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NIPPONIA No.32 March 15, 2005
Japanese Culture in the Kitchen
Written by Otani Hiromi, food journalist, Photos by Ito Chiharu
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 bowlsall with different designs and sizesto 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 eaterthis 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.