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NIPPONIA No.32 March 15, 2005

Bon Appetit!

Japanese Culture in the Kitchen

Japanese Cuisine:
A Feast for the Eyes, Too

Written by Otani Hiromi, food journalist, Photos by Ito Chiharu


Tray (right foreground): Kumiage-yuba, a simple appetizer (saki-zuke) in a small bowl with lid called a mugiwarade kobuta-mono.
Tray (left foreground): Sea bream, and squid with sea urchin sauce (muko-zuke sashimi). The dish is a kuro-oribe muko-zuke.
Tray (center rear): Small tuna sashimi with lightly grilled surface (muko-zuke ni-shume). The plate is a yukimochi-matsu muko-zuke.
Box (rear right): Three types of elaborate appetizers (hassun): Rape blossoms in a mustard dressing; bite-size salmon sushi arranged in the shape of camellia flowers; anglerfish livers marinated in saké then steamed. The box is called a kamogawa ko-bako, and the plate in it is an enogu-zara chinmi-ire.
Plate (rear left): Grilled Spanish mackerel wrapped in magnolia leaves, grilled clams and walnuts simmered in a sweet broth—a grilled seafood (yaki-mono). The plate is Shino ware.

Guests at a tea ceremony may be served an elegant meal called kaiseki, and this type of meal still influences the customs and menu of traditional Japanese cuisine. At formal dinners today, it is common for six to nine plates and bowls—all with different designs and sizes—to be used per person. After the meal, Japanese sweets and green tea are usually served.
Typically, a simple appetizer (saki-zuke) arrives first, followed by more elaborate appetizers (hassun) tastefully arranged on a plate. Next comes the muko-zuke plate, probably sashimi (raw seafood). This is followed by a plate of grilled fish, and a bowl with food simmered in a broth.
The plates and bowls are usually earthenware of different sizes and shapes, although you will sometimes see glass and lacquer ware as well. All are chosen to harmonize or contrast with the color and texture of the portion, or to play up the food's cold or hot temperature. The chef's artistic sensibilities are given free rein here.
Murata Yoshihiro serves traditional Japanese fare at his two restaurants called Kikunoi (one is in Kyoto, the other in Tokyo). He explains, "The meal has to be easy to eat with chopsticks, so we cut food like sashimi into bite-sized pieces before serving. The pieces are arranged nicely on a plate, so the plate should be the right size for the amount chosen."
"The bowls and plates are made with the user in mind. For example, bowl sizes vary slightly, depending on the gender of the eater—this may be unique to Japan. Rice, the staple food, comes in bowls, and the bowls traditionally have a diameter of about 12cm for men and 11.5cm for women. That way, they fit comfortably in the hand."
At mealtime, the Japanese used to sit on the floor and eat from a low table. Because of the distance between the food and the mouth, it was easiest to hold a small bowl or dish in one hand and to eat from it. The custom of using the hand this way has carried on, so small pieces of dinnerware have to be easy to hold.
There are basically two kinds of earthenware: pottery and porcelain. Porcelain is smooth and cool to the touch, so it is used more in the summer. Pottery creates a warm mood that suits winter eating.
You may have wondered why Japanese cuisine uses so many different types of plates and bowls. The answer lies in the combination of customs: using chopsticks, holding a bowl in the hand, and letting the season influence choices. The mystique of pottery and porcelain has developed a rich variety of kitchenware for these customs.
One of the pleasures at a Japanese restaurant is anticipating the style and decoration of the plates and bowls that will soon arrive. And when the food comes, it is also nice to admire the way portions are carefully arranged on the beautiful dinnerware, before picking up those chopsticks and digging in.NIPONIA

Dinnerware: So many shapes and sizes for special occasions
Clockwise from small covered bowl in foreground: Mugiwarade kobuta-mono for a simple appetizer (saki-zuke); kuro-oribe muko-zuke and kenzan-utsushi yukimochi-matsu muko-zuke, both used mainly for sashimi; Kyo ware yukiwa futamono for steamed or simmered delicacies; tsutae yakishime-zara, generally used by each person for food taken from a common dish; small fukura-suzume ko-zara for seasonings; kigochi-zara for food taken from a common dish; enogu-zara chinmi-ire for appetizers; gosu akae-utsushi ko-muko for small servings and raw seafood; ki-seto kaku-zara for grilled food; spoon shaped like a lotus petal.

Murata Yoshihiro owns and operates two restaurants named Kikunoi, specializing in Kyo (Kyoto) cuisine. He is also very active promoting authentic Japanese cuisine in Japan and abroad.
He prepared the cuisine and selected the dinnerware for this article.

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