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Saturday, Feb. 12, 2011

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

A serving paints a thousand words


In Japan, food is not just food. It's art.

And I do not mean the plastic imitations that decorate Japanese window displays. I mean the real thing, the very food on the very plate.

For meals here are designed to please the eye as well as the palate. This is true from the swankiest dining spot in the Ginza to the grimiest cookhouse in the dimmest corner of the land.

And in every household too. Where each golden omelet is painted with a precise dollop of ketchup and each serving of curried rice is cleanly split between brown and white, with a pinch of red pickles on the side. Even the many pot dishes, in all their frothy glory, start with an artful division of ingredients.

In Japan, cooks are not cooks. They are Rembrandts, Monets, Picassos.

"Which means," says my wife, clearing her throat, "that in the States, the cooks are more like finger-painters. The good ones, that is."

I steam on that and decide to toss the fat on the flames.

"What a half-baked idea! We have plenty of artful cooks, from coast to coast, all across the land."

"Then why do so many just plop food on the plate? And then smoosh it all together? Peas forced upon potatoes! Coleslaw overrunning beans! Gravy seeping everywhere! That's not art; it's chaos!"

I am about to sink my teeth into that comment when her words have an unexpected impact. My stomach growls.

A size-10 meal packed onto a size-eight plate? Let me at it!

Just imagine! A dinner dish swimming — no, drowning! — in turkey gravy! An enchilada bursting its cheesy guts all over the rice! A sloppy joe disintegrating into beefy goo right your hands . . . and all down your shirt! Ah! America! Of thee I sing!

"See," she says. "You are a nation of finger-painters. Nearsighted and colorblind finger-painters."

"But it all tastes so good! So keep your sushi and your tempura and your cutesy-cute, hand-carved veggies. They can sit there alone in their boxed compartments. Give me a Reuben! With the sauerkraut sliding free! And the dressing dripping everywhere! Give me a Reuben and I can overthrow the entire world! At least for the lunch hour!"

"That's right," she says, nodding. "History is going to remember American dining the same way it recalls Attila the Hun. You are the bulls in the china shop of cooking art."

I wave her off.

"You're completely wrong . . . about the animal. 'Pig' is the one you want. 'Cause pigs know food is not defined by the eyes. The more critical organs lay below: The gaping mouth! The probing tongue! The smacking lips!"

A picture she doesn't find pretty.

"A proper dish," she says, "should be a painter's canvas, not a hog trough."

But I crush this argument with a simple: "Woooooo. Pig. Sooie!"

When she speaks next, her voice turns soft. In the background, I envision an orchestra of violins, all strummed by chefs in tall hats.

"People are not pigs. We may not be angels either, but we need not break bread like brutes. There is a delicacy to dining, a grace. It is a splendor of occasion, a weaving of the senses, a feast not only for the flesh but also of the mind and heart! We should soar when we eat, not wallow!"

"Yet . . . you know," I say, "after that first graceful bite, it all ends up chewed and mixed together in the very same spot. And after that . . ."

"Stop! Don't say it!"

"Then . . . let's just imagine."

A pause for thought . . . and — poof — the violin-cuddling chefs are gone.

"You finger-painters can be gross."

"Being gross," I tell her, "is our true art form."

Why, I sometimes ask her, do we need so many plates for every Japanese meal? At times I have my tofu dish, my soup bowl, my pickle dish, my salad dish and my main dish, not to mention my spoons, forks, chopsticks and chopsticks rest.

"Isn't the 'plop' method easier?"

But she sees right through me. "You just want less dishes to wash."

And we used to have even more. For when my wife's mother still lived with us, my wife put as much effort into "Grandma's" dinner tray design as she did with food preparation. Each tray was a masterpiece of creative arrangement, with a dainty dish for each scrumptious morsel of Japanese cuisine.

Which, as senility settled in, my mother-in-law often ate with her hands, with not all of it making her mouth. Talk about a finger painter.

"So what? Those trays made her happy. It was worth it a million times over."

I agree. And I do see the connection between the delicacy of the design and the heartfelt care of the designer.

A connection for which I know I should show more appreciation.

"Ah," she says, smiling, "nearsighted and colorblind but . . . warm-hearted."

I smile back — in silence. For in my eyes, style points don't matter very much. Food is food. Yet, for harmony's sake I will indeed eat anything.

Including my words.



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