Thursday, April 03, 2008


THE FLAVOR OF SHAPE


Now and then, like a butterfly on Mt. Everest, I've touched briefly on this subject in these crude musings, but I've never been quite able to fully grasp, any more than the butterfly the mountain, the fact that so much of Japan's taste delight is a matter of form.

In the West, form plays an important role in gourmet and lesser categories of dining - at this point I cannot help but visualize a forthright wedge of cherry pie with a stalwart scoop of Rocky Road by its side - but beneath the swirls of foody sauce and herbs and whatnot there is a rainbow, a bright rainbow, of flavor and savor is there not, a scrumptiousness, a lusciousness, an exquisiteness that begets deep ooohs and ahhhhs and mmmmms, so the merely visual aspect of Western food (consisting of something like "Boy, does that hot dog look good!") is ballpark maybe 10-15% of the overall experience wouldn't you say? Sorry to ask while your mouth is full...

Anyway, in Japanese cuisine it seems to me that the visual/taste ratio must at times be as much as 70-80%... Subtlety is the thing here, such subtlety as to at first be often indiscernible by the alien tongue, as for example when the newbie first tastes udon, or is dining with natives who are ecstasizing over the deliciousness of the plain white rice they're eagerly devouring, when to the newbie plain white rice has even less taste than white bread, though slightly more taste than air. Most Japanese simply LOVE white rice and cannot live without it. No matter how long I live here, though, I will never love white rice. I find it a pleasant, often essential accompaniment to a Japanese meal, but an accompaniment, not the star feature, nowhere near food hollywood.

This is all purely cultural of course, and as close as I'll ever get to straddling the gap where I had hoped there would one day be a bridge, but I just can't get my mind around the fact that, for example, someone in the office returns from a vacation trip to a locale famed for its, say, pagoda, and for family and office workers brings back treats in the shape of a -- pagoda, formed of rice or wheat flour baked in a mold and filled with white or brown sweet bean paste about the consistency of soft chalk, and everyone oohs and ahhs over the deliciousness of it, every time. True, it is tasty, mostly with curiosity, the first time or even the first two times...

Then another colleague comes back from a trip to another place, this one famed for its lanterns, or its birds, or its roof tiles, and brings back treats for everyone, created right there in the visited locale, made in the shape of
a -- lantern, a bird, or a roof tile, all laid out in a nice box for tasty travel souvenirs, all baked in a mold and filled with white or brown sweet bean paste as above, with a shelf life of about 10 years, and everyone oohs and ahhs over the deliciousness of it, every time.

But for me, long before the 150th time, a series of little mental bubble-clouds pop up, asking: do I like the taste of the shape of a bird better than the taste of the shape of a lantern? Can I taste the difference between shapes? What does shape taste like, anyway? Is it a Japanese taste? Can Americans taste shape if they live long enough in Japan? It seems not... Though it does my heart good to see Hello Kitty fried...

After hundreds of these food objects (I have a desk drawer full of these things, they make great paperweights),
I just don't get it. I always begin to wonder: isn't anybody asking for maybe a change? Maybe a little chocolate inside, or strawberry jam or, oh, anything? For a change? Hello? This isn't the first time I've asked.

I know I'm missing something here as the outsider, but no matter where I look, I just can't find it, because it's outside me, a guy who grew up with jelly (raspberry, strawberry etc.)/chocolate/cream donuts, as just one example, in a land like a cultural carnival where every foody souvenir is really different, and generally eaten on the spot, like the coconut creme pie at that little roadside restaurant in Vermont in 1971... I don't remember the taste of the shape, but I'll never forget the taste of the pie.

Photos via

4 comments:

Ruthe Karlin said...

I spent an entire month in Japan wondering about those "goodies" and the amazing quantities of them. I'm glad you mentioned keeping them as paperweights. It's hard to believe all those things get eaten. I kept trying to think of something comparable here. We just don't bring back souvenir gifts like that.

Pam said...

Hello Kitty shape must taste better than the rest.
She just has to.
(Although that one on the top in the middle looks like she has a cream corn belly.)
That's it. If they ever diversify in fillings, it'll end up being corn flavored.

maethelwine said...

Momiji manju, from Hiroshima. Surely you've had these? Come stuffed with anko, chocolate, cream, cheese, and my own favorite, almond paste.

I just wanted to let you know that I’ve listed you on Japan in Motion’s new “Blogs on Japan” site. This is a new project we’re trying out in the hopes of directing attention to Japan-oriented blogs that we especially like, written from a foreign perspective. They’ll include both well-known blogs and some that are flying under radar. If there are any Japan-based blogs you’ve enjoyed, or read regularly, maybe you could leave a comment and let us know. Thanks, and keep writing!

Bob Brady said...

maethelwine, thank you for your kindness... I just linked to Japan In Motion; great and useful site. Will add thereto any interesting Japanoblogs I find. Thanks again to you for your generosity and for taking the time.