“On the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” Matthew 23:28
The slice of cake carefully set before us by our kind hostess looked exquisite. It was decorated with luscious, flawless strawberries and topped with artfully applied whipped cream on a precisely cut piece of cake displayed on beautiful china. My wife and I felt like royalty as we gazed upon the delicacy offered for our consumption. “This is going to be amazing,” I thought to myself as I eagerly took my first bite. However, I soon discovered that the taste did not quite match the anticipation. While it was tasty, the edible artwork before me served as evidence that presentation often takes precedence over palate in Japan.
Food presentation, known as moritsuke (盛り付け) in Japanese, means literally “arrangement of food on a dish.” The objective is to engage the aesthetic senses of the diner and draw them in, much like someone admiring a work of art. In the Western world, this is often referred to as “plating,” where the symmetry of food on a plate is the primary focus in meal presentation. However, in Japan, moritsuke points to portions of a meal artfully placed in a variety of dishes and embellished with decorative garnishing. These presentations often have a seasonal theme and the decorations, known as mukimono, are typically intricate creations of flowers, animals, fish or dragons carved from various vegetables and fruits that are not necessarily intended to be eaten, but exist as one aspect of the overall culinary picture.
This emphasis on the appearance of food is most often evident in the display of sushi and sashimi in the more extravagant Japanese meals that serve to make one’s dining experience a memorable occasion. The Japanese language certainly has words to cover a whole range of tastes such as sweet (amai), spicy (karai), bitter (nigai), sour (suppai) and salty (shoppai), but the appearance of food is also an important element in food preparation. After a few months of living in Japan, we started to wonder how the vegetables and fruits for sale in the stores always seemed to be perfectly shaped and colored. This mystery was solved one day when we discovered a number of misshapen, but perfectly good potatoes being sold by a local farmer for a pittance of their normal value as they could not sell them in the open market. Appearance is valued in all stages of the food preparation process.
Focus on appearance is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact, we routinely give a great deal of attention to image over substance in a number of areas. This focus on image can be seen in the clothing we wear, the manner in which we style our hair, the diets or exercise we endure to achieve a certain body shape, the material goods we accumulate or the manner in which we communicate. We want to look good in front of others and consequently, we devote a considerable amount of time, effort and resources to that end.
But how we appear before God, who sees beyond external trappings, should compel us to examine ourselves so that we might live lives guided by a higher standard, a heavenly standard. Jesus saved his harshest criticisms for the religious leaders because they valued rules over people, physical practices over spiritual presence and religion over relationship. He compared them to whitewashed tombs full of decay or dirty dishes that had only been cleaned on the outside. (Matthew 23) Hypocrisy may be rampant in the world around us, but heavenly moritsuke calls for aligning our lives with the heart of God who is not distracted or deceived by appearances. In the spiritual realm, presentation should never take precedence over palate.