I’ve been reading the most fascinating book, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, by Elizabeth Andoh. In the book, Andoh (described on the book jacket as “the leading English-language authority on the foodways of Japan”) writes about the Japanese principles of washoku, the “harmony of food.”
As Andoh explains it, washoku is “both a culinary philosophy and the simple, nutritionally balanced food prepared in that spirit.” One of the things I found most interesting is that, although Andoh details a set of principles that form the basis of washoku, she writes that in Japan washoku is so old and so deeply ingrained in the culture that “most Japanese today would have a hard time articulating washoku notions.” Nevertheless they follow them instinctively, whether preparing a home-cooked meal or putting together a meal of packaged foods from the supermarket or even the convenience store!
This made me think about the food principles that each culture follows intuitively. For the better part of the 20th century, most white Americans had a common understanding about how a plate of food should look – this much meat, this much starch, this much vegetable. I imagine a Japanese visitor wondering how each ’50s housewife knew to portion out and place exactly so much meatloaf, mashed potato, and green beans, each in their own zone on the plate. Why are potatoes served with gravy and not with tomato sauce? Why is meatloaf topped with ketchup and not mustard?
I have my own intuitive principles around food preparation and presentation, influenced most strongly by my mother. More than any specific recipes or dishes, what I remember learning were ideas about how food should look on the plate: lots of colors, pretty arrangements, interesting contrasts of textures. And above all, bounty. Not so much for an individual plate, but every platter, every holiday table, should be brimming with food, so much that every person could take as much as they craved and never have to worry for the people who hadn’t yet helped themselves.
Washoku, the book, is part cookbook, part comprehensive Japanese pantry-stocking and ingredients guide (with gorgeous, glossy photos of all the ingredients as well as prepared dishes), and part introduction to the beautiful and sensible principles that make up the washoku philosophy. I haven’t used the pantry-stocking guide or explored any of the recipes yet, but the washoku principles really resonate with me and I will be writing more about them here as I see how they incorporate into my life.