Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Thoughts on Japanese Food Presentation

My last 11 posts have described and shown photos of some of the amazing food we ate as we toured Japan in late October through early November. Reflecting on this, and similar experiences from earlier trips to Japan, got me thinking about what makes Japanese food so special, and I set forth my thoughts below. This is a long post, but there are some nice pictures at the end, and this one just to prevent you from being bored during the introduction.

Rice course at Kanmean ryokan in Kyoto
Elizabeth Andoh, who knows as much as anyone about Japanese food, sets forth the "five principles" of Washoku (Japanese food) in her authoritative book of the same name.
  • Five colors. Each meal should include foods that are red, yellow, green, black (or nearly) and white.
  • Five tastes. Salty, sour, sweet, bitter and spice tastes should be present, in a harmonious way, in each meal.
  • Multiple cooking methods. Simmering, boiling, steaming, raw and yaki (broiled, grilled, and/or sauteed).
  • Five senses. The senses of taste, sight, sound, smell and touch (i.e. texture) should all be engaged.
  • Five Buddhist rules about eating. Respect for those who contributed to the food (farmers as well as cooks), doing good deeds to be worthy of the food, coming to the meal without anger, eating for spiritual as well as temporal well-being and struggling to attain enlightenment.
Fine Japanese cooking embodies the first four principles. The fifth comes from the diner, and is outside the scope of this post.

I love the tastes and textures of Japanese food, which reflect meticulously produced and cared for ingredients that are elevated by amazingly skillful chefs and the principles described above. However, the most striking thing to me, and what I discuss in this post, is the way a Japanese meal, and each plate, engages the sense of sight.

Japanese people have learned the ability to see beauty in the midst of the ordinary, or worse. Thus, they can focus on a flower, a bonsai tree or a bamboo and pine arrangement placed in a window or on a door and shut out the extraneous visual or aural noise, which can be pretty extreme. Similarly, the tea ceremony, which is an important influence on all Japanese esthetics, involves concentration on a lovely, but contrived, environment, with tea bowls and utensils, flowers and art all contributing to a kind of miniature tableau in which to escape the outside world and its pressures.

Another important characteristic of the Japanese sensibility is the awareness of the seasons. Probably the most common theme in Japanese painting is the four seasons, and this motif is carried over into ceramics and lacquer ware, as well as food presentation, with appropriate seasonal symbols (plum in winter, cherry blossoms in spring, flowers in summer and vibrantly colored maple leaves in autumn) being seen throughout Japan.

Applied to food presentation, I am always struck by the multiplicity of dishes that are served at the same time, usually a central tray and surrounding dishes but often a large plate with multiple elements. With luck, the dishes themselves and some of the serving plates and implements are of fine quality and enhance the experience of the meal by emphasizing the season in a beautiful way.

To me, this type of presentation fills the peripheral vision and permits (commands may be more accurate) the diner to focus his or her attention on a tableau that is not unlike a garden. It is beautiful when viewed from a distance and equally rewarding, in a different way, when each element is focused on separately. The idea is to take in and admire the garden from multiple points of view, with each one enhancing the total experience, which will vary greatly from one season to the next.

Tenryuji garden, Kyoto, central part viewed from a distance
Tenryuji garden, closer view of central part
Tenruji garden, still closer view
Tenryuji garden, left side
Tenryuji garden, closer view of left side
Well, you get the picture.

Now let's examine some food presentations that invoke the same exercise, i.e., to admire the whole but then focus on the separate elements and enjoy the relationship between the multiple views.

Here's a two-part lacquer box from a restaurant in Izumo, which contains some 19 elements (counting the soup as one), with a close up of part of the top half, focusing on a mere 12.

Izumo restaurant tray and close-up of a portion
Another example is this breakfast tray from Saginoyuso Ryokan, and close-ups of some of the major elements.

Saginoyuso breakfast tray and some individual elements
And from this year's tour, a magnificent breakfast presentation at River Retreat Garaku.

Breakfast platter at River Retreat Garaku with close-ups of some elements
We saw a different take on the same idea at Daigo, the famous temple food restaurant in Tokyo, where a round sectional plate presented about 15 separate elements, one more gorgeous than the next.

Sectional plate and separate elments at Daigo
And on the trip we just completed, there was Zeniya, already described in my post of November 15, 2015 in detail. But the seasonal plate, with 10 exquisite items, is worth examining in detail, as it makes my point more eloquently than I possibly can.

Zeniya seasonal plate and some of its elements
This style of presentation is not limited to Japanese ingredients. At one modern ryokan we visited on a prior tour, a Western style breakfast was given the same treatment.

Western breakfast, Japanese presentation
In the 1970s, a number of young French chefs visited Japan and became entranced with the way the Japanese presented food. These chefs created the movement known as Nouvelle Cuisine, of which an important element was a revolution in plating, with larger plates giving the ingredients room to breathe and to tell a story. Although the Nouvelle Cuisine movement is long over, the influence of Japanese presentation is still seen in fine restaurants in France and, indeed, around the world.

On a less global note, enjoying Japanese food is an important part of traveling in Japan, and the glorious presentation is at least as important as the food itself. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that careful observation of the plates of food placed in front of you can provide profound insight into how the Japanese relate to their environment.

Bobby Jay

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