Concepts that Guide Japanese Plating
The beauty of Japanese plating is a highly codified process, an interplay of cultural factors and accepted plating principles. Most important is the intention of Japanese cuisine to appeal to the taste, as well as to the eye. There are concepts when it comes to the art of Japanese plating.
There is balance in Japanese plating even as one appreciates that there seems to be no symmetry on a crafted Japanese dish. It is considered well harmonized when it feels peaceful to look at. It can look a somewhat off-kilter, but is tantalizing, engaging and pleasing to the eye. The same Japanese dish can hardly look predictable, hence, the absence of symmetry.
Japanese culture values asymmetry in numbers – 3, 5 and 7 are common in plating. Five is regarded as favorable and is reflected in many facets of Japanese cuisine because the five senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch) are important in a balanced meal. Red, yellow, white, black, and blue (interpreted as green) are the 5 colors also represented in many dishes, as well as the five tastes – sweet, salty, savory, bitter, sour – key to balancing flavor. Contrast is also important to balance. That is why there is silky egg custard and briny roe, bitter greens and sweet rice, there’s black contrasting with orange.
Western restaurants and homes mostly dine on plain plates. In Japanese culture, it’s the opposite – there is enjoyment in the expression of a variety of vessels. Japanese receptacles come in different shapes, sizes and colors, are made from pottery, glass and lacquer, emblazoned with decorative patterns. In Japanese culture, plates, bowls and cups are chosen based on the dish to be presented, and often inspires it.
Seasonal eating is important in Japan’s culture. Each season defines the type of food presented and eaten. There’s a complete change from season to season – from what’s on menus, cooked at dinner parties, in bento boxes, and at convenience stores. Plating showcases seasonal produce, as well as theming the colors of ingredients and serving ware. That’s why for spring- pink and green, reds and gold for autumn. Noodles are served in large bowls in winter and chilled on top of ice in bamboo baskets for summer. Even chopstick rests – they have a cherry blossom in spring and maple leaf in autumn.
Food arrangement on the plates is dictated by the rules of moritsuke, or serving arrangement. The styles draw on the ideas of balance and contrast, depending on seasonality. The most common is hiramori, the arrangement of food on a flat plane. Similar food sizes and colors are placed together in a slanted direction. Yama no katachi is a mounded, mountain-like arrangement. In sugimori, food is in a conical shape resembling a cedar (sugi) tree. Kasane-mori is vertically layered arrangement; Nagashi-mori is a mountain arrangement in a sunken vessel. Yosemori comprises two or three contrasting ingredients gathered centrally. Chirashimori is a ‘scattered’ arrangement, which relies on the ability of chef to balance aesthetics of random arrangements.