Setting the Cross-Cultural Table

Appears in

Ideas on how to set your table, including a discussion of thematic motifs from nature, suggestions on choosing plates and bowls, diagrams for making intriguing napkin folds and decorative ribbon ties
In Japan you might begin a meal with luminous slices of tuna served on a gently sloped mound of shaved ice, then be offered a landscaped arrangement of carved vegetables taking its cue from the season and served on a smooth but patterned porcelain dish. At the same meal, glaze-grilled salmon might be brought to you on a roughhewn slab of reddish-brown clay, while ornate but edible tidbits float in a delicate broth served in an elegant lacquer bowl, the pattern of which is discernible through the clear soup. Japanese tabletop artistry depends upon the interplay of shape, color, and texture of food and plate. Typically, each food is presented on a different surface, one that suits the particular food being served at that time and on that occasion. Traditionally there are no cloths, placemats, or napkins on the table in Japan, and utensils are limited to chopsticks only.
In contrast to this, Americans love to set their tables with starched linen and lace cloths, uniformly designed china and crystal, and at least three pieces of gleaming flatware: knife, fork, and spoon. For grand occasions, American tables are further adorned with festive flowers and perhaps candles.
Comparing the table presentations of the two cultures, I’ve often noted a curious culinary paradox: Although we tend to think of the Japanese as copiers and conformists rather than innovators and individualists, the tremendous diversity evident in Japanese food preparation and presentation belies that stereotype. It’s the Western host or hostess, wanting to set an impressive table, who tends to rely upon constancy of pattern, color, and shape throughout the meal. In Japan, the plentiful number of courses, each garnished and served in accordance with its own theme, is one indication of the care given to the orchestration of the meal. Gastronomic harmony in Japan is achieved through a medley of tastes and visual effects, syncopating the tempo of food with plate. The American table is set like a metronome, in rhythmic unison, with each course from soup to dessert a mellow refrain.

Since outwardly, at least, the Japanese and American tables appear to be different, I’ve pondered the problems of setting an appropriate scene for cross-cultural fare. Although the table should hint of the Oriental overtones of the food to come, certain American tabletop conventions seemed important to retain—napkins for one, and the option of flatware for another. I feel that a single, large arrangement of flowers in the center of the table inhibits conversation and, since many floral motifs are used in garnishing the food itself, a central bouquet would be redundant. The Japanese shun flowers and plants on the table because of competing scents; the aroma of the food should be paramount while eating. An arrangement of branches or buds elsewhere in your home would be welcome, though, and you might wish to carry through whatever floral theme or color scheme you began at your table.

I looked to other Japanese arts and crafts to supply appropriate objects and themes to decorate the cross-cultural table. I found origami, the art of folding paper, applicable to cloth napkins, too. Japanese folded papers can also become trays, plates, or doilies on which to serve food. I’ve borrowed and adapted a few tying techniques from the Japanese art of kumi himo to create simple but unusual ribbon napkin rings.

Antique Japanese pottery and lacquerware, although exquisite, is too inaccessible and not necessarily appropriate for most modern American homes. Contemporary American craftspeople—potters, glass-blowers, woodworkers, lacquerers, and textile designers—are creating stunning containers and surfaces for the serving of food. Although many of the craftspeople working in the United States today have been captivated and motivated by Japanese prototypes—the motifs, techniques, and technologies of classical Japan—their work remains American. For the photographs in this book, I chose to use baskets, plates, bowls, boxes, and dishes made by such contemporary artists living in America.

Look through your own collection of dishes and bowls; if you have solid-colored, unpatterned dinner plates, they’ll be wonderful for serving elaborately garnished food or arranging several kinds of ornate finger-foods together. Dark colors, even black, add a sense of drama to the presentation of many recipes, particularly if the food is yellow or green, though white, red, or brown looks sophisticated on a black background, too. Try juxtaposing textures as the Japanese do; serve sleek foods, like glazed steaks or roasts, on rustic pottery surfaces, while presenting ruffly, leafy lettuce or shredded vegetables on glassy-smooth plates. Experiment with mixing patterns and colors in your tableware, too. Try using a bright, solid-colored plate for a first course of geometrically arranged appetizers, followed by a gold-rimmed dinner plate with a meat or poultry entrée, and a few vegetable side dishes. You might finish with pastel porcelain cups and saucers for serving coffee, with dessert placed on dramatically folded papers. The cross-cultural cuisine in this cookbook is varied and ideally your table setting should reflect and enhance this diversity.

Just as Americans share specific associations with certain color schemes and motifs—orange pumpkins and black cats signify Halloween, while red hearts mean Valentine’s Day—so the Japanese, too, have ornamental elements and colors that convey certain moods and seasons to them. Most Japanese culinary motifs derive from natural sources and are meant to enhance your meal by echoing the world of nature beyond your plate: Pink and white cherry blossoms mean spring; red maple leaves mean fall. There are also motifs and color schemes that convey felicitous feelings in Japan—the opened fan shape is one; the crane and tortoise are others. Often the complex shape of the original object is greatly streamlined and stylized, the tortoise becoming a hexagonal form (taken from the pattern of the shell) and the crane a series of isosceles triangles (evocative of the angle of neck and wing). Tied knots are auspicious in business and society in general, since they symbolize a relationship or commitment binding two parties. Red and white are the colors of felicity and festivity in Japan. Black, far from being funereal, is the color of formality, particularly when accented by gold and silver or red.
In the hope of inspiring you to include some Japanese themes at your table, I’ve included sketches of some of the more basic and recurring Japanese culinary motifs from nature.

The cherry blossom is the national symbol of Japan; the emphemeral flower symbolizes the fleeting quality of life. The pale-pink and white petals are tossed everywhere by spring breezes early in April. The Japanese take flower viewing very seriously, and bring box lunches to eat while sitting beneath the blooming trees. The slightly indented, dimpled petal looks a bit like a heart shape to most Westerners; to the Japanese it’s unmistakably a sign of spring.

Later, in the early summer, pale-lavender wisteria blossoms drooping from their trellised vines evoke a romantic mood.
The summer months in Japan get very warm and water, with its cooling properties, becomes a major culinary theme. Cold noodles are served on ice in bowls, or swirled on flat plates to resemble rivers and streams. Other malleable foods are coaxed into wave shapes, too.
The autumn has many culinary motifs from nature associated with it, but the most frequently encountered are carrots cut to resemble maple leaves, and various vegetables and sweets shaped to look like pine needles or chrysanthemums. Since a stylized version of the flower with sixteen petals is the emblem of the imperial family, it’s reserved for official use only. Chrysanthemum motifs for culinary purposes must have fewer, or more, petals.

Two flowers blooming in the winter months that the Japanese are particularly fond of are the camellia and the plum blossom. Both red and white blossoms are common to both flowers and, since these colors are considered auspicious ones in Japan, the camellia and plum blossom inspire sushi chefs and confectioners alike to make all sorts of tasty, festive foods. Carrots and daikon radishes typically get carved into plum blossoms from New Year’s through March.

I’ve included some diagrams to help you fold paper and cloth, and tie ribbons to decorate your cross-cultural table.

The simplest of all is a “double mountain” effected from a single square sheet of paper folded slightly on the diagonal. An interesting variation is made possible by using two sheets of paper in contrasting colors. A small, 3- or 4-inch square makes a fine doily for a few cookies, Green Tea Cookies (such as those) or sweets, Felicity Swirls, Moss Pebble; a larger, 7- or 8-inch square makes a handsome liner for a dinner plate on which fried foods are to be placed. Gingery crabs, fried oysters, or noodle-coated shrimp look particularly lovely set against double-mountain papers. Fried foods should be well drained of excess oil before being transferred to the folded sheets. Specially coated paper is sold at many Oriental groceries (ask for shiki shi), though ordinary construction or writing paper is fine. If you plan to serve fried foods very hot, or sticky sweets, it’s probably best to keep a plain white surface on top.


Still another variation on the double-mountain theme is possible by making an additional fold that creates a sheath to hold a small fork, spoon, or decorative pick (the Japanese use flat but pointed bamboo spears to eat some of their more traditional sweets). The sponge cake could be served on a folded paper such as this, with a dessert fork in the sheath. Using two sheets of different colors make these sheath-and-doily sheets look even more spectacular.

This next fold lends an interesting effect to ordinary rectangular cloth placemats, particularly those that are reversible and can create a two-toned appearance. This pentagon shape can also be made from two sheets of paper—perhaps one solid-color and one patterned sheet— folded together. The sweets shown on the third page of the color insert rest against red and white paper folded like this.
The next two sheaths can hold either chopsticks or flatware and can be fashioned from either paper or cloth. The simplest is the diagonal fold sheath; a slightly more complicated version is the pleated sheath.

    In this section