Dinner, November 28, 2018

When I happened to come across information on an exhibition of lacquerware made in Joboji, Iwate Prefecture, it was clear that dinner that day would feature their bowls. Joboji urushi ware was one of the first lacquer tableware I bought for myself back in Tokyo more than 20 years ago.

  • Gohan / steamed rice
  • Gobo to shimeji, menuke no misoshiru / miso soup with burdock root, shimeji mushrooms and grilled rockfish
  • Koyadofu no ageyaki to ebi no horenso-an-kake / fried freeze-dried tofu and shrimp with light dashi sauce with spinach
  • Hijiki no itameni / braised hijiki seaweed
  • Tomato no amazu oroshi-ae / tomato with grated daikon radish and sweetened vinegar

The menu was chosen mainly to finish up leftovers in the fridge: braised hijiki seaweed I had made a couple of days earlier; a small piece of grilled fish and grated daikon radish (a condiment for the fish) from two days ago; and finely chopped blanched spinach that was just too much to put in palak paneer curry the night before.

There was something I wanted to try with koyadofu freeze-dried tofu — frying it after rehydration and serving with thickened dashi sauce. Chopped spinach was added to the sauce, and the outcome was much better than expected. Koyadofu becomes a bit chewy from absorbing oil. Thickened sauce is always nice in cold weather. Spinach is an easy trick to quickly transform something more common: plain gin-an sauce, in this case.

While grilled fish could be added to the koyadofu dish, instead it was crumbled into large chunks and added to miso soup with gobo burdock root and shimeji mushrooms. Fish and gobo pair really well in soup in general, as do gobo and shimeji mushrooms. They all add different layers of flavor to the soup and together create intriguing depth.

Grated radish was mixed with sweetened rice vinegar, and then mixed with a diced tomato for a bright, refreshing small side dish. Raw radish is rich in amylase and other digestive enzymes, making this dish a great companion for the koyadofu dish prepared with oil.

What is special about these plain-looking lacquer bowls is the charm they bring to your everyday routine. Typically, those decorated with gold powder get the spotlight among handcrafted lacquerware, but the beauty of urushi ware to me is not the decorative aspect or artistic technique. It is the experience of the touch and feel of these bowls. Besides the solid wood base that keeps warm food warm and cold food cold, when you hold them in your hands, your body temperature slowly is passed to the bowl and then seems to migrate back to your hands.

Joboji lacquerware is largely finished in a single color, either vermilion red or dark purplish brown. Unless lacquerware goes through a mirror finish polishing process, the newly coated surface looks rather dull, yet with years of repeated use, it gains a lustrous look as if polished. If you are into traditional handcrafted tableware, you often hear an expression that means to grow or nurture tableware to gain a beautiful look through use. In the case of lacquerware, if the urushi coating becomes sort of translucent and reflects all light, you have succeeded in nurturing it. If you have urushi lacquerware enshrined in a cupboard, you should use it to make it shine. Lacquerware is made to be used. Urushi sap requires moisture to maintain its strength, so if not used frequently enough, it will crack. (If not used on a regular basis, wetting and drying with a cloth once a month should help.)

Tom and I visited Tekiseisha in Joboji before we moved to the US in late 90s. The town had several lacquerware shops, which generally seemed rather quiet and made us worry about what lies ahead for the craft in coming years. Obviously, however, the town and the urushi business have picked up; more urushi trees are being grown to harvest their sap and younger people are participating in the industry today. Tekiseisha now has a lineup of bowls coated with 100% local urushi sap. It makes me very happy to see them thriving.