The Wabi Sabi of a Japanese Table Setting

Jun 5th, 2009 | By | Category: Food

Setting a table for dinner where I come from usually involves matching china, silverware, and glasses – even for a casual dinner with friends.  I’ve always liked a table with an organized and cohesive look about it and find it a bit frustrating when I can’t find a serving dish that matches my plates.  If one piece stands out as different, the tablescape is not as appealing and the food somehow doesn’t taste quite as good.  But that is a very western perspective and thanks to my time in Japan it is changing.

At first glance when you dine out at a restaurant in Japan, you only notice the tray holding many tiny plates and bowls filled with delicious nuggets of tasty and often curious looking food.  You don’t think about whether everything matches when you gaze upon the multitude of dishes before you – you just know it’s a lovely and appetizing array that you can’t wait to get your hashi (chopsticks) into.

Ebi Tokatsu Lunch Japanese Place Setting Dishes

Such was the case recently when I went out for a tonkatsu lunch.  It was a joy to sit in an almost empty restaurant on a midweek afternoon, taking time to peruse the design details of the serene yet fairly typical Japanese restaurant all while enjoying a nice conversation with my dining companion.  I ordered the giant ebi furai set (fried prawn set) and when it arrived I took a moment to ponder the tasty display of rice, pickled vegetables, dipping sauces, dried fish and miso soup that accompanied the main course.  I found the overall presentation to be lovely and not at all unusual for Japan.

Upon closer inspection, and introspection, I took notice of the dishes themselves.  Nothing matched!  Most pieces were rustic in style but not one of the seven dishes on the lacquered tray could be said to match it’s neighbor – yet they looked good together.

“Wabi Sabi is a theory of Japanese aesthetics in which imperfection and transience are considered the touchstone of beauty”

A rustic pale pick platter held the main course, the dish for the tonkatsu sauce was a deep green that sat comfortably alongside a small white footed bowl containing the dried fish and a traditional lacquer bowl for the miso soup.  A tartar-like sauce sat in a pretty decorated bowl that would likely not be placed alongside the triangular bowl with very different surface decoration and style anywhere but in Japan.

The place setting above seems to embody the spirit of wabi sabi – it is perfectly imperfect.  An appealing and cohesive presentation despite the variety of styles, colors and shapes of the dishes upon which the food rested.

I often strive for a tablescape that meets the western definition of beauty with dishes that match one another in color and style. But lately, when dining out, I am taking time to ponder and appreciate not only the food itself but the wabi sabi of its presentation as well.   This experience has inspired me to select dishes not for the fact that they match something I already own but because they possess a special quality and beauty that calls to out me.  Before long I will be proudly pointing out my mismatched dishes and telling everyone how my time in Japan inspired a very personal kind of wabi sabi.

Image Credit: Personal Collection

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  1. Heh, while I like the idea in a restaurant setting, it makes for an absolute nightmare at home! Whereas I used to use, I dunno, three plates….no, maybe 2, I left the stuff in the pan…I now use about 300 assorted plates with my gf, and we spend countless hours making our own meals look presentable and beautiful before eating and putting them all in tiny dishes.

    It takes me half my day to do the dishes! ?

  2. Wabi sabi seems very much tied up with zen and buddhist concepts.

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