Japanese cuisine and the art of presentation
January 10, 2006
This year we were in California for the New Year holidays. But last year, we celebrated the new year in Nara, Japan. New Year's is called Oshogatsu and is an important holiday in Japan and a time to be with family. A centerpiece of Oshogatsu in Japan is food, particularly Osechi Ryori. Checkout the photos of the Osechi Ryori bentos on the Bento Blog. The items of the bento taste great, but what is amazing to me is the thought given to how the items in the bento should look. Whether it's an expensive New Year's bento or a simple "ekiben" bento purchased at the train station, presentation matters.
Sushi is good for you.
The best sushi I have had in the US has been in New York, San Francisco, LA, and Honolulu. But even the best "American sushi" — and some of it is very good — just does not stack up to the experience of sushi in Japan. In general, food in Japan is incredibly good, incredibly fresh, and always well presented. At least once in your life, you owe it to yourself to travel to Japan and have a true "sushi experience."
Geoffroy, a Presentation Zen reader, sent me a link over the Christmas break of a video which takes a tongue-in-cheek look at dining in a Japanese sushiya. (Try here if the link does not work — thanks, Barry.) I share this with you because I think it's a good example of how narration and images can work well together to tell a story. In this case, the images are in the form of video, but the same thing could be done with many still images along with the narration from a live speaker. With the help of images in a PowerPoint/Keynote deck, you can imagine a presenter — an intercultural trainer, perhaps — teaching and discussing the "how" and the "why" of dining out with business colleagues in Japan. (Below are two samples of what slides might look like if you put this content into a standup presentation.)
Now, this particular video is in fact quite weird because it aims at being ironic — even sardonic — by mixing a blend of truth and accuracy with parody, exaggeration, and intentional falsehoods. What is true and what is false in this video presentation is obvious to Japanese and to others familiar with the culture, but perhaps not to others. The Japanese are concerned with doing things "the right way." Japan is a "high uncertainty avoidance" culture where much care is often given to ritual, manners, and procedure. The creators of this video, then, are poking a little fun at themselves. But please do not take the contents of the video seriously. I reference this video (with tongue in cheek) only to show how images/video can be used effectively to present a point, to teach, or to demo. (Note: video appears to no longer be available...)
Learn more about sushi at the Sushi-Master and from the Sushi FAQ.
Japanese ryori: the visual matters
And speaking of food, let me say again that one can learn a lot about visual presentation by dining out in Japan. The Japanese are very concerned with the outer, with how things appear, with how they look. You can see this in everything from fashion, to architecture, to the Zen arts, such as the art of tea ceremony (Sado). Food is no exception. The way food looks and how it is presented is as important as how it tastes.
Over the weekend we went for a long walk amid light snow flurries along Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosophy Road) in Kyoto. While on our walk, we stopped for a coffee/tea along the path of Tetsugaku no Michi. Even in this small café serving simple cakes, presentation mattered. You can find attention to visual details in Japan even in a small out-of-the-way cafe.
Later, we took the opportunity to have Kyo-ryori for dinner in downtown Kyoto. The Kyoto restaurant where we dined was nothing special. Just a typical Japanese restaurant really, except that they specialized in Kyo-ryori. Even in this humble restaurant, however, you can see (below) how wonderfully the dishes are prepared and displayed. The presentation of the dishes adds tremendously to the taste of the cuisine and enjoyment of the overall experience. Nothing is superfluous or mere decoration.
You can see even better pictures of Kyo-ryori here.
I live in Japan right now, and I share your enthusiasm for Japanese food presentation.
Going beyond cuisine, I suppose you've been to a Muji store? I like how they only stock nice-looking items in the store's corporate colour palette — white, beige, charcoal, burgundy, etc. Only in a Japanese store…
Posted by: Paul D | January 10, 2006 at 09:14 PM