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Moritsuke: the Japanese art of arranging plates and food

by Joost Nusselder | Updated:  December 3, 2022

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When visiting a fine Japanese restaurant, diners may notice that their food is presented differently than in many other establishments.

This attention to detail and presentation of the meal is known as Moritsuke, and is a traditional art form in Japan.

Sushi, for example, is often presented in an elaborate and intricate fashion, with soy sauce being used as glue to hold the toppings in place.

Moritsuke: the Japanese art of arranging plates and food

The sushi platter may also be garnished with a selection of herbs, edible flowers, and other decorative items.

Moritsuke is a Japanese method of presenting food or plating. It is an art form and set of rules that requires a keen eye and attention to detail. The traditional way of arranging food in Japan, it involves balancing shapes and colors, as well as making sure the presentation is aesthetically pleasing.

In this guide, we’re explaining the rules of Moritsuke, as well as the origin of this art form.

To arrange food using this traditional Japanese art form, chefs must understand and follow certain principles.

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What is moritsuke?

Moritsuke is a Japanese food presentation practice. It is a belief that the way food is presented is equally as important as its flavor.

It’s a multi-faceted art form that includes arranging food on a plate in an eye-catching, yet balanced way.

So basically, Moritsuke is the way food is arranged and on the plate or in a dish.

There are 3 main ways to approach the moritsuke practice:

  • food choices – each dish is carefully selected to create a visually appealing meal
  • dinnerware or serveware – this refers to the actual dishes in which foods are served
  • dinnerware position – each piece of the dinnerware or dish is positioned in the perfect spot in front of diners

The goal of Moritsuke is to make food look attractive and inviting.

It emphasizes the idea of harmony between elements—an important concept in Japanese culture.

This idea is highlighted by the balanced use of colors and shapes to create a visually appealing design on each plate.

The art of Moritsuke involves careful balance and a keen eye. It requires creativity, skill, and precision.

The best example of Moritsuke in practice is Kaiseki cuisine, an elaborate multi-course dinner.

Here, the presentation of each course is carefully crafted to not only look beautiful but also invoke a sense of balance, composition, and harmony.

Moritsuke is used not only in fine dining restaurants but also in everyday eating establishments like soba noodle shops and bento places.

Here are some of the features of moritsuke:

  • Use of colors and shapes to create a visually pleasing design
  • Emphasis on harmony between elements
  • Seasonality
  • Use of dinnerware position and size for a practical approach
  • Utilization of appropriate serveware to enhance presentation
  • Incorporation of traditional Japanese culinary techniques
  • Aesthetic beauty with a spiritual message
  • Careful balance and attention to detail

Moritsuke plating styles

Here are the common plating techniques:

  • Hiramori – food of similar sizes and colors arranged on a flat plane (this is the most popular)
  • Sugimori – slices and food strips placed in a slanted pile or cedar shape
  • Kasanemori – this refers to overlapping food slices or a stacked arangement
  • Tawaramori – these are rounds or food block placed horizontally to look like a pyramid
  • Tenmori – finishing touches of flavor and appearance
  • Yama no Katachi – mountain arrangement (food placement resembles Mount Fuji)
  • Yosemori – a couple of ingredients that are contrasted placed in the center of the plate
  • Nagashi mori – this resembles a mountain inside a sunken vessel
  • Chirashimori – a scattered arrangement of ingredients
  • Sansuimori – a landscape composition that sometimes incorporates symbolic motifs, such as fish slices fanning out to represent waves
  • Sugata-mori – a figurative arrangement of food (for example, two fish slices symbolizing a crane and its reflection)

Elements that govern the aesthetics of the traditional Japanese meal

The five tastes—sweet, sour, savory, salty, and bitter—make up the most typical number of servings on a Japanese food table and balance out the overall flavor of the meal.

Let’s take a look that the principles or rules of Moritsuke in more detail:

Aesthetic and practical

The moritsuke is an aesthetic and practical approach to food presentation.

It not only makes the meal look more attractive, but it also enables diners to clearly identify the individual elements of their dish.

It can also make it easier for them to pick out specific flavors and ingredients that may have been used in the preparation of their meal.

Practicality is important – for example, soup and rice is always served in a small bowl called kobachi.

This presentation and serving is practical because diners can hold and eat soup comfortably while bringing the bowl to their mouth.

Another example is sushi – sushi is always arranged in an elaborate and intricate fashion, with soy sauce being used as glue to hold the toppings in place.

The sushi is also served on a large, flat plate to make it easier for diners to pick and choose the type of sushi they’d like to eat.

Moritsuke requires creativity, skill, and precision. A chef must know how to arrange food in a way that will draw people’s attention and spark their interest.

From arranging sushi into an intricate flower design or decorating an ice cream sundae with a colorful array of fruits, Moritsuke is all about making food look beautiful.

In addition to its aesthetic appeal, Moritsuke also has a spiritual side to it.

Many Japanese people consider the presentation of their food as part of their cultural identity and tradition.

This idea emphasizes hospitality and respect for guests, as it’s believed to bring them joy and satisfaction.

Focus on seasonality

In the spirit of traditional Japanese culture, seasonality is an important element in Moritsuke.

In Japan, chefs take into account the season when arranging food, to make sure that the ingredients are in season and of the highest quality.

For example, springtime is when some of the most flavorful vegetables are harvested, so chefs can use these vegetables to create a vibrant and colorful design on their plates.

This is why Moritsuke can be a great way to showcase seasonal ingredients and flavors.

As each season is symbolized by a distinct food item with a different color in Japan, seasonal changes suggest a huge visual influence on the country’s food culture.

For instance, a pink dish would predominate a Japanese dinner table in the spring, signifying the rebirth of the cherry blossom.

Dishes with the colors red, green, and blue are used to symbolize summer, while white is used to symbolize winter.

The food is presented mostly in red and gold hues throughout the autumn, which is related to the foliage of the season, or “Koyo” in Japanese.

The Japanese names Hashiri, Shun, and Nagori, which also denote the start, peak, and end of a season as well as food, capture the reality that raw food varies its color, flavor, and texture during each season.

Each season also sees a change in the serveware, which highlights the food being served.

This enhances practicality as well, as utilizing lacquerware with a hardwood base in the winter keeps food warm throughout the meal.

By incorporating seasonal elements into the presentation of their food, chefs can provide an even more authentic and memorable experience for their diners.

The most delectable season of the year, according to legend, is fall when the most desirable ingredients, such as mushrooms and daikon radish, are at their best.

Food is frequently carved or presented in the shape of the three friends of winter—pine, bamboo, and plum—especially in platters made for New Year’s celebrations, to help evoke a feeling of place and time.

A common seasonal pattern for carrots is the maple leaf in the fall and the cherry blossom in the spring.

Servingware

Every plate and bowl used to serve traditional Japanese cuisine is carefully chosen to highlight the best aspects of the dish it holds.

Japanese vessels or containers are referred to as utsuwa – these include plates, cups, glasses, pots, and other dishes used to serve food.

There is no requirement for similarity in Japanese serving pieces.

Each dish may differ in terms of its size, shape, color, and material, as well as its decorative patterns.

Despite the asymmetry, the outcome is a magnificent and singular work of art.

Empty space

The Japanese idea of empty space, ma, may be found across Japanese culture in anything from minimalist home designs to traditional paintings.

In eating, plates are seldom completely or heavily laden with food. The void helps the eye concentrate on the meal in front of them and arouses curiosity and possibility.

The use of negative space also aids in achieving balance and harmony as it can be used to give emphasis on particular elements, such as a single flower in the center of a plate.

By embracing the idea of empty space, chefs can create eye-catching presentations that are attractive and unique.

Ma

According to moritsuke rules, empty space should be employed to its fullest potential.

Japanese food is presented with the appropriate care for ma. Ma is the use of empty space and silence in the setting, which allows diners to focus on their meal.

To achieve this effect, food is arranged in an organized fashion, with enough space between items to create a sense of serenity and appreciation.

A dish should never be totally covered with the food it contains, as a general rule.

On the other hand, a huge dish, like the hassun used in some tea ceremony courses, might just have the tiny food bites arranged in two lines at the proper spots (generally tracing a diagonal line, and not parallel, with the shape of the plate).

Whereas Western plates are typically piled high with food, and if there is no meat on the dish, there are potatoes or vegetables there instead, the Japanese leave the empty space on the plate in view, creating a stimulation that travels from the sight to the tongue.

One of the most interesting things about moritsuke, though, is the metaphorical possibilities it offers in the context of the everyday act of eating.

Food arrangement

To ensure that every dish is as aesthetically pleasing as it is delicious, a set of fundamental concepts and guidelines are used in Japanese cuisine preparation.

Depending on the mood of the chef and the time of year, a number of different culinary options are possible.

The two most popular arrangements are sugimori, which shapes food into the shape of a conical cedar tree, and yama no katachi, which arranges food in a mountainous display.

The ‘mountain’ and ‘cedar’ styles are the most popular and well-received.

In the former, the chef will place a slice of fish on the edge of a bowl to evoke a mountain covered in clouds; in the latter, thin slices of fish arranged in a fan shape allude to the motion of the sea; and pyramids of round objects like maki rolls allude to rural concepts or piles of ritual stones.

The most challenging method to perfect is chirashimori, which involves arranging food in a dispersed pattern while maintaining balance and finesse.

Expression of the principles that underlie much of the process of creating Japanese food, art, and the aesthetics of the season in which the food is served is more important than a chef’s individual style.

Color varations

Moritsuke places focus on color variations and contrasts between the ingredients.

The arrangement of food can be enhanced by playing with different color schemes to create a visual balance that is pleasing to look at.

Japanese cuisine is distinctive in that it combines the five primary colors of red, green, black, white, and yellow.

This combination ensures the nutritional balance while also being aesthetically pleasing. It is also not uncommon to incorporate more than one color within a single dish.

For example, a white plate can be used to highlight and emphasize fresh green vegetables set atop it.

The contrasting colors create visual appeal and emphasize the ingredients’ freshness.

Incorporating shades of blue, red, and yellow can also create beautiful contrasts that help to make the presentation of food even more captivating.

By combining such methods, chefs can create a stunning visual display that appeals to diners.

Asymmetry

Moritsuke can be used to create a sense of balance and proportion through the use of asymmetry.

The asymmetrical layout used in Japanese food presentation is more surprising and askew than the symmetrical pattern frequently found in Western cuisine.

The aim is to achieve a balanced composition, rather than a perfectly symmetrical one.

This technique can be used to draw attention to certain components of the dish and create an overall pleasant appearance.

By playing with asymmetry, chefs can create visually appealing presentations and show off the best elements of their food.

What does moritsuke mean?

The term moritsuke, which translates to “to arrange” or “decorate” in Japanese, refers to the practice of arranging food and plates attractively.

Japan Dictionary defines moritsuke as the arrangement of food (on a dish).

This includes the arrangement of colors, the use of shapes and sizes to create balance, and the composition of different ingredients.

What’s the origin of moritsuke?

The practice of food presentation dates to the Edo period (1603-1868), when it was used as a form of entertainment among the upper classes.

During this period, wealthy merchants and samurai would gather to show off their culinary skills.

This trend eventually spread to the lower classes as well, and over time, moritsuke became an integral part of Japanese cuisine.

Today, it is practiced by chefs all around the world who wish to bring a unique touch to their dishes.

The practice of moritsuke has evolved over centuries and is still valued today.

What’s the difference between Moritsuke and Me de Taberu?

“Me de Taberu” a Japanese term, meaning “to eat food with eyes” or “feast with your” eyes.

This term refers to the practice of enjoying food by looking at it. This Japanese saying is closely associated with the practice of Moritsuke.

The idea that one can feast with the eyes is an important part of Japanese cuisine, as presentation and aesthetics are key elements of Moritsuke.

Moritsuke, however, is more about the arrangement of food on a plate to create a pleasing visual effect.

It does not necessarily involve any special cutting or presentation skills.

What’s the difference between Moritsuke and Kaiseki?

Even though popular foods like sushi and ramen are widespread in Japan, the traditional Japanese dish Kaiseki embodies the best aspects of Japanese cuisine.

Kaiseki describes a particular style of traditional Japanese food that is typically prepared for special occasions.

You will also need to know some basic manners when eating Kaiseki cuisine.

A traditional Japanese multi-course feast is called kaiseki.

It’s typically served at upscale Japanese restaurants and consists of a series of light, small-portioned meals.

Typically, it consists of a series of small dishes like “Sakizuke,” which is similar to an appetizer, and “Mukozuke,” which is raw fish sashimi that has been thinly sliced.

Kaiseki originated as a special meal eaten before tea ceremonies, which gives it a special history.

To greet guests, it was initially served as a little lunch that was made by the tea ceremony host.

In comparison to Kaiseki, Moritsuke is the art of beautifully arranging food. Unlike Kaiseki, it’s not a style of cooking but rather a way to make dishes look more attractive.

What’s the difference between Moritsuke and Omakase?

There’s a Japanese word “omakase,” which translates to “I’ll leave it up to you,” and it’s frequently used in sushi restaurants in Japan.

Omakase is a way of ordering food from a sushi chef, and it typically includes several courses of small plates that are selected by the chef.

Moritsuke, on the other hand, is a cooking style used to decorate and arrange food on the plate and table.

Omakase is a system of ordering food where the diner leaves it up to the chef to decide what to serve.

It’s common at high-end sushi restaurants, and the chef will typically choose a selection of dishes that are freshly prepared.

So why is the omakase system so popular in Japan, and how do restaurant staff members decide what to serve?

Sushi culture evolved as a result of the shift in the products that consumers were looking for.

Diners enjoyed the available sake and side dishes, which were standard menu items.

There was a need for a method, however, wherein newcomers could make an order and leave it to the chef, sparing them the shame of not knowing a specific fish name, particularly when seasonal fish were employed.

Thus, Omakase was created to help undecided or unknowledgeable diners maintain their dignity.

Omakase was frequently preferred by chefs as it allowed them to serve fish and other products that they had on hand without having to apologize to clients when they weren’t available.

Additionally, it was simpler for clients to simply leave everything up to their dependable restaurant hosts and continue speaking with their friends and coworkers rather than having to make particular item decisions.

The Omakase approach is ideal for persons who struggle to make decisions or who lack strong opinions when speaking in front of a group.

In the same way, omakase provides customers with a chance to experience a chef’s expertise and skill in creating something unique.

Learn about special donburi bowls and where to find them in my extensive review

What’s the difference between Moritsuke and Washoku?

Washoku is a Kanji term for Japanese food or traditional Japanese cuisine. The term encompasses a wide range of dishes, from the common to the very unique.

At its core, washoku is a straightforward method of preparing rice and side dishes using a variety of seasonal ingredients.

The dinner can be transformed into a palette of aromas and colors that are in line with nature and the Japanese Moritsuke aesthetic thanks to the large variety of dishes.

As a social practice, washoku is a set of abilities, know-how, customs, practices, and traditions relating to food production, processing, preparation, and consumption.

It is directly tied to the sustainable use of natural resources and is associated with a fundamental spirit of reverence for the environment.

Washoku is often served in a formal setting and uses fresh ingredients. Dishes are usually prepared with a focus on the balance of different flavors, colors, and textures.

In addition, washoku is often served with an emphasis on seasonal ingredients.

So, the difference between Washoku and Moritsuke is that Washoku covers a wide range of authentic Japanese dishes, while Moritsuke emphasizes composition and presentation.

Specifically, Moritsuke refers to a style of food arrangement that is based on the principles of aesthetics, with an eye for detail and color whereas Washoku covers all aspects of traditional Japanese cuisine.

Examples of moritsuke

Moritsuke is present in many Japanese dishes.

Examples include sushi, sashimi, and tempura—all of which are arranged so that they look appealing to the eye as well as taste delicious.

Moritsuke is also present in tea ceremony utensils and bento boxes, where items are carefully arranged to create an aesthetically pleasing display.

Here are some examples of moritsuke food and presentation:

Kaiseki

This is a Japanese multi-course meal that is served in the traditional tea ceremony style. Dishes are plated and arranged in a specific order to create an aesthetically pleasing presentation.

Otsukuri

This dish includes sashimi, which is fresh raw fish cut into thin slices and served with soy sauce and wasabi.

The chef arranges the pieces of fish in a fan-like pattern or uses contrasting colors to create an attractive presentation.

Bento or obento box

This is a single-portion takeout or home-packed meal common in Japanese cuisine. Bento boxes are filled with various types of food, such as rice, vegetables, fish, and meat.

The presentation of bento boxes is very important. It features a variety of colors, shapes and sizes that create an aesthetically pleasing composition.

Sushi platter

This is a large plate or tray used to serve sushi. The arrangement of the fish in the platter is done very carefully and is usually arranged according to color and size so that it looks attractive.

Chirashi sushi

Also known as scattered sushi, chirashi sushi consists of sushi rice with various raw fish and vegetables arranged on top, often in an aesthetically pleasing manner.

This arrangement also falls under the term moritsuke.

Mukimono

Mukimono is a type of decorative fruit and vegetable carving.

The chef skillfully uses a knife to create intricate designs on the food, often using contrasting colors to enhance the presentation. This technique falls under the term moritsuke.

Where to eat Moritsuke cuisine?

Moritsuke cuisine can be found in a variety of restaurants, from casual eateries to upscale establishments.

In Japan, there are many traditional restaurants specializing in Washoku and Moritsuke-style dishes.

These restaurants usually feature chefs who have mastered the art of food arrangement and presentation.

For those looking for an experience that combines the traditional with the modern, there are also many fusion restaurants offering dishes that incorporate elements of both styles.

When eating out, be sure to check if the restaurant specializes in Washoku and Moritsuke before ordering your meal.

You can be assured of a beautiful presentation as well as delicious flavors!

Sushi is the perfect example of Washoku and Moritsuke combined.

The tuna, salmon, and other fish are cut into thin slices and arranged on a platter with minimal garnishing to create an aesthetically pleasing presentation.

Upscale Japanese sushi restaurants often take this concept a step further, with chefs creating intricate designs and color combinations to make each sushi dish an artwork.

So, if you are looking to experience the best of Washoku and Moritsuke cuisine, be sure to visit a traditional Japanese restaurant or look for fusion places that have mastered the art of food arrangement.

Moritsuke etiquette

Moritsuke is a unique art form that can be seen in many restaurants and hotels around Japan.

From traditional sushi bars to modern fusion cuisine, Moritsuke can be found everywhere!

It is an integral part of Japanese culture and has become increasingly popular in recent years.

With its aesthetic beauty and spiritual meaning, Moritsuke is sure to be a memorable experience for anyone who gets the chance to try it.

When it comes to etiquette, there are a few things you should keep in mind when eating Moritsuke.

First, always be mindful of the arrangement and presentation of your food. Respectfully enjoy the fruits of the chef’s hard work and don’t disrupt the arrangement of the food.

Secondly, use the correct utensils. Chopsticks should be used when eating sushi and other Moritsuke dishes.

Anything else is considered rude and can ruin the aesthetic of the dish.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it! Moritsuke can be intimidating, so don’t be afraid to ask the staff for advice.

Moritsuke and Japanese dishes

The dishes used in Moritsuke can vary depending on the chefs’ preferences, but there are some dishes that are typically seen in this style of cuisine.

Japanese dishes are usually sold in sets of 5. The number 5 is significant because it represents the elemental colors.

The five elemental colors are supposed to be represented in a Moritsuke dish. In Japan, the five basic hues are red, green, yellow, white, and black.

Chefs make an effort to incorporate all five in a single dish, which helps to attain a balance of nutritional advantages.

FAQs

What is the common plating in Japan?

The most common plating style in Japan is called hiramori. This involves arranging the food on a flat plane.

Foods that are shaped similarly, or have a similar size and color are placed together but they face a slanted direction.

Why is food presentation important in Japan?

Food presentation is important in Japan as it is seen as an art form that balances taste and aesthetics.

The way a dish is presented can give additional meaning to the experience, as it can represent nature, harmony, balance and more.

Japanese cuisine is supposed to be enjoyed by all the senses, and food presentation is a key part of this experience.

Is Moritsuke the same as Japanese food art?

Moritsuke is a form of Japanese food art.

This style focuses on arranging and presenting the ingredients in an aesthetically pleasing way, while keeping the flavors of the food intact.

The goal is to achieve harmony between art and flavor, creating a truly memorable experience.

What is a Japanese table setting?

A Japanese table setting includes a number of dishes and utensils.

Typically, you will find a plate for sashimi or sushi, a bowl for soup or noodles, a small plate for wasabi and soy sauce, chopsticks, as well as a wet towel to clean your hands before and after your meal.

This is the typical setup for a Japanese meal, though it can vary depending on the type of food being served.

Conclusion

Moritsuke is an art form that has been passed down through generations, continuing to be an integral part of Japanese culture.

The Japanese appear to practice the art of setting a meal as if it were a natural trait of their disposition.

It is a tactile and figurative ceremony that draws its aesthetic from the landscapes and the beauty of the seasons.

With its emphasis on negative space, color variations, asymmetry, and food arrangement and presentation, Moritsuke is a creative culinary art form that has evolved from traditional Japanese hospitality and continues to be enjoyed today.

Whether it’s in the form of a bento box or a sushi platter, Moritsuke is sure to delight the senses and provide an unforgettable experience.

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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.