Mandala arrangement via

Mandala arrangement via

Japanese-style meals are called washoku. The kanji (the Chinese characters that are used in the modern Japanese logographic writing system) for washoku are:


which mean literally “harmony” and “food.”

Harmony seems to be a key principle in traditional Japanese cooking – and that seems to be something quite foreign to American cooking. If my readings are correct, in Japan, food is less viewed as something eaten to energize and run the body and it is more likely to be viewed as an experience.

Washoku is about harmony and balance both in nutrition and aesthetics. I suppose it is a kind of food philosophy of  balancing colors, flavors, cooking methods, and the five senses.

Five also seems to be significant. (I am no expert on this – so correct me if necessary.) For example, go shiki (five colors) is a principle that says the meal should have a variety of colors: red, green, yellow, black, and white. It makes me think of more recent “research” that shows positive effects in adding more colors (of vegetables) to your diet. Good nutrition and visually appealing. The latter is, I suppose, the “presentation”part that adds ten dollars to your entree in a fancy restaurant.

The principle of go kan (five senses) would encourage the cook to think beyond taste and nutrition to the touch, sound, smell, sight of the meal.

“We are nourished by the presentation as we nourished by the food,” says John Daido Loori in The Zen of Creativity: Cultivating Your Artistic Life.  I met Loori at Zen Mountain Monastery in New York’s Catskill Mountains when I was on retreats there. (How I was rejected by the Zen students because of my snoring is a good story for another day.)

More principles of washoku include go mi (five tastes) to balance flavors, go ho (five ways) to encourage a variety of cooking methods, and go kan mon (five outlooks), to guide you in your respect and appreciation of the meal and in the way it is eaten.

Though I have over my adult life approached Buddhist teachings through retreats, classes and home practice, I never went as far as full-time Zen monastic training. I never made it through the Eight Gates of Zen which is a kind of Western version of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path.

One thing I have held onto is zazen, formal seated meditation. Za means “sitting”  and zen (from the Sanskrit “dhyana”) means meditation.  Explained simply, it is the practice of concentration with a focus on your breath.

When I first tried it, my wife asked what I was supposed to try to accomplish. I said, “The object is to sit and empty your mind of everything.” “You should be great at it,” she replied.

But it’s not that easy.

Washoku I think what interested me recently about washoku is that the principles work quite well with my non-food life too.

Making careful decisions about what to include and what to exclude. Paying attention to the season and occasion. Balancing amounts (portions) of things – measured restraint and balance.

And wouldn’t it be nice if everything was also arranged visually to be balanced and harmonious?

Balance, harmony, restraint, simplicity, naturalness.

And now a nice cup of cherry blossom tea

What is the true path to culinary enlightenment? This video segment,  “Zen and the Art of Cooking,” looks at how some chefs achieve inner harmony from cooking – including the author of Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, Elizabeth Andoh – and how they find their Zen through their relationship with food.