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The Principles of Japanese Tableware - November 2002 Newsletter

 

The Japanese culture--its beliefs, customs, language, architecture--is quite distinct from others in many ways. As many aspects of Japanese culture remain undoubtedly unique, many are also becoming more Westernized or cosmopolitan. With all the developments and adaptations, nevertheless, one particular characteristic of Japanese culture ceases to change--the ever eclectic and vast range of tableware. When one realizes the myriad of tableware and all its uses, the Japanese culture is seemingly the only one with such variety.

With such an assortment and with all its functions, Japanese tableware also comes with certain expectations and purposes in regards to its uses. One of the most important expectations is that of the attitude or mindset one must have when preparing tableware and food for others. One must keep in mind that the appreciation and memorable experience the eater has, especially that of a guest, is paramount to even the taste of the food. But how does one surpass taste when it comes to an appetizing meal? According to Japanese culture, making--and recognizing--effort, consideration, creativity, appeal, and aesthetic value as important as taste is essential to a pleasurable meal. These essential components of a memorable meal are just the main aspects which, as one will see, can be further viewed to reveal even more, particular attributes.

In reference to the consideration component of Japanese meals, one must be aware of the present environment, particularly the season. As it seems apparent that each season sets a mood, Japanese culture finds that the tableware used should reflect the mood as well. This reflection can be made by using tableware that represent the colors of the season and accentuate the foods of the season. Because Japan, in particular, has four very distinct seasons, the usage of Japanese tableware should also accommodate for the different climates and temperatures. Tableware for the fall and winter seasons should give a sense of warmth and coziness, while those used for spring and summer should give a sense of coolness and refreshment.

The colors for the fall season are very much a reflection of the changing colors of Japan's environment--its trees, leaves, plants, and other wildlife. The next set of colors reflects the cold, snowy landscape of Japan's winters. The wares for winter and fall suit the seasons as they exhibit warmth in texture and heat retaining properties. These wares, especially stoneware and ceramic ware, are typically heavier and more solid in structure than others. Shino, a milky-colored ceramic, and Oribe, an earth-toned (usually with green), unusually-shaped ceramic, are two of the most popular wares used during these seasons as they are ideal for tea and are warm in nature. According to the Japanese, these more robust and thick wares require a larger portion of food which eventually will account for the eater's feeling of warmth and fullness.

The colors for the spring season represent Japan's beautiful blossoming trees and plants. The vibrancy of these colors are also a reflection of the many festivals celebrated during this season. The colors for summer are characterized as cool tones that are supposed to have a cooling, refreshing effect; for example, blue resembles water, green-- leaves and trees, black--shade. The wares to be used for the summer and spring seasons are ones that are cool to the touch and are light or thin in structure. One such ware is Celadon, a glazed stoneware that is typically green in color and jade-like; its soothing tone and texture make it ideal for the seasons. Especially during the summer time, the typically smaller wares, as the opposite to the winter season, require a lesser amount of food so that the eater will not feel heavy or filled to the point that she or he will increase in temperature.

Lacquer and ceramic are two other types of wares that are versatile and fit well with any season. Both lacquer and ceramic give off a sense of coolness or warmth depending on the food they contain. Ceramic works just as well as lacquer but has to be handled with a little more care. Because ceramic is porous, the juices and aromas of various foods can penetrate the material and unwanted influence the tastes of other foods. Therefore, it is recommended that ceramic ware be soaked in hot or cold water before use as dry ceramic will absorb other substances.

The colors and types of wares one should use during each season are as follows:

Fall

- Colors: earthen tones; black, dark browns and greens, subtle oranges and yellows
- Wares same as Winter

Winter

- Colors: pale shades; white, off white, grays, dark browns and blues
- Wares: Shino, Oribe, stoneware, lacquer, ceramic

Spring

- Colors: bright tones; red, vibrant greens and blues, white, yellow, pink
- Wares: same as Summer

Summer

- Colors: cool tones; leaf green, straw, black, blue and white
- Wares: Celadon, porcelain, glass, bamboo, other woods, lacquer, ceramic

Along with the many tones and types of ware one should use, one must also be aware of the shapes and sizes of the wares. These aspects of Japanese tableware, as with the other elements, influence the experience and reception of a person when presented with food. Keeping in mind that Japanese culture highly regards the appeal and aesthetic value of food and tableware, one can see that shape and size are all components of that regard.

In terms of the shapes of various wares, one should use the type of tableware that is best suited for the shape of the food—and with the most diverse collection of tableware, the Japanese certainly have a container for almost any kind of food. Before deciding on which pieces to use, one should also keep in mind which kinds of food will be served. While it might be easier to simply fill various bowls and plates with any amount of food they can retain, certain sizes of certain dishes are more appealing and appetizing in appropriate tableware. For example, it would not be a good idea to serve tea in a bowl large enough to hold soup and noodles, or serve rice in a dish small enough to be a sake cup.

The idea of meals being presented as appealing, reflective, and works of art, is derived from the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang which emphasizes balance and harmony. Japanese culture has applied yin and yang to its respected, daily act of eating and expresses this idea through the balancing and harmonizing of containers and the food they hold. With such importance placed on the relationship between food and container, it may be possible that the extensiveness of the Japanese tableware collection can be attributed to trying to find the perfect container for different foods—trying to keep balance and harmony.

Here are just a few (of countless) types of tableware that might be found in the typical Japanese home:

Wan: (bowls) used mainly for rice or soup. These bowls are ordinarily served with matching lids which serve to retain flavors and aromas, as well as keep food heated. The lids also serve another purpose which stems from the idea of making meals interesting—they keep the food a surprise, building up anticipation and leading to admiration.

Chawan: (tea bowls or cups) used mainly for tea. Literally meaning 'bowls for tea', chawan has essentially evolved into tea cups or mugs. Typically cylinder in shape with a slight foot.

Hachi: (serving bowls) used for main dishes or rice container. Purposely larger than wan, hachi are generally wider, shallower, and more circular in form.

Katakuchi: (pouring bowls); basically hachi with spouts. Katakuchi are used for sauces or liquids like soy sauce, vinegar, sake, and occasionally tea.

Soba Choko: (noodle-sauce cups) used for the dipping sauce of soba noodles. These resemble small tea cups or ceramic, Western shot glasses.

Chatsu: small, saucer-like dishes with a tall foot. Normally used for side dishes or garnishes like namasu (vinegared fish with vegetables) or sashimi (raw fish).

Dobin: (teapots) used mainly for tea, but also for hot water and sake. Usually made of ceramic, dobin were originally made out of iron.

Tokkuri: (sake bottles) initially used for various liquids but primarily used for sake. As with other tableware, tokkuri come in a myriad of forms but are generally either small and gourd-shaped or tall and cylinder-shaped.

Chirori: (sake-heating containers) used for heating sake by placing tokkuri within them and then being placed in hot water. Typically tall and cylinder-like in form.

Bon, Daiban: (trays/tray-tables) used mainly for centering or carrying out tableware. More so in past times, used as actual tables for individuals. Commonly made of lacquer and square or round in shape.

With so many different shapes, sizes, colors, functions, and uses, one must wonder what a Japanese table setting may look like. Accordingly, the Japanese table does incorporate a mixture of tableware that one might see as simply mismatching. Unlike many Western settings, the ideal Japanese table is set with spontaneity and variance. While the Japanese table may not consist of matching plates, bowls, and other dishes, it should be noted that the tableware is chosen to reflect the colors, climate, and food of the season. As well, in contrast to the Western custom of serving individuals from a main dish or platter, the Japanese serve individuals with food and dish already together. Despite the spontaneity and variance, a Japanese table setting almost always has a rice bowl, soup bowl with cover, chopsticks, and chopstick rest for each individual. On each tray or place at the table, the main dish should be placed in front and center, the rice and soup bowl to each corner at the back, and the chopsticks and chopstick rest on the right side.

A more Western approach to table setting with Japanese tableware can be done as well. Western tables, in a formal manner, feature a dinner plate placed on top of a larger service plate that serves as a “frame” for the main dish. A saucer, or small plate, (which is used for bread or dinner rolls) is placed to the left corner of the main dish while stemmed glasses are placed to the top, right corner. Depending on the number of meal courses, forks are placed on the left of the main plate while knives then spoons are placed on the right. To incorporate Japanese tableware into this setting, one can begin with the Western custom of arranging tableware first, before placing any food on individual settings. A main plate or dish can be placed in the center of each setting with or without a second service-type plate. In place of the Western saucer, the rice and soup bowls can be placed at the top left corner; which ever the setting (diagonal, straight) the soup bowl should be closest to the front as soup is usually consumed first. Instead of a stemmed glass, a teacup or taller ceramic cup should be placed in the top right corner. As for chopsticks, they can remain placed on a chopstick rest to the right side of the main dish. In keeping with Western customs, the main entrees, rice, and soup can be placed in large, serving platters or containers in the center of the table. In keeping with Japanese custom, the serving dishes can be of different colors, shapes, designs, or textures. The tableware of the individual settings can also vary in style and sort but should match according to the type of tableware; for instance, all the rice bowls can be red lacquer ware while all the teacups are green ceramic. Any combination of tableware and table settings can be made as long as the setting is comfortable, useful, and entertaining.

Taking into account all the guidelines of using certain tableware during certain seasons, using certain colors, and trying to make meals appealing, Japanese tableware seems to come with such specificity and purpose. On the contrary, the same philosophy of balancing food and container also emphasizes that balance does not necessarily mean equality or symmetry. In fact, contrast, mismatching, and variety are seen as more appealing choices for presenting meals.

Whether or not one agrees with the Japanese view of aestheticism, the meanings and significance of its tableware art can certainly be appreciated. If you haven't been inspired already, why not try to make some of your meals works of art as well? Mrs. Lin's Kitchen has a wide selection and variety of Japanese tableware in all colors, shapes, sizes, and for any season!

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