Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Colours to Whet the Palate

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Colours to Whet the Palate

Article excerpt

Colours to whet the palate . . .

JAPANESE cuisine, it has been claimed, is a feast not only for the taste-buds, but also for the eyes; in a case like this, I would even be tempted to say: not just a feast for the eyes but, better still, for the spirit! A contemplative state of mind is induced by the quiet harmony between the glow of candles flickering in the gloom and the reflections in the lacquerware. Some years ago, the great writer Soseki1 celebrated in his Kusa-makura2 the colours of the yokan,3 and in a sense these colours are also, surely, aids to meditation. Consider their cloudy surface, semi-translucent like jade, the impression that they convey of drawing sunlight into their very substance and holding in their depths a tremulous glimmer like a dream; consider the deep harmony of colour tones, and their complexity; you will not find these in any piece of Western confectionery. To compare them to some cream or custard would be superficial and naive.

Now take a lacquer cake dish and set upon it the subtly-tinted harmony of a yokan, place it in the shadows so that its colour is scarcely discernible and you will find that its power of focusing contemplation is even stronger. And when at last you carry to your lips this cool, smooth substance, you will feel as if part of the darkness of the room, solidified into a morsel of sweetness, were melting on the tip of your tongue, and in this yokan--which is, after all, rather insipid--you will discover an unusual depth that enhances its taste.

In all the countries of the world, efforts have doubtless been made to create pleasing colour combinations with food, tableware and even the walls in the background; at any rate, if Japanese dishes are served in surroundings that are too well-lit, or in crockery that is predominantly white, they lose half their attraction. Take the red miso4 soup, for example, that we eat every morning; look at the colour of it, and you will have no difficulty in understanding that it was invented in the dark houses of a bygone age. One day, when I had been invited to a tea party, I was given a serving of miso, and when I saw that murky, clay-coloured soup that I had always eaten without paying it much attention --when I saw it by the soft glow of candlelight, lying like a calm pool in the curve of the black lacquer bowl, I discovered that it had real depth and the most appetizing of hues.

Shoyu,5 a sticky, glistening sauce, also gains much from being seen in the shadows, and is perfectly at home in darkness, especially if one follows the custom of the Kyoto region for seasoning raw fish, or pickled or boiled vegetables, and uses the thick variety called tamari. …

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