The fine art of Japanese moritsuke (plating) is quite different from traditional Western plating, and knowing a few basic rules will go a long way towards adding enjoyment to your dining experience. After all, you eat first with your eyes, and if you have beautiful tableware, you want to put it in the best light. If you are keen enough to visit our gallery, or have enjoyed a kaiseki meal in Japan, you have no doubt experienced this for yourself. Traditional Western plating typically puts all the food—including the main course and side dishes—on one large plate. Kaiseki uses a variety of small dishes, carefully chosen for the season and in appropriate shapes to compliment the food.

Celebrate the season

This selection of dishes from Kinmata, a fine ryokan (Japanese inn) in Kyoto, includes some that are only used in late April to early May, when hydrangeas and Irises are blooming. The chef-owner was lucky enough to inherit a large collection of fine tableware from his family, to which he has added to over the years. While such luxury is difficult to achieve in a typical household, you can still choose glassware for summer, rough textures for autumn, and warm colors for winter, and so on. Blue and white imari plates and those with abstract patterns are versatile because they can be used in any season. They should be the backbone of any mizuya collection.

Do not crowd the plate

When using dishes of any size, it is better not to crowd the plate or bowl. The food will look better and you can enjoy the beauty of the dish when the food is placed carefully. Try mounding the food in the middle of a bowl or plate in a mountain-like form. The food should also be bite-sized, so there is no need for cultery.

Use a variety of shapes and colors

The Japanese have a preference for asymmetry, as they feel it is more natural than symmetry. There is also a preference for odd numbers. Japanese dish sets often come in sets of five—sometimes with different patterns— not four or six. You will also notice that one, three or five pieces of a food on one plate looks more natural. Fish is usually served on rectangular plates, while vegetables are served on round ones. However, Japanese tableware comes in a vast array of shapes, including the sasa and boat-shaped raku vessels pictured here. Although many traditional Japanese foods are eaten cold or at room temperature, covered bowls help keep simmered foods and soups hot.

Add flowers and leaves of the season

In Japan, you can buy pre-washed and carefully packed seasonal leaves to decorate your food, but in your home country you will have to find and carefully wash your own. Try a sprig of cherry blossoms in spring, red maple leaves in autumn, or pine needles in winter. Edible leaves like shiso (perilla) or kinome are also a nice touch. Bamboo leaves were once used as plates, and the idea is still ingrained in our culture. They also add a nice fragrance.

What is Kaiseki?

Kaiseki cuisine originated from Japan’s shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) cuisine, and is named after the hot rocks that monks carried under their robes to keep warm and to stave off hunger. Kaiseki has since evolved in many directions and can be lavish affairs,  featuring multiple courses (up to 16) of seasonal dishes served in small portions in elegant vessels.

Although there are many rules in the kaiseki tradition, contemporary kaiseki has expanded the boundaries in new and exciting ways. Likewise, Western chefs are incorporating Japanese techniques and food traditions to great effect, adding fuel to the fire of cross-cultural inspiration.But even for the home cook, the enjoyment of Japanese cuisine can be greatly enhanced with just a few well-placed dishes. To learn more about the relationship between food and tableware, as well as food philosophies, recipes and techniques, visit Savory Japan.