Yesterday three of my students/friends took me out to lunch at a VERY elegant Japanese restaurant! The food was delicious and so beautifully served. Every time I go to a Japanese restaurant that specializes in all the little mouthfuls of food I take out my camera (and so does everyone else by the way!) Each tiny portion is served on just as tiny dishes and some have lids and are tiered. When the waitress brings in a tray and places it in front of you, you think someone has handed you a treasure chest.
"What might be in this lovely blue jewel box of ceramic? Look at this tiny box no larger than a pillbox. What is hidden inside?"
Five sweet beans. Tidbits of fish and chicken and shrimp each prepared in a different way. A slice of eggplant with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Three slices of different sashimi. A spoonful of seaweed. A bite of melt in your mouth pork. Beside each place there was a small individual stone grill (with a patio light that burned about 5 minutes) and we were instructed on grilling our three slices of beef and slice of pumpkin to our own perfection. Oh, and dipping sauces for the grilling and the sashimi. Let's see, what else? A slice of sweet omelet. One large shellfish. And of course rice and of course miso soup. For dessert there was a small serving of green tea ice cream with a dollop of sweet bean paste and a rice dumpling. And a demitasse serving of coffee.
Really, if you come to Japan you have to approach the art of eating with an open attitude. Eating is not just for nutrition or to fill one's stomach. It is a celebration of the season and an artistic expression reflecting on the waitress, on the chef, on the restaurant. Cool hand towels will be presented to you in the summer months, hot towels in the winter. Iced wheat tea will welcome summer guests, steaming barley tea will be presented to winter guests. In the small alcove, a delicate sprig of flower or tree branch will beckon the outdoor scenery right into the simple elegant room.
The chef's pride in his artistic arrangement of dishes and ingredients is evident everywhere. Colors play an important part. Textures play an important part. One can patronize the same restaurant and order their lunch special and depending on the season, flowers and leaves will be incorporated into the artistry as will different dishware. The chef chooses his dishes carefully to enhance the morsels of food depending on the season and flavors.
You've never eaten seaweed? Try it. It is worth the experience of an unusual texture and it is only a bit. Sashimi? Well, it is a delicacy and different fish have different textures and raw fish has the least fishy smell or taste of any fish. A sweet bean won't hurt you. Different maybe yes. But that is why you are in the Japan anyway, to experience a different culture and to see what other people appreciate.
Eating a Japanese meal is a learning experience for some, an act of appreciation for others. And an elegant feast for many!