In a dimly lit dining room, Sazenka’s chef Tomoya Kawada draws a yin-yang diagram on a pad of paper while explaining his dreams for the distant future.
“World peace through food,” he says.
Such words could easily be dismissed as idealistic exaggeration. But coming from Kawada, they sound almost reassuring – and even achievable.
After all, this Japanese chef has achieved a feat that no other restaurateur has done before; He founded the world’s only three-star Michelin Chinese restaurant in a non-Chinese-speaking city. Not an easy task in the heavily guarded world of Chinese kitchens.
Located in a former diplomatic house in a quiet upscale neighborhood, Sazenka’s rise to fame was rapid. It was awarded two stars by the Michelin Guide in 2017 – the same year it opened. Another star was added in 2020 and has stuck with all three in the years since.
To emphasize how impressive it is, it’s worth nothing, there are only seven other Chinese restaurants in the world with three Michelin stars and they are in Hong Kong, Macau, Taipei and Beijing.
Restaurant Tokyo was also named the 12th best restaurant in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards 2023, the highest ranked Chinese restaurant on the list.
“I’m not that far yet,” says the modest chef about his achievements.
“It’s only been six years. I’m sure we can make even better food, offer better service and make our customers happier.”
The team has multiple daily meetings as part of efforts to achieve these goals.
“Unfortunately, I probably won’t be satisfied with the results until I die,” says Kawada. “But we are growing and we are happy. It’s like climbing a mountain – we reach a peak and something else begins. But looking back I still think it was fun when we climbed.”
The restaurant’s poetic name, Sazenka, is made up of three words meaning tea, Zen and Chinese. The restaurant’s 11-course feast, sans appetizers, combined with teas and desserts, feels more like a mindful kaiseki experience than a traditional Chinese banquet. The costs? About $450 per person.
It starts with a bowl of somen noodles served in a mixture of clear broth and tea oil in a blue and white porcelain stemware mug, and ends with a sweet ball of rice floating in a mild tea soup.
From Cantonese Char Siu (Honey Glazed Roast Pork) to Sichuan Pepper Pigeon, the menu’s regional Chinese dishes are infused with a uniquely Japanese twist.
For Kawada, the menu he created for Sazenka is a childhood dream come true. His love for Chinese food began at the age of five after his parents took him to a Chinese restaurant in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan.
“I vividly remember that moment when I was drawn to the beauty and deliciousness of Chinese food,” he says.
“There were dishes called Bang Bang Chicken, Mapo Tofu, or Yun Bai Rou (cloudy pork slices). I was mesmerized by her beauty. I could see the beautiful Chinese scenery in the food.
“I was so impressed that I decided to become a Chinese chef in the future.”
At 18, he got a job in the kitchen at Azabu Choko, a now-closed Sichuan restaurant in Tokyo. He worked there for a decade before switching to Japanese cuisine and training with RyuGin’s chef Seiji Yamamoto for five years.
But over the years he has often visited China to see the landscapes and deepen his understanding of the cuisine.
In 2017 he started developing his own version of Chinese cuisine and Sazenka was born.
“There’s a Japanese phase called Wakon-Kansai (Japanese spirit and Chinese talent),” says Kawada when asked to define his cuisine.
“Sazenka food is based on Sichuan cuisine with Japanese spirit and Chinese sensibility.”
The set-course menu is packed with eye-catchers, all of which highlight the chef’s meticulous Chinese and Japanese cooking techniques.
Sichuan peppered pigeon is prepared in two ways – its thighs are cooked crispy Cantonese-style, while its breast is given the Japanese yakitori treatment – skewered and grilled.
Sichuan-inspired Cloudy Pork Slices is beautifully marbled pork topped with thin eggplant slices cut into feather shapes.
The jellyfish salad is finely sliced and presented in a small bowl carved from a Japanese sudachi citrus.
But of all Sazenka’s rich and punchy dishes, Kawada selects the humblest of them all to represent his restaurant: the pheasant soup, inspired by Hong Kong’s won tan soup, with a pork dumpling floating in clear broth.
“Hong Kong’s premium stocks are incredibly delicious. I’ve always wondered what would happen if I tried to express the taste of Japanese broth in Chinese cuisine,” says Kawada.
To make what he calls “simple soup,” the pheasant’s bones must be pounded and soaked in water overnight. They are then cooked over high heat until the blood comes out and is removed. The remaining bones are then boiled down for about four hours.
The broth is left to rest for another day before adding ground pheasant, Jinhua ham, seaweed, scallions, ginger, Shaoxing 15-year-old wine, salt and pepper to flavor the clear broth.
“The moment you put it in your mouth, the taste is not noticeable, but very smooth,” says the chef.
“But little by little the delicacy comes. The depth of this delicacy is a strength of Japanese cuisine. The spirit of Japanese cuisine is a dish that makes you think, “I really enjoyed this pheasant soup” just three days later. This pheasant soup is the world of Japanese cuisine in one bowl.”
The soup is also the perfect illustration of Sazenka’s Wakon-Kansai philosophy, which has nothing to do with replicating authentic Chinese dishes in Japan.
“I’ve always believed that authentic cuisines are the best from their original places. But I think the development of a culture is only possible when it travels. So I think creating a cuisine, be it Sichuan or Japanese, that makes people feel comfortable is an outstanding achievement,” says Kawada.
For him, eating is more than just an activity, it is “a beautiful way of instilling peace”.
In his view, everything goes back to the yin-yang taiji symbol.
“If Japanese cuisine is black and Chinese cuisine is white, the merging of the two creates a gray circle,” he says, noting that the two cuisines should instead coexist like the black and white dots on the yin-yang chart.
“It’s not fusion, but harmony, made up of two Chinese characters — cho and wa (mix and together) — without wiping out the goodness of Japanese cuisine and Chinese cuisine in each other.”
He points to Japanese cuisine as a cuisine that has achieved this goal by integrating the culinary techniques and ingredients of different cultures from around the world.
“I think the idea of Wakon-Kansai is wonderful. It shows how firmly people believed more than 1,000 years ago that Japanese and Chinese cultures should get along and that we should respect each other’s good points.”
Although the concept of Wakon-Kansai dates back to the Heian period (794-1185), he believes it still applies to many relationships in the world today.
“Cooking is about respect for the earth and also about the relationship between countries,” says Kawada.
“I hope in this way Sazenka can be seen as a symbol of world peace by coming to terms with food. That’s the idea I have when I approach my kitchen.”
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