Hara Hachi Bunme

“When the crew at el Bulli sees a tree, it is only a tree. The Japanese, however, see more than just a tree. A very small part of that vision is what we try to incorporate at el Bulli. It is not science, but Japanese cuisine that has had the most influence on el Bulli…”
— Ferran Adria

I write a lot about the Japanese. And I cook a lot of Japanese food. The Japanese aesthetic in regard to food is in many ways the strongest influence in my own cooking, whether I’m doing Japanese or something else. But especially when I’m being creative and coming up with my own dishes, free of regional influences. It is then that the lessons of the Japanese are most obvious in my food.

Japanese cuisine celebrates cooking focused on the seasons, on coaxing out the natural flavor of ingredients, on beauty of presentation, on complementary textures and colors, and on portion control: “Hara hachi bunme”, which translates roughly as “Eat until you are 80% full.” In many parts of the world, eating to 80% fullness would be a luxury. In the developed world, it shows restraint — especially in Supersized America, where two thirds of the adult population is overweight and over 30% is obese. (It is also worth noting that Japan has, per capita, the greatest longevity on earth.) More alarming is the explosion of obesity among children, which is climbing at a precipitous rate. The kids of America are being taught to eat until they are 120% full, rather than 80%.

Observe a plate of sashimi. Small pieces of exquisitely fresh fish, cut by a master hand with a knife forged by the descendants of samurai sword makers. You would not want your sashimi Supersized. Or consider the kaiseki dinner, a traditional seasonal dinner of up to a dozen or more small, delicate courses celebrating the season and different styles of cooking — raw, steamed, pickled, grilled, fried, etc. It is from the kaiseki paradigm, I believe, that today’s trend of “small plates” has emerged. And a wonderful trend it is, as people re-discover an old truth: That dining slowly and sharing small, intensely flavored dishes elevates the dining experience to something much more than eating. And that being left wanting more is a happier feeling than being stuffed.

An old Japanese proverb says, “Eat like a crane”: A bird whose chopstick-like beak forces it to eat slowly and delicately. The lessons of the Japanese table:

• Eat slowly, with mindfulness, your goal to experience each bite of food.
• Eat what is in season: In the winter, enjoy long-simmered root vegetables and preserves; in the spring, the explosion of new vegetables; in summer, ripe fruits and abundant vegetables; in fall, the bounty of the harvest.
• Eat meat in small, flavorful portions. Thank the animal.
Hara hachi bunme. Eat until you are satisfied, not full.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. mom
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 01:15:00

    LOVELY!!

    Reply

  2. Lisa Gaskin
    Jan 10, 2012 @ 01:32:16

    Hare Hachi Bunme to YOU too!
    And Bunyou!

    Reply

  3. Jean-Yves Leung
    Jan 23, 2013 @ 14:08:36

    I found the article interesting. As to your statement “Observe a plate of sashimi. Small pieces of exquisitely fresh fish, cut by a master hand with a knife forged by the descendants of samurai sword makers”, the poetic license is appreciated, but in my many years living in, and eating sushi in Japan, I never chanced upon such an idyllic situation.

    Reply

    • scolgin
      Jan 23, 2013 @ 16:55:11

      Thank you Jean-Yves. They are, indeed, out there. I never experienced it Japan, either — probably far beyond what a mere mortal like myself could afford. But we have a few chefs in Los Angeles who practice their art at an extraordinarily refined level. Thanks for visiting!

      Reply

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