The Japanese appear to be acutely aware that every day provides the opportunity for cleanliness, and to do things well. Their daily activities such as sleeping, speaking or eating are part of a poetics that is always in concordance with the seasons of nature and with orderliness. Perhaps these little practices are what establish the determinant tone of their lives and not, as is often thought, the great tasks that they sporadically carry out. One of the most charming examples is precisely that of eating. In the art of serving a table lies a sensual and metaphorical ceremony that takes its aesthetic from the landscapes and the seasons of the year, and which the Japanese appear to exercise as if it were an innate characteristic of their disposition.
“A soup that simulates a mountain, a sushi roll that evokes a cedar and the empty space on a plate that gives balance to it all.”
That disposition and the customs of meals are determined by rules of propriety, by the so-called moritsuke: the rules for arranging food on dishes. But those rules have had such an impact that it is no longer necessary to study them, but rather just let yourself be carried away by intuition regarding various elements of Japanese culture, and principally, the concept of space, or ma.
Empty space is used to maximize possibilities in the arts. Japanese dishes are laid out with due attention to ma. As a general rule, a plate should never be completely covered with the food it contains. On the contrary, a large plate, such as the hassun, used in some courses of the tea ceremony, could contain little more than the miniature morsels of food placed in two lines in the appropriate places (generally tracing a diagonal line, and not parallel, with the shape of the plate).
In total contrast to the typical arrangement of plates in the West – which are usually loaded with food and where there is no meat there are potatoes or vegetables – the Japanese leave the empty space on the plate in view and generate a stimulus that goes from the eye to the palate; a trip from the empty to the contained. But one of the most captivating aspects of moritsuke is that in the daily ritual of eating it presents an occasion for metaphor.
Various culinary arrangements are available depending on the cook’s intentions and the season of the year. 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. A personal style is not important, but rather an expression of the principles that underlie much of the process of Japanese food, art and the aesthetics of the season of the year in which the food is being served.
A shun is the season in which a particular food is at is best, which is normally no more than two weeks per year. A good cook pays a lot of attention and care to serving such food with as much ceremony and acknowledgement as possible. Shun is instantly recognizable thanks to the visual metaphor of the arrangement of the dishes, and which recalls the places that the food comes from.
The most prolific ingredient of the season therefore enters the mouth, the mountain and the cedar, bamboo and, above all, the empty space that confers the perfect nutritious balance. And it is nutrition in Japanese culture that encapsulates all of the original sense of the term, being aesthetic, contemplative and physical nutrition in harmony with nature. They have without a doubt found a way for re-enchanting the world of the ordinary.
Photography © John Um