In his remarkable essay “In Praise of Shadows” (1933), Jun’ichirō Tanizaki expounds on his appreciation for the imperfections, tarnishes, and subtleties – shadows, broadly writ – that permeate and define everyday life in Japan. In discursive, flowing prose, Tanizaki discusses the patina objects acquire with repeated use, the subtle glow emitted by paper lanterns, the darkening and softening of wood over time, the fluidity and softness afforded by calligraphy brushes and paper. Over the course of these discussions, Tanizaki reveals what appears (at least in the context of the essay) to be a fundamental cultural divide. Where Western culture values illumination, clarity, and logic, Japanese aesthetic sensibilities place a premium on subtlety, haziness and ambiguity – that is, on the border between light and dark, on shadows.
There is a significant political dimension to Tanizaki’s argument (namely, that Japanese culture did itself a great disservice by borrowing heavily from the West in the years following Japan’s “opening” to the outside world). However, I will not elaborate on that here, because what I’d really like to talk to you about is soup.
For my part, the strongest point of “In Praise of Shadows” centers on Tanizaki’s discussion of lacquerware, particularly the dark lacquer bowls typically used for serving miso soup. He writes,
“There are good reasons why lacquer soup bowls are still used, qualities which ceramic bowls simply do not possess. Remove the lid from a ceramic bowl, and there lies the soup, every nuance of its substance and color revealed. With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm senses the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation. What a world of difference there is between this moment and the moment when soup is served Western style, in a pale, shallow bowl. A moment of mystery, it might almost be called, a moment of trance.”1
In that moment – when the bowl’s dark surface melds with the swirling patterns of miso suspended in amber dashi – Tanizaki recognized something much greater than mere taste or nourishment or even aesthetic beauty. Rather, there is something undeniably elemental about this soup; perhaps the brininess of it reminds us of our primordial ocean origins. In its swirling patterns lie a microcosm – a miniature galaxy in a bowl – each ingredient drifting through a miso milky way.
Perhaps all this philosophizing is a bit of a stretch. I’ll let you decide. But in Japanese cuisine, soup is not substance so much as a painting in reverse, whose textures and colors are carefully arranged across a smooth lacquer canvas. This is particularly true when it comes to suimono, or clear, dashi-based soups (which, by the way, comprise all the soups pictured in this post).
Although suimono may lack the enigmatic murkiness of miso soup, it more than makes up for that lack in pure visual drama. Here, each ingredient is chosen not just for its seasonality but also for its ability to harmonize with the serving piece. Tiny droplets of fat suspended on the surface of an eel soup suggest the glow of gold leaf maki-e, while the rough scales of a fish form a dramatic counterpoint to the glossy, inky depths beneath. Always, the line between taste and perception is blurred and tenebrous.
So, when is soup just soup? Well, as Tanizaki would likely say, it simply depends how you serve it.
1. Tanizaki, Jun’ichirō, translated by T. Harper. In Praise of Shadows. Stony Creek, CT: Leete’s Island Books, 1977: 15