easy, yet informative culinary travel book!
Jan 18, 2017 rated it liked it
Victoria Abbott Riccardi wrote Untangling my Chopsticks – A Culinary Sojourn in Kyoto after spending time in Kyoto learning how to prepare chakaiseki (tea kaiseki) with one of the three traditional tea houses in Kyoto. I read the book in preparation for our trip to Kyoto. The writing style is easy to read and Victoria does not big-note herself or inject herself unnecessarily into the account of her time in Kyoto. I was a little concerned when Victoria said that tea is grown on a plant related to ...more
Jul 27, 2011 rated it it was ok
This reads like a report. Not much use of narrative devices to make it interesting to read. It's a report about the day-to-dayness of living in Japan. Speaking of living in Japan, Riccardi went to Japan to learn about a specific tea ceremony, and I just don't get it. Why? So what? I'd be bored to death sitting through that type of tea ceremony, probably because I just don't get it. According to Riccardi, the tea ceremony is important because men in Japan "pursue the way of tea as a spiritual art ...more
Monica Williams
May 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
To be honest when I first started this book I wasn't sure if I would make it all the way through, but it held my attention. I read this book in just over 1 day. It is well written and well paced. Victoria Riccardi’s love affair with Japan started young. Her grandparents frequently visited Japan and brought back souvenirs and stories. In 1991 Riccardi finally got her wish. She was off to Kyoto to study tea kaiseki for a year. Different from the tea ceremony (yes I actually know about that- thank ...more
May 15, 2015 rated it liked it
As a Japanophile and a foodie, I enjoyed the way this book helped me recall memories from my own travels in Japan and how it provided recipes to try at home.

Personally, I felt that the writing style was often a little too flowery for my tastes and read like prose; e.g. "The sushi gleamed like little gems" or "the night sky was opalescent." I suppose it was meant to be like a love poem to the experience it is describing. If you've never been to Japan though and/or if you're not into poetry, this
Nov 28, 2009 rated it really liked it
I have always thought that writing about food is one of the most challenging descriptive undertakings. Words for other sensory perceptions seem to abound, but describing taste experiences vividly (see? "vividly" is a visual word) requires work and creativity. Japanese arguably provides more taste-sensitive words than English. Riccardi is one of the few writers who describes food tastes and textures with mouthwatering clarity. The cultural underpinnings and meanings of the traditional tea kaiseki ...more
Jan 02, 2014 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: People who love Japan, tea ceremony, culinary arts
Most of the action of the book takes place in the 80's in Kyoto. The descriptions of food are wonderful, as are the descriptions of the city. I learned a lot about the meals that accompany tea ceremony and the traditional reasons behind choices in preparation. There is a lot about Japanese culture here, which I found fascinating, but when I read a description of manga loosely grouped as a kind of porn, I had to question the accuracy of some of the information. The prose is sometimes not that gre ...more
Jan 22, 2014 rated it liked it
Interesting book either for foodies or those interested in Japanese culture, because there's lots about both but not much else. This is a memoir about a woman who spends some time in Japan getting a culinary education in the "tea kaiseki" ceremony, which is a series of specialized dishes served very ritually and ceremonially during the serving of tea. There are different types of tea kaiseki and she learns all about them and how to execute them.

The dishes are described in detail and it is very
Quite entertaining and perceptive. The author undertakes to learn traditional kaiseki, the refined cuisine of Japanese tea ceremonies. She takes the reader along as she becomes immersed in Japanese culture. This is a highly personal account that reads like a memoir overlaid with cultural observations -- a nice blend.

I read this book before taking a two-week trip to Kyoto, and it provided some helpful insights into this very traditional city. In particular, it made me determined to seek out some
Aug 20, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: food
It was slightly ironic that I read this book right after I finished The Omnivore's Dilemma. One of the dilemmas that American Omnivores face is that we do not have a strong food culture. We are pummeled with dietary fads and opposing nutritional information. At the same time, we are able to choose from most any kind of cuisine we feel like eating (depending, of course, on where one lives).
This book goes into rich detail on the symbolism and ritual of the Tea Kaiseki in Japan. Fascinating descrip
Jul 17, 2012 rated it liked it
Ms. Riccardi's descriptions were vivid. That was what allowed me to get into this book. The food, the scenery, the people... it all jumped out of the page.

Truth be told, it doesn't exactly follow a steady line of narration and there is no real "story" to tell, no climax, no resolution. It's mostly her life in Kyoto in the 90's, her friends, and how she learned the art of tea kaiseki. There were times where I felt I was reading a school book on Kyoto. Her voice wasn't very present when she wanted
Apr 11, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: people who like memoirs, travel writing or japanese food
Recommended to Lisa by: Lisa McIntire
I read this book over several days, and each time I sat down it was like a little journey overseas. Riccardi writes sensitively and sincerely about her sojourn to Japan to learn about tea and food culture. Unlike so many other travel and food writers, she doesn't gush, and I don't find that she romanticizes either. I've since encountered her articles in food magazines and have enjoyed all those as well. She has convinced me of her integrity!
Jun 06, 2008 rated it liked it
Saw this many moons ago in ASH and I finally broke down and bought it when I couldn't find it in my libraries.

Worth it - especially the recipes. I may finally try to make oyako donburi which I adore. A nice compact look at one woman's adventures abroad. Gilbert should have read this before trying Eat Pray Love - it might have improved it!
Sep 14, 2009 rated it really liked it
This book is a must-read for Japan-obsessed people like myself! At first I thought this book would be a rather boring read, but the author's vivid descriptions and funny narratives made this a book I could barely put down! This book tells the story of the author's journey to Japan to learn the art of Tea Ceremony. Along with her story, the author also tells a lot about Japan's food, customs, and history. Excellent book all around.
Oct 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
The intricate detail and history of Japanese tea keiseki is explored in this year-abroad memoir/cookbook. The author spent a year in Kyoto
learning the art of tea keiseki- the amazingly intricate food that is served in a tea house. The attention to detail, symbolism, and Japanese culture is explored and refreshingly shared through the eyes of a young woman. Now, I'm anxious to go back to Japan, with Kyoto as my first stop!
Dec 05, 2009 rated it liked it
As I read this book more and more, I become increasingly dissatisfied by the author's voice. One the one hand, she writes beautifully of food and of the kaiseki culture. On the other hand, I find her attitudes and perspectives of Japanese people and gay characters in her memoir, to be more than a little disquieting. I skip her observations of and interactions with people and go straight to the good parts about meals and cooking.
Feb 06, 2014 rated it liked it
Non-fiction. An American woman spends a year or more in Kyoto for the purpose of studying kaiseki, the cooking that accompanies the formal tea ceremony. And through this pursuit, she learns a great deal about Japanese cooking, culture, history, language, etc. She also makes good friends while in Kyoto. I knew I had missed much on my recent trip to Japan, and this book confirms that for me.
Lindsey Whyte
Jun 06, 2013 rated it really liked it
I read this on my way to and during a trip to Japan. it was a really great way to gain an better understanding of Japanese gastronomy and culture which, contrary to popular opinion, is not centered simply around sushi and noodle soup. I highly recommend it for those contemplating a trip and those who are interested in food and Japanese culture.
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“Finally, we would have been offered either a spring takiawase, meaning "foods boiled or stewed together," or a wanmori (the apex of a tea kaiseki meal) featuring seasonal ingredients, such as a cherry blossom-pink dumpling of shrimp and egg white served in a dashi base accented with udo, a plant with a white stalk and leaves that tastes like asparagus and celery, and a sprig of fresh sansho, the aromatic young leaves from the same plant that bears the seedpods the Japanese grind into the tongue-numbing spice always served with fatty eel.” 1 likes
“Unlike the miso soup served in restaurants, however, which contains lots of little goodies, like seaweed and diced tofu, the miso soup served at a tea kaiseki usually features one central ingredient that breaks the soup's surface. Depending upon the season, you might encounter a square of bean curd, a ball of wheat gluten, or a wheel of daikon radish simmered in dashi until butterscotch sweet. These central ingredients are usually cooked separately before being placed in the soup bowl and crowned with a seasonal garnish, such as fall chestnut, peppery spring shoot, or fragrant summer herb.” 0 likes
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