Have you ever been presented with a dish that was so exquisite that just gazing at it took your breath away, that you cringed to plunge in your fork and ruin its beauty? What is it about beauty, whether in art or nature, that brings peace to our soul? It is something I did not recognize in my early years.
If you have a busy family, chances are, food is survival. I must admit that we have our share of fast food meals, eaten from the paper wrappers while speeding onto our next activity. And leftovers reheated in the microwave and picked at straight from the containers. Shameful, yes, but it is the reality of a busy, albeit lazy, household.
A friend of mine lives alone and often eats straight from packages and take-out windows. She laments that she never cooks anymore because it seems a waste to cook for only one person so she eats chips, muffins and other snacks instead of meals. Sometimes, she will scramble some eggs or make a sandwich, but her “meals” are meager and lacking in mindfulness.
But one of the good things to come from my revising my roots is learning all about the importance of properly preparing, presenting and eating food. The American way, throughout history, has been to roll up your sleeves and chow down on massive quantities of grub. One can understand that it took hard labor to settle this wild land, and once instilled, traditions die hard.
In Japan, there is an unrushed reverence for all things. We appreciate the usefulness and service of an item. We appreciate its history and sentimental value. We also appreciate its beauty even if there are mars in its physical appearance. Beauty is not mere physical perfection but a quality that elicits a sense of joyful peace within us. This is the defining quality of beauty and why humans so love nature, the arts and even the “inner beauty” within us all.
We can enjoy and appreciate beauty with every meal when we prepare our food mindfully with the thought of balanced colors, textures and garnishes. Think of the dish as a work of art for the senses. But we don’t have to be skilled ice carvers or sushi chefs who can slice a daikon radish into a fish next with only a chef’s knife and chopstick (I’ve seen this done.) Adding beauty to your plate takes little time.
At a recent gathering, my mother placed the sashimi on a nice lacquered boat. My eldest sister put on the blob of wasabi. But before she did, she took a toothpick and pressed it into the soft green paste, making indentations to fashion sunrays. Our new Japanese national cousin walked in and took a double take. “Utsukushii (beautiful),” she gushed. I felt sheepish because she made a big deal out of a very small thing and how she must think that we (who are not from Japan) are so undignified by the way we don’t give much thought to beautiful food presentation. It made me think more mindfully about how I present food.
Think of these simple ways to garnish your plate for your next meal:
*Place a chopped fresh fruit salad in a small decorative cup instead of dishing it out onto the same plate as a sandwich.
*Serve single fruit sliced instead of whole on the plate. Slice and fan out the banana slices, for example. Make a few quick apple slice bunnies or orange slice loops (See BellaOnline.com Japanese Food site Japanese Garnishes A Book Review.)
*Thread a few fruit cubes on a short wooden skewer.
*Use butter lettuce or endive leaves as a bed for suimono, tsukemono, seaweed salad and other types of wet salads and dips (chicken, tuna, egg, hummus, tabbouleh).
*Choose green leafy lettuces instead of iceberg. They are more nutritious as much more colorful in a sandwich or on a platter.
*Yes, even the—gulp—once cliché sprig of fresh parsley is better than nothing to add life to a sandwich platter.
*Sprinkle some powdered sugar or cocoa powder on the bottom of a plate before plating a slice of pie or cake.
*Drizzle some chocolate syrup over desserts like cake, pie and ice cream in a decorative fashion.
*Tumble fresh, colorful fruit onto a slice of angel food cake.
Living with beauty is living with grace. Even if you prepare meals for only yourself, do it mindfully. Add a simple flourish and see if it does not elicit a smile from your face. Beauty is an elixir to cure a drab life. Uplift your spirits. You are worth it. My friend always seems happier after she does cook a meal for herself. And over the moon if it turned out pretty to look at. Try this: see how beauty graces even the lowliest of foods. Take a packaged Twinkie from its wrapper and use your prettiest dessert plate. Find creative ways to garnish it as pretty as possible with powdered sugar, fruit, mint sprigs, whatever you can think of. Maybe you can slice it and fan out the slices in a spiral first. (I drizzled chocolate sauce on a fine dessert plate, fanned out the Twinkie slices, topped with fresh raspberries and a mint sprig.) Then, present this beautiful dessert to someone and watch their reaction. Serve it with a fine dessert fork. They will eat it with more care and appreciation, I promise, than they would have if you tossed them the wrapped Twinkie. They may have even rejected it. But with your beautiful attention, you turned it into a cream-filled sponge cake dessert.
Beauty is like that. Transformative. Can you imagine what a little beautification will do to your home-cooked meals? May your food be beautiful and transforming. Use this amazing medium (food) to uplift your life and the lives of others with mukimono.