Awarded three Michelin stars in 2020, Sazenka is a restaurant where you can experience the true fusion of traditional Chinese and Japanese cuisine, and it has even received high praise from customers well-versed in Chinese cuisine for its authentic traditional dishes. Here, we take a look at what Tomoya Kawada, Sazenka’s chef and owner, had to say about the restaurant and his inspiration.
The kanji used for Sazenka (茶禅華) includes tea, zen, and a character commonly used to mean China or Chinese food, as well as beauty or flower.
An Admiration for the Magnificence of Chinese Cuisine
When I was young, we used to have Sichuan cuisine at home, and something about it inspired me. Of course, the food itself was delicious, but I was moved by the lengths taken to achieve such beautiful presentation. My parents later told me that they believed this experience at home was precisely what made me want to become a cook from such a young age.
By the time I was 18, my dreams had grown to a point where I was determined to join the culinary field. Once I decided to go professional, I threw myself into the world of Chinese cuisine that I loved so much, and I was set on mastering it.
Back then, my father was managing his own company but there was no talk of me taking over. He told me that if I was determined to take on such a tough field, I should do exactly that. I think it was very important to him for his children make their own choices in life, without his influence.
The Harmony of Chinese and Japanese Cuisine
The biggest difference between Chinese and Japanese food is in the ingredients. Japanese cuisine is tailored to Japanese ingredients. Similarly, Chinese cuisine is tailored to Chinese ingredients. The two cooking styles clearly share some of the same thought processes, approaches, and even spiritual elements. But, despite their uncanny similarities, they are in fact quite different.
I highly value the concept of wakonkansai. It means to take teachings passed down from Chinese traditions and bring them together with Japanese spirituality to make something completely new. Using my knowledge of Chinese cuisine as the foundation, and my Japanese identity as the pillars, I aim to bring life to my vision of this new cuisine. The question for me is how to find a good balance between the two sides of me: The side as a chef of Chinese cuisine, and the side as a Japanese national.
When I cook, I aim to create perfect harmony between Chinese and Japanese cuisines. I want my dishes to be like yin and yang, where you can find white within the black, and black within the white. To achieve that, I need to have a complete understanding of both black and white as separate entities. On top of which, for each ingredient I have to decide whether to use the Chinese style or Japanese style of cooking, or perhaps even a combination of the two. All these elements are always on my mind when I’m cooking.
When it comes to Chinese cuisine, there is an interesting concept that I often think of while cooking: Dàn. Dàn is a fundamental element of Chinese cuisine. When the sun shines on a river, you can see steam quivering between the light and the surface of the water, and in Chinese, this space is known as “dàn”. An ever-changing space is born between the flame of the sun and the water of the river.
In cooking, “dàn” is the happy medium. The exact point where you couldn’t possibly add or take away anything more is what is known as the “perfect state” in the art of cooking. You could say that dàn is the process of finding the perfect balance of fire and water to bring out the true nature of each ingredient.
Captivated by the World of Tea
In cooking, water is a vital ingredient. This is the same with tea, but in the world of tea, you can create a three-dimensional taste without the interruption of extra flavourings. In a sense, it is the ultimate form of cooking.
I love the unique flavours that come from using tea leaves from China or Taiwan together with Japanese water. Combining Japan’s wonderful water with tea allows me to feel as though the world has no limits, and that there is a perfect harmony to be found. I believe the secret to cooking is finding the perfect harmony between what humans can do and what nature can provide, so I called my restaurant Sazenka to embody my desire to create Chinese cuisine that evokes the same emotions as the world of tea that I find so captivating.
Tea goes through six fermentation stages, and the process can produce thousands of different teas. This fascinated me, so I decided early on that I wanted to offer Chinese teas alongside my courses at the restaurant. At the time, there were no other restaurants that offered this kind of “tea pairing”, but as I trained my idea gradually began to take shape, and I was eventually able to make my idea a reality.
Learning Style and Grace from Two Beloved Mentors
During my training, Azabu Choko’s chef Matsuo Nagasaka taught me about the lengths and effort it takes to achieve beautiful presentation in Chinese cuisine. Mr Seiji Yamamoto from Nihonryori RyuGin, on the other hand, taught me about the richness of Japanese cuisine. They each held a similar mentality that focused on the importance of working hard on what you can do right now, and how to connect that to the future. They were set on maintaining the balance between past, present, and future. I believe this way of thinking brings style and grace into the world of cooking.
Moving Customers on a Deeper Level
It is always important to ask “why”. By continually asking myself the question "Why am I cooking Chinese food when I'm Japanese?" finding the answer for myself has made my convictions as a chef grow ever stronger.
When I trained overseas, I learnt that different cultures are created by what brings comfort to locals. In Japan, one of those comforts is the knowledge that ramen and gyoza are truly delicious. That comfort is something we need to treasure. But even if someone is familiar with a dish, and finds it comforting, I think customers are most moved by chefs who can make dishes that are "eye-opening", or make them think "despite the uncanny similarities, this is something different”.
Sazenka’s True Worth: The Balance of Time and Fusion
There is a sense of unison to the Chinese, Japanese, and Taiwanese plates and tableware that we use at the restaurant. In Japan, there is a wealth of artists who adopt a wakonkansai style, including Hironori Kajihara and Chouza Yamamoto, whose pottery we use at Sazenka. We truly cherish their “celadon” and “gosu” porcelains. These styles originate from China, and evoke a real sense of Chinese traditions, as a complement to our food.
When we have Chinese visitors to the restaurant, they often tell me: "It feels like I am eating truly traditional Chinese food. I came here thinking that you offered something more innovative and modern, but now I can see that is not your aim." I take this as high praise, and couldn’t be happier with such a wonderful compliment.
I think the more someone knows about Chinese cuisine, the better they will understand Sazenka. This is exactly the vision of Chinese food that I want to make a reality, and I will continue to strive for a good balance between the past, present, and future.
4-7-5,Minamiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan