Unraveling Culture through The Lens of Tableware

"Tableware reveals in striking fashion the food culture of those lands."

Written by Makiko Tanaka

When traveling, I like to make note of the various tableware I encounter at my destinations. The reason for this is that I find that tableware reveals in striking fashion the food culture of those lands.

For example, in India, they often use small, round stainless steel bowls called katori that are placed on top of a large plate called a thali, which is similarly made of stainless steel. It is said that the use of these came about in order to avoid the mixing of flavors when eating a variety of curries at the same time.

      In China, whose culinary culture sees food laid out on big plates that are shared by large groups of people, restaurants set out small individual plates in front of guests, with the big plate then being placed in the very center of the table. Then, bowls for soup (indispensable in Chinese cooking) and small dishes for refreshments are generally placed as part of the setting.


      In Italy, food is generally ordered separately based on the preference of each individual. These meals are usually served in the order of aperitivo (appetizer), primo (dishes like pasta or risotto), secondo (the main course, featuring the likes of meat and fish), and lastly dolce (dessert), ad it’s rare to place large plates on top of the table; rather, people usually have a single plate for themselves located right in front of them.

      Now, if we’re speaking of Japan (and this of course varies from household to household and restaurant to restaurant), the basic layout of a family’s table setting has one dish for soup and three for other dishes, a principle called ichijusansai in Japanese. In other words, a meal is usually made up of Japan’s staple food, rice, soup, and the other dishes (one main dish and two sides). It’s for this reason that a table setting has a rice bowl to hold the rice, a soup bowl from which to drink miso soup, and plates in which to place the three other dishes.

      It’s also intriguing to observe the shape of tableware and how they’re placed.
      For example, while Western tableware usually favors round bowls, Japanese tableware often features four-cornered or even eight-cornered bowls. Also, in Japan, where grilled fish is so regularly on the menu, you can often see four-cornered plates made for such grilled fish, and since soy sauce and other condiments are so common, there’s a bounty of small dishes for these condiments called mamezara or yakumizara.

      Then we have the settings themselves. In the Western world, tableware tends to be set out in simple shapes and colors that create a sense of unity, but Japanese table settings tend to feature tableware with all sorts of different colors and patterns. It’s said that this derives from a practice which originally saw each individual person’s meal being set out on a four-legged tray called an ozen, and that the sense of oneness of the ozen created by the arrangement of different plates was regarded as important.

      All the examples I’ve just brought may be generalizations, but these utensils serve as a great starting point from which we can make any number of discoveries by observing food culture. When we unveil such discoveries, we can also come to know about the culture, history, and religion of the countries from which these utensils hail.

      All in all, it might be a good thing to keep all this in mind as a way in which we can enjoy tableware and the abundance that tableware can bring to our lives.