Japanese cuisine has become famous worldwide for its attention to detail regarding flavor and overall design. In fact, Tokyo is currently the city with the largest number of 3-star Michelin restaurants in the world. A large part of this is due to the amount of effort placed on the presentation of dishes as well. As every food enthusiast is aware, dining at a quality restaurant is about more than just the food. The overall presentation, décor, and atmosphere are also an integral part of creating an authentic dining experience. Japanese restaurants are highly acclaimed as paying attention to the every detail of those elements. In this article, let’s look at a basic guide around the most important components of Japanese tableware and set-up.
The concept of Ichiju-sansai
In order to understand how to prepare a Japanese meal, first one must understand the way that meals are traditionally enjoyed in Japan. Put simply, in Japan you will see meals incorporate many more small side-dishes to accommodate a main dish. This means that you will need a lot of small tableware if you are going to prepare traditional Japanese food.
Let’s look at this concept further.
There is a concept in Japan of Ichiju-sansai. This concept explains this balance-in-proportions in Japanese traditional cuisine, as well as the emphasis on side-dishes. If we look at the term ichiju-sansai (一汁三菜), as well as the characters used, we can see that ichi (一) means one, while ju (汁) means soup, san (三) means three, while sai (菜) means side-dish. If we put all of these characters together we can see that Ichiju-sansai means quite literally one soup three side-dishes. This is often colloquially referred to as the teishoku style, with teishoku meals incorporating this ichiju-sansai (一汁三菜) style of meal proportions.
What is in a ichiju-sansai (一汁三菜) style meal?
Often the soup or ichiju (一汁) will be a variation of miso soup, which has become a staple of Japanese cuisine. The 2nd and 3rd side dishes will vary much more often, and will often be a chef’s choice, or a signature dish of that particular restaurant. The important thing to note is that the ochawan (お茶碗) used for rice, and the shiruwan (汁椀) used for miso soup are often much larger and shaped differently than the smaller ko-zara (小皿) plates and ko-bachi (小鉢). Ko-zara plates are generally used for serving smaller side-dishes. This balance of composition is very important to achieving an authentic Japanese meal. By looking at the focus placed on specific portion sizes and the respective dishes used to serve each type of food, we can better understand the inseparable connection between the aesthetics and overall balance of meals in Japan. Let’s look at some specific types of tableware, as well as some examples.
Chopsticks and chopstick rests
It’s important to not forget about proper chopstick presentation when setting up your table. No matter what meal you are preparing in Japan, you will always need to know how to present chopsticks. Chopsticks are typically placed in front of all other dishes horizontally by using a chopstick rest as shown below. However, it is important to consider the different types of chopsticks to achieve the appropriate dynamic.
How to choose a proper pair of chopsticks
We have covered this topic previously. While it may seem clear-cut, there are actually many different design principles and cultural factors that you will want to consider when purchasing a new pair of chopsticks.
The all-important rice bowl: Ochawan (お茶碗)
Rice bowls or ochawan are one of the more personal pieces of the Japanese dining table. Since every traditional-style ichiju-sansai meal in Japan will be served with rice, people in many households have their own particular rice bowl that they prefer to use. Rice bowls are typically larger than other smaller side-dish ko-zara and ko-bachi, and are held while being used, as is the table-etiquette in Japan. This makes ochawan an especially personal piece of tableware for many people, so that they have a favorite design, or will add ochawan with customized designs into their collections.
The soup bowl: Shiruwan or Owan (汁椀・お椀)
Shiruwan or Owan are bowls used to serve soup (typically miso soup). Because soups are typically served hot, these bowls are usually made out of wood. This is because of their low-heat conductivity. It is often served with a lid to be removed just before the soup is enjoyed as well. In addition, the wood is typically finished in lacquer and some pattern designs. At Kutani Lab we produce a SAKURA Yamanaka Lacquer shiruwan, which you can see in the picture below.
Medium plate: chuzara (中皿)
This is the plate that the primary dish of the meal will be served. This main dish is known as the shusai (主菜). The name chuzara (中皿) literally means ‘medium plate’, so this plate serves as a perfect all-around choice for general tableware you can use both in a ichiju sansai (一汁三菜) meal arrangement, or as a standalone meal. In addition, the larger size of chuzara (中皿) when compared to other tableware pieces allows for a larger variation in design, lending them to become a strong design centerpiece in the overall design of the dining area.
Small plate: kozara (小皿)
Kozara (小皿) which literally means ‘small plate’ are perfect for general side-dishes. They will allow you to add different types of dishes around the shusai (主菜) . These smaller plates can be used as an accent for the overall design of your table setting, and incorporating kozara (小皿) with many different designs is a fun and simple way to achieve a diverse aesthetic in your tableware.
Small Bowl: Kobachi (小鉢)
Kobachi bowls are mainly used to serve appetizers such as sunomono (vinegared salad) and nimono (various types of simmered dishes), aemono (dressed dishes) or chinmi (special delicacies.) While there are no specific sizes for kobachi, they are smaller than soup bowls.
Tiny plate: mame-zara (豆皿)
You have probably used mame-zara (豆皿) before without even realizing it. Mame-zara (豆皿) are used as a place to pour soy sauce when eating sushi or sashimi. They are also used as a plate for other condiments and garnishes such as wasabi, green onion, or grated ginger.
Teacup: Yunomi Jawan (湯呑み茶碗)
This is a type of cup used for Japanese green tea that you will often see if you visit Japan, or go to a Japanese restaurant. These cups are typically made of ceramic or clay, and are generally tall and slender. These tea cups are used for more informal everyday use when compared to other types of teacup such as the more formal chawan (茶碗) such as Matcha-chawan or a chatan comes with a lid.