The Artistic Inspiration and Calculated Asymmetry Behind Japanese Cuisine
“An aerial view of a typical Japanese dish will show you a calculated asymmetry in the placement of the food framed in the backdrop of a beautiful dish, creating a peaceful yet striking balance and harmony, soothing in its quiet starkness but inviting with its lively colors and sharp angles…” – Globetrotter Diaries
Think back to the last time you dined at your favorite sushi restaurant. When your California roll and salmon sashimi arrived, did you sit for a few moments and truly appreciate its beauty? Did you think to yourself: Oh dang, this is a work of art. More likely, you devoured it immediately, washed it down with sake, and then shoveled some red bean mochi into your mouth. This kind of thoughtless gormandization could be considered a cardinal sin in Japanese culture, where the aesthetic of a meal is as important as the taste.
“Before eating, it is common practice to say ‘itadakimasu’…[which] acknowledges the process of nature and people…[that] make it possible to eat the dish.” (Remember to appreciate the many hands that brought the chūtoro to the table in front of you next time you grab your chopsticks.) Japanese cuisine is known as washoku. “‘Wa’ translates into peace or harmony and ‘shoku’ means meal.” Harmony is the key word here; it’s one of the guiding principles behind every dish.
Indeed, sushi is considered a genuine art form, since it is elegantly arranged to enhance its simplicity and natural beauty. It’s no easy feat to become a master sushi chef, or shokunin. It takes years of rigorous training to become an expert at the craft. These artists learn to mimic nature scenes by using a plate resembling a fish in motion, a quiet river nook, or a deep pool. The fish itself evokes an image of the creature swimming through underwater weeds and roots, and looks almost too good to eat. Almost.
These aesthetic principles don’t just apply to sushi, however. Moritsuke refers to guidelines for “arranging food on dishes.” There are some highly specific rules a shokunin might follow, such as adopting “seven basic patterns along the lines of sugimori (strips and slices of food in a slanting pile), kasanemori (overlapping slices) and tawaramori (blocks or rounds placed horizontally in a pyramid).” But it need not always be so complicated. The most important aspects of moritsuke to remember are minimalism and maintaining the integrity of ma, or empty space. Leaving empty space on the plate “[generates] a stimulus that goes from the eye to the palate; a trip from the empty to the contained.”
There are also particular presentation styles from which a chef can draw. Think Dada or Post-Impressionism, but as it relates to food. For instance: “The ‘mountain’ and ‘cedar’ styles are well thought of and are the most often used: on the edge of a bowl the cook will simulate a mountain surrounded by clouds: slices of fish, lightly placed in a fan shape, suggest the movement of the waves in the sea, or pyramids of round objects such as maki rolls insinuate rustic ideas or piles of ritual stones.” And, of course, one can’t forget about color. A dish must be comprised of red, yellow, black and white, as well as blue — which is occasionally interpreted as green.
Nowhere is this craft more apparent than during the fine dining experience known as kaiseki, which can include more than fourteen courses. The most exquisite “[kaiseki] meals are an expression of both time and place.” Dishes are always crafted with the season and locale in mind. Shun denotes “the season in which a particular food is at its best, which is normally no more than two weeks per year,” and it is “instantly recognizable thanks to the visual metaphor of the arrangement of the dishes… which recalls the places that the food comes from.” Not quite the same experience you might expect from your local Applebee’s. Nor would you expect to find elaborate fruit and vegetable carvings known as mukimono alongside your mozzarella sticks. These edible works of art are usually served as an appetizing garnish.
All this food talk is probably making you thirsty. Chanoyu, the traditional Japanese matcha tea ceremony, can help, though its purpose isn’t to quench a dry mouth. In fact, the ceremony is “a choreographed art requiring many years of study to master,” a kind of elaborate meditation in the Zen Buddhist tradition. Chanoyu adheres to the aesthetic known as wabi-sabi, which celebrates the beauty of imperfection and the unconventional. In contrast to the luxurious kaiseki meals, the tea ceremony is all about embracing simplicity and imperfection. This aesthetic is exemplified in the ceramic vessels used in the tea ceremony, which have undergone a long, artistic evolution over many centuries.
In stark contrast to the austere beauty of the chanoyu and the minimalist aesthetic of moritsuke, we find another form of Japanese food art — only this time, the food is fake. Sampuru are wildly popular “artisanal plastic” foods. Its practical purpose is to advertise the food in grocery stores and restaurants by “showing exactly what the food looks like and helping people who don’t speak the language decide what to eat.” But it doesn’t end there. There are sampuru “championships and display shows,” and some people even “purchase mouthwatering fakes on everything from keychains to iPhone cases.”
Sampuru is an art form in its own right since "most [are] still skillfully handmade by trained artists.” It takes around five years of training to master the craft. During this time, sampuru artists learn how to create and fill molds, and how to airbrush and lacquer the pieces. They become well-versed in which material works best for each item. For instance: “Panko coating for shrimp looks best if it's made from polyvinylchloride. Or soba soup broth, from urethane. Kiwi seeds can be created by permanent marker.” Of course, at its core, sampuru “is deeply linked to the Japanese preference of first 'tasting with their eyes' and rooted in the nation's extraordinary appreciation of the visual aesthetics of food.”
From sampuru to the artistic principles of moritsuke that guide everything from plating a piece of sushi to the fourteen-course kaiseki dinner, to the meditative austerity of the tea ceremony and the elaborate mukimono carvings, one thing is clear: Japanese cuisine is as pleasing to the eyes as it is to the taste buds. Ultimately, the goal of all this artistry is to present harmony. So the next time you make a meal, pay attention to the beauty on the plate before you. Give thanks to the farmer and the fish. And then, by all means, chow down.