The Power of Five
The number five is considered important in Japanese culture, and this extends to its food traditions as well. They form the basis of concepts that have been in place for centuries. I believe that following the guidelines of the “Power of Five” listed below can do more for improving your health and cooking skills than following recipes or diets.
Even though many young Japanese don’t know the origin of these rules, nor can even recite them, the habit is ingrained in the culture to such an extent that it just comes naturally. If a set meal is ordered at a restaurant and something is missing, for instance, people often fill in the gaps by ordering the missing link. And if you watch a group of kids shout out orders at a casual izakaya, drinking and partying all evening, you’ll find the meal will somehow, in its winding way, follow the guidelines as well.
Food should be enjoyed with all five of the senses: taste and smell are obvious, but sight figures predominately in Japanese cuisine. In fact, it can be considered just as important as taste. The artful arrangement of food on appropriate and beautiful tableware adds so much to the enjoyment of the meal that it cannot be stressed enough. No matter how delicious your perfectly simmered halibut may be, the result can be ruined with a white round dish (wrong shape) that shows the drippings (wrong color.)
Touch is also important, not only for the texture of the food itself, which should be varied, but also for tableware, as it is customary to hold vessels and utensils in one’s hands. Freshly cut bamboo chopsticks feel wonderfully cool to the touch, while smooth lacquerware feels warm. A rustic and sturdy stoneware serving dish might not be moved by the diner, but the suggestion of touch is still present. A feather-light hand-thrown porcelain rice bowl might cost ten times as much as a similar-looking factory-made one, but the enjoyment of touch adds so much that professional chefs and serious home cooks always opt for the pricier option.
Hearing, while being a bit more esoteric, also figures into the experience. My only comment would be that generally speaking, the more expensive a restaurant, the quieter. A boisterous izakaya has a much different feel than a quietly serious sushi establishment or a famous ryotei. This might strike a Western visitor as odd, as if the diners are not having fun. However, to properly appreciate the experience and give due respect to the chef, a quiet atmosphere is appreciated, so that you really appreciate the marvelous experience, and perhaps can even hear the water of the garden stream, the buzz of cicadas, or the wind in the neighboring pines.
The prevalence of the five colors – white, black, red, green and yellow – has been a tradition since Buddhism arrived from China in the 6th century. It can be seen in temple architecture, pottery and artwork. The Japanese believe that it is best to include the five colors in every meal. While I don’t always do this, I find that following the five colors rule boosts the nutritional value, as well as the visual enjoyment of the meal. Today’s bento, for instance, includes white rice with black sesame seeds, a red umeboshi, a slice of sweet yellow omelette, and green beans with black sesame sauce. Being mindful of this practice will help you serve balanced meals with the proper vitamins and minerals. My aunt used to say that you should eat 20 different kinds of food a day. I’ve also read that this practice also helps the Japanese stay slim.
Whenever I make a monochrome meal, I find it strange and somehow lacking. One of my favorite dishes is genmai rice with tororo, with miso soup on the side; basically, different shades of white and brown. Adding shredded nori to the rice, yellow pickles and a green salad with cherry tomatoes would improve the meal greatly, but I have to admit that I don’t always do so.
The Fifth Taste
Salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and… umami. Recently, much fuss has been made over umami, touted as the fifth taste. In fact, I liked the concept so much that, when starting this website, it was my first choice for a domain name. Umami comes from the Japanese word umai, meaning delicious, and can be described as savory (hence, the name I chose: Savory Japan). It can be accomplished by adding a little butter to a soy sauce based dish, or sprinkling a little parmesean cheese into a miso sauce. Umami is imparted by amino acids called glutamates, found in meat, fish, dairy and vegetables (in forms such as olive oil). Dashi, that all-important konbu and katsuo stock that serves as a basis for so much of Japanese cuisine, is loaded with glutamates, and infuses everything it touches with a savory deliciousness. Discovered fairly recently, in the early part of the 20th century, umami is now a worldwide phenomenon, inspiring chefs the world over. In fact, there are even cookbooks celebrating umami, as well as an Umami society.
The preparation of the dishes is also important, and here, there are also five methods: raw, simmered, fried, steamed and roasted or grilled. Kaiseki cuisine makes use of these various ways of preparation, which add up to a complete experience.
Kaiseki meals usually start with the most delicate and subtle of flavors and textures, such as a few slices of raw sashimi. This is followed by soup or simmered vegetables in broth. The flavors and textures then get progressively more substantial; perhaps some crispy tempura, followed by grilled fish or meat. The meal then winds down with rice, soup and pickles. Dessert is sometimes served as well, and is always light; a perfect slice of melon, or perhaps a refreshing cold tofu custard.
This progression of flavors and preparation methods is surprisingly similar throughout the world, especially at fine dining establishments. Of course, the home cook rarely goes to so much trouble for daily meals. And on some winter days, one-pot meals really hit the spot. But a typical weekday meal at my house is salad, grilled fish, steamed, boiled or blanched vegetables, miso soup, rice and pickles. So, four out of the five ways are standard at the typical Japanese meal.
More esoteric are the five attitudes in the partaking of food. These come from the Buddhist faith, and are often posted at restaurants that serve vegetarian temple cuisine. While most modern Japanese cannot recite them, they provide the foundation for the Japanese attitude towards food by cultivating a spirit of gratitude. The following Five Phrases from the book Good Food from a Japanese Temple by Soei Yoneda, former Abbess of the Sanko-in Temple, are uttered in Zen temples before the partaking of food:
- I reflect on the work that brings this food before me; let me see whence this food comes.
- I reflect on my imperfections, on whether I am deserving of this offering of food.
- Let me hold my mind free from preferences and greed.
- I take this food as an effective medicine to keep my body in good health.
- I accept this food so that I will fulfill my task of enlightenment.