Ceramics for Kaiseki-Mukozuke

One of the most frequent uses of ceramics in the culture of eating, certainly the first the guests see, is a dish used to hold something to eat with sake, now known as the mukozuke course. In earlier times we saw the almost exclusive use of wood, lacquer and the occasional unglazed ceramic piece holding food, but from the Momoyama, a revolution in eating culture rapidly replaced much of the lacquer and most of the low fired ceramic with new glazed works.

The first place among mukozuke is usually reserved for fine Chinese pieces of the Ming period, mainly red overglaze enamel on porcelain, sometimes with gold, called gosu aka-e. These are almost always round, underglaze cobalt bowls with red or sometimes multicolored overglaze decorations and gold on the outside.

Contemporary with Sen Rikyu, new types of Japanese ceramics were developed. These were specifically Shino, Ki-seto and the wide variety of Oribe ceramics from Mino, all developed under daimyo Tea master Furuta Oribe and the less varied but no less popular e (painted)- Karatsu . Later, in the Edo period, kilns specializing in food wares different from tea wares, especially the porcelains of Arita, Kutani and Nabeshima produced mukozuke for Tea masters, daimyo and the merchant population. Among the nascent “national wares,” Takatori and Hagi still produce desirable muko. The two most popular types after Oribe are probably the sometsuke imported from Ming and Ching China and the various wares of Kyoto, collectively known as Kyo-yaki. Most frequently seen are sets of blue and white sometsuke mukozuke imported under the auspices of daimyo Tea master Kobori Enshu. Of these Kyo-yaki, the Raku family has consistantly produced mukozuke dishes since third generation Do’nyu, also known as Nonko. Another family, known as Eiraku since the end of the Edo, specializes in reproducing Chinese styles such as sometsuke, kinrande- a type of sometsuke with overglaze red and gold decoration, kochi-usually a monochrone or polychrome of a limited palate of bright, sometimes almost glaring colors- yellow, green, sky blue and purple. Eiraku also reproduces the Japanese styles of Kenzan and Ninsei, two of the gifted geniuses of mid-Edo Kyoto style ceramics.

Toward the end of the Meiji period, glass cut in Europe to order by Baccarat became very popular in Japan and the native glass works, active from late Edo, also produced interesting molded mukozuke.

So, one can see that there is a wide variety of ceramic mukozuke available but looking at the function and forms of mukozuke, several criterion for usefulness are apparent. First considerations are probably size, shape, color, and depth. A mukozuke too small is very inconvenient because the dish must serve as container not just for the muko course but all the other food tthat is sent round during the kaiseki, i.e. the grilled fish, and any other extra courses, plus the pickles at the end. During the summer, a whole sweetfish (ayu) is often served and if the dish is too small to hold it, things can get messy. On the other hand, a dish too voluminous will cause an unbalance with the lacquer bowls.

Also, Tea people enjoy contrast in everything. While the lacquer is usually turned on a lathe, resulting in round lidded bowls, the ceramicist has greater freedom to move the clay, carving, molding, and manipulating to result in interesting shapes. Thinking back to its origins, the muko was probably originally a leaf or a shell anyway. Thus we find both natural shapes like these and the unbridled imagination of the Mino potters, the Raku potters and the sometsuke potter’s works so usable.

Another aspect of shape which is important to be aware of in chosing usable muko is the depth and bottom of the dish. It is best if it has a depression in the center, like a teabowl, so the sauce will pool under the fish and not spread all over the bottom or run to the sides.

There are relatively flat muko dishes useful for a cool feeling in summer and for winter, there are very deep and also covered dishes for serving warm food rather than fresh fish.

Color in mukozuke is a consideration in relation to the food served. Most commonly, the muko course is one of delicate raw fish, so a garishly colored dish does not always complement, while light, earth or neutral colors do. Blue and white cobalt underglazed sometsuke porcelains are still very popular, both because of their hard surface, which resists stains and also because the cobalt color is so compatable with food. It is good to remember that the utensil is there to first hold and then enhance the pleasure of the food.

Other considerations include the assemblage of distinctly different ceramics which make an agreeable total combination. So if one uses something sometsuke in the kaiseki, it is best to not use it again, even in the serving of tea, much less to repeat it during the kaiseki meal. On this point, there are no hard and fast rules but it makes sense to not duplicate unglazed ceramics that are too similar, like Shigaraki and Iga. Likewise, it would be uninspired to combine a green Oribe with a green kochi, or have two utensils with extreme manipulations or handles. In summer one will sometimes see an all cut-glass kaiseki. It is a real challenge and thrill for the host but it can be a trifle tiresome. Some food just does not lend itself to glass.

There is also the thought that one wants to incorporate the variety of the entire world every time one does Tea. The entire range of formality is also incorporated. Generally speaking, the formal level of ceramics are all Chinese or have Chinese prototypesÅF celadon, gosu aka-e or kinrande, shonzui, sometsuke, kochi; semiformal ceramics are all glazed, Japanese or other typesÅF Shino, Oribe, Karatsu, Raku, Holland; informal ceramics are unglazedÅF Shigaraki, Bizen, or any yakishime, high fired but unglazed ceramic.

As was said, the food most often served for the mukozuke is raw fish with a tart sauce and a contrasting vegetable, with grated wasabi. Since the sauce is usually made of soy sauce, citrus juice and stock, one needs to be careful when dealing with Raku ware muko to prevent damage from the acids. Usually the muko is not in the dish for very long but still one needs to be careful about the lead content and change the sauce to suit. Other foods used for muko can be something hot in the winter, such as a citron cup filled with seafood and steamed, or a piece of young turnip, steamed and napped with miso. For these, a lidded muko will keep the heat in.