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Design lessons from the art of washoku

Kyoto.001 A few years ago, on a late Autumn afternoon, I was walking with a friend along Tetsugaku no Michi (Philosopher's Road) in the city of Kyoto. After our walk we stopped in a local restaurant for a traditional Japanese meal. Japanese-style meals are called washoku. The kanji for washoku (和食) are literally “harmony” and "food," and harmony does indeed seem to be a key principle embodied in Japanese traditional cooking. In Japan, food is not about fuel, it’s about an experience as much as it is about sustenance. Although this particular restaurant was nothing extraordinary for Kyoto, as always, I was impressed by the presentation of the meal. How can the presentation of it be so profound, I thought, and yet there remain hardly a trace of decorative elements or the nonessential? Clearly the presentation matters.

Washoku_bookWashoku is guided by simple principles that lead to harmony and balance in terms of both nutrition and aesthetics (this is explained well in a wonderful book simply called Washoku). For example, go shiki (five colors) is a principle that says the meal should have a variety of colors: red, green, yellow, black, and white. This is related to insuring good nutrition and it also leads to a visually appealing display. The principle of go kan (five senses) suggests that the cook should think not only about taste and nutrition but also touch, sound, smell, and, of course, sight. How the meal looks in many ways is as important as it tastes. “We are nourished by the presentation as we nourished by the food,” says John Daido Loori in The Zen of Creativity. There are other guiding principles of washoku including go mi (five tastes) leading to a balance of flavors, go ho (five ways) which encourages a variety of cooking methods, and go kan mon (five out looks), guidelines concerning respect and appreciation for the meal and the spirit in which it is to be consumed. In Japan, lessons about the art of presentation are everywhere, sometimes in very unexpected places indeed.

Balance, harmony, simplicity
Simple_washoku If we open our eyes and are willing to think differently, we can see that there are presentation and design lessons all around us, even in something like a beautifully prepared traditional Japanese meal. Like a designer, a preparer of washoku is guided by principles that help in the careful decisions of what to include and what to exclude. Ingredients may depend on many things including the season and occasion. Portions are measured with restraint and are in balance. Above all, elements are chosen and arranged visually to be balanced and in harmony from the point of view of the customer. Balance, harmony, restraint, simplicity, and naturalness. These are some of the guiding principles behind the preparation of washoku, and they are also fundamental principles we can apply to design and to the art of presentation in our own world outside the culinary arts. In either case, the visual matters.

Zen and the Art of Cooking (Video). Nice 24-min segment, especially for foodies. 
Pics from my washoku dinner tonight in Osaka.



Lynn in San Francisco

A wonderful piece to start my Sunday with, Garr - thank you. This reminded me of an episode in the PBS series Diary of a Foodie: http://www.gourmet.com/diaryofafoodie/video/2008/01/112_zen_fullep. The first segment features Elizabeth Andoh talking about Washoku - worth checking out if you haven't seen it. Some friends visited Tokyo last fall and took a cooking class with her and had the best time.

Richard Michie

I'm sure its not a coincidence that there are 5 elements to all this and the fact that the number 5 appears lots in the human body. Nature does a fantastic balancing job all on it's own.

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