I find that there’s something very dissatisfying about spending hours on an elaborate meal but having no way to translate that effort visually. For a long time most of my dinners were an inelegant pile of slop by the time they reached the table. It wasn’t until I went to Japan that I discovered that the way a meal looks can actually change the way it tastes.
In Japan, the presentation of a meal is an art form that is still alive and well. They like to use plates and bowls in a variety of shapes and sizes – a concept that was completely foreign to me. We always had one large unsegregated plate with starch in one corner, meat in another, and a salad at my house. There was usually an unsightly pool of salad dressing, gravy, and cranberry sauce in the middle somewhere. And I still believe that there are certain things that should only be eaten that way, like a turkey dinner. What’s the point of a turkey dinner if you can mix the mashed potatoes, gravy, and turkey in one mouthful?
But the Japanese-style presentation lent a certain delicacy, a sense of anticipation, to the dining experience. Each tiny bowl was beautifully crafted and each morsel was separated so that flavors didn’t bleed together. Each bite, each new taste, had to be enjoyed separately, and after a necessary pause while you switched plates. It made me appreciate every mouthful more. And it was stunning! So I cleared out some space in my cupboards and went shopping.
I gathered my collection of dishes from Asian stores (the Japanese dollar store, Daiso, is one of my favorites), generous friends, and Target. Immediately I felt like my meals were more amazing. It was such a tiny bit of effort – how long did it take me to present the food in multiple dishes instead of one? Maybe an extra 30 seconds? – but it made such a huge difference. Dinner suddenly felt culinary. What naturally followed was garnishes. An extra ten seconds of chopping chives or fresh basil to sprinkle over the center of the bowl communicated the care I had taken to make the meal tasty, well-balanced, and appetizing.
Instead of feeling like a young woman struggling to make a decent meal, I felt competent. I felt capable. I felt amazing.
All the effort that I had put into cooking was suddenly, beautifully, satisfyingly visible.
All that having been said, the Japanese style isn’t for everyone. Maybe an extra large soup bowl with gold filigree and matching plates is more appealing to you. The point is when you make a meal – whether its for your husband, for entertaining your friends, or you’re just cooking for yourself – take the time to make your effort visible. Starting with dishware and table settings that appeal to you is an effortless first step that makes a world of difference. Place and combine foods with care (if something spatters, wipe it off with a napkin!). Use a garnish. Enjoy spoiling yourself and others with food that looks like art! Because who doesn’t like being able to step back from their work and think, ‘Wow, that looks fantastic’?