By Christine Dzujna
The Japanese art of presenting food, moritsuke, was the subject of Elizabeth Andoh’s lavishly-illustrated presentation at the serene Globus washitsu. American-born Andoh has made Japan her home for more than 50 years and is a leading authority on Japanese culinary culture. She approached moritsuke by identifying three elements that govern the aesthetics of the traditional Japanese meal: (1) the choice of foods to serve, (2) the dinnerware in which the food is served, and (3) the exacting placement of each piece of dinnerware in front of the diner.
In the traditional practice of moritsuke, each component of a meal is served in its separate vessel (or carefully grouped in distinct areas in a larger vessel), with consideration given to the color, shape, seasonality, materials and textures of both foods and their serveware.
Each plate is chosen for its ability to make the food more attractive and easier to eat. A long narrow platter pleasingly accentuates a plank of fish, and rounded bowls or curved plates can best highlight and soften linear items such as strips of vegetables and skewers of food. Diminutive bowls of condiments and side dishes are arrayed around the main meal components.
As in the U.S., the seasons inspire certain foods and dishes in Japan. Fall, they say, is the most delicious time of the year when the most desirable ingredients – mushrooms and daikon radish – are at their prime. Pine, bamboo, plum (the three friends of winter) are popular motifs that help create a sense of time and place and food is often carved or arranged in their likeness, especially in platters prepared for New Year’s celebrations. Carrots, too, are regularly fashioned into seasonal motifs such as the maple leaf in fall and the cherry blossom in spring.
Meals on the go call for the use of the obento box, a handy food organizer that allows for easy extraction without messiness. The carrier need not be elegant and is often made of plastic, though a wooden receptacle is best for unrefrigerated food since it can absorb moisture that leads to spoilage. An obento accomplishes a straightforward and simple task but can also carry a great deal of meaning. Andoh described them as canvasses on which a painting is made and they are often turned into message boards through which the food preparer communicates with the person being fed (e.g. a wife who reminds her husband to pick up milk via his lunch obento).
Andoh emphasized that moritsuke is both artistic and practical: serving rice and soup in small bowls (kobachi) allows the food to be comfortably held and brought closer to the mouth, thereby minimizing accidents that can occur when plates remain rooted to the table.
The manner in which food is arranged on a vessel, or utsuwa, is subject to certain aesthetic rules. Hira mori means “flat arrangement” and is often expressed as thin slices of nearly transparent fish placed on a patterned dish that allows the design of the dish to be visible through the fish. This practice helps to demonstrate the skill of the chef. Food can also be arrayed to achieve height in a sugi mori (“cedar arrangement”) composition that resembles a tree standing tall. Tawara mori refers to a bale of harvested rice, and yose mori is a gathered arrangement that, if properly set up, will allow a diner to remove pieces of the whole without causing an entire collapse.
Such thoughtfulness in plating means that dinnerware purchases are made with careful consideration. Andoh spends hours looking for the right pieces and will hold each item to assess its weight and comfort, its textural nuances and shape. Composition is important because a soup bowl must suitably hold hot liquids, and the rim should promote optimal enjoyment of the contents; metal will feel very differently in the mouth than wood. Wood bowls and utensils are gentler to the touch and allow food’s flavor to shine. Other oft-used materials include bamboo and clay of which there are hundreds of types, some more volcanic than others. Lacquerware is dry and durable and has a good mouth feel, but it’s made from tree sap that can irritate the hands. A vessel’s makeup dictates how food is prepared and both its flavor and display may be altered by the selection.
Andoh reminded us that certain dining customs have become so habituated that they require no thought to execute. For example, chopsticks are always placed to the left, whether the diner is right or left- handed and are set down on a horizontal angle with the mouth tips pointed toward the rice bowl, an invitation to the diner to pick them up and begin eating. Notably, once the chopsticks are taken up, they are first dipped in the miso soup to help prevent the rice from sticking.
The bowl of rice is always placed at the bottom left for easy access and because this positioning is seen as a sign of respect for the rice grower. The soup bowl is generally placed to the right of the rice and items harder to eat may be set in the lower right corner of the tray so that they have less distance to travel from plate to diner. The reverence and thoughtfulness engendered by these routines allows one to pause and consider the meal about to be consumed and to feel gratitude towards those who made it possible. Habits like these, says Andoh, develop into experiential knowledge that, unfortunately, is declining in Japan and the young today are not as conversant in these customs.
Food culture in America doesn’t allow for much time and energy to be spent thinking about how food will be presented and consumed, and most would likely assert that their busy lives couldn’t accommodate such attention to detail and perceived fussiness. Yet we are undoubtedly a food-obsessed culture that might welcome more serenity and beauty at the table by making choices (in plating and tableware) that celebrate the food and those who produce it. Ironically, the Japanese plating aesthetic may be evolving to meet us halfway. As Andoh observed at the end of her talk, in recent years, “one-plate washoku” has transferred moritsuke arrangements onto a single, American-style plate, while nonetheless incorporating the rules and spatial divides characteristic of the multi-vessel moritsuke. She left us with a challenge to experiment with the plating of our daily meals by applying a Japanese-inflected aesthetic and to consider how we might use the negative spaces more positively (yohaku) rather than blanketing the plate’s surface with food. It is the blank spaces, she says, that makes the meal more attractive and will lead us to a better appreciation of the food.
The bites we appreciated very much after the presentation were largely prepared by Andoh and consisted of trays of sliced carrots, cucumbers, and daikon accompanied by dips she brought from Japan, including a tart miso-mustard, known as karashi su miso, and a pungent kinzanji miso, made with rice, soybean and mashed with eggplant, ginger and other vegetables that ferments for up to 8 weeks. The kinzanji miso history dates back almost 800 years, and it is believed that monks first popularized the method of using vegetable scraps to make the condiment. Wasabi crackers that woke up the palate were also served as were a variety of sweet confections from Sunrise Mart, the Japanese grocery store on East 9th Street. Light and refreshing sake rounded out the offerings.