Monday, September 26, 2011

Deconstructing Bento: Design Lessons From Umeboshi

So here’s something I learned recently: umeboshi is a type of pickled fruit from Japan. It is commonly called a “plum,” but it’s actually a member of the apricot family. I think this may be the weird, salty fruit served to me sometimes in my ramen from the food court of Mitsuwa, the chain of Japanese grocery stores we have here in Los Angeles. I always thought it was an olive. Why I thought I was getting an olive in a bowl of ramen is probably the reason I’m not a world-class chef. Whatever it was, I’m clearly not ‘international’ enough to appreciate it, ‘cause it was way too tart and bitter for me. Anyway, umeboshi is often used at the center of a traditional hinomaru bento, or simple Japanese bento lunch box arranged to resemble the Japanese flag. The umeboshi forms the red dot in a sea of white rice. Like this:

I think the whole concept of the umeboshi is tremendous. Not only because it’s a cute, clever design based on the Japanese flag, but also because this combination of foods makes up a complete lunch in and of itself. Obviously, there are more elaborate bento, but for many people, eating a little dried fruit with rice is plenty sufficient eats. This has implications not only for design but also for gaining an understanding of food culture. In Asian cuisine, there is often a lot of salt, spices, or other flavors packed into the protein and vegetable dishes, which are meant to be eaten with rice. The rice itself is very bland and is mostly a background accompaniment to the other food elements. It allows the intense flavors of the other food to be distributed more comfortably on the palate, thus rendering something that tastes (in my opinion) like olive-pickled crap on its own actually pretty tasty. Allegedly. I’ve never eaten it with rice, so my judgment still stands….

I’m fascinated with the idea of having a cereal staple that is very unremarkable on its own being dressed up with other, more flavorful dishes. We don’t really do that in the West (with the exception of pasta, which originated in Asia and is traditionally made from rice - go figure). There is bread, but many types of breads can be eaten perfectly well on their own, and still offer a fair amount of flavor. Corn is pretty tasty on its own as well, and products made from corn are often featured as single dishes. Of course, all of these grains are typically eaten as part of a main meal, but I’m not sure any cultures have made as much of an art out of balancing the flavors of grains with other foods as Asian cultures have with rice.

So. How does this relate to design? A lot of ways, actually. Talking about negative space and composition balance for a minute, it’s quite the perfect analogy. Designers concerned with creating simple, minimalistic designs typically focus a lot of their energy and creativity in one or two key areas, and fill the rest in with white noise. The lesson, then, for aspiring minimalists, is to make your designs punchier, more exciting and interesting and flavorful and delicious (or pungent or shocking or gross or horrifying), then temper that punchiness with a lot of emptiness. According to my reading, the umeboshi is actually so acidic that it would eat through the tops of people’s aluminum lunchboxes during the 1960s. That’s a lot of punch - apparently enough to flavor an entire box full of rice. If you allow the starkness of your design to stand alone, and gradually disperse itself within the vastness of nothing, this creates a unique flavor profile for your work, and is a very economical way of creating a classy, minimalistic impression on your viewers.

The hinomaru bento method can be utilized on its own, and also in combination with other types of designs. More common bento have other food elements placed alongside the umeboshi dish, including tempura, cuts of meat or fish, and other fruits and veggies. Minimalism doesn’t have to be about omitting valuable information - if you require a protein in your diet, there’s a way to include it without creating an incongruity with the other things you eat. Similarly, including all the required information supplied by your client into a minimal design doesn’t have to be a big, fat, greasy nightmare. If there is extra information, use it. Add it in - it won’t make the final result less elegant, I promise. Just look at that bento above. It’s awfully pretty, isn’t it? You bet it is.

Another example of Asian rice dishes and their correlation with design is the way they are sometimes eaten. The custom of packing rice into the mouth before taking a bite of something very flavorful is a way in which diners use the rice to create a mellower eating experience. I’ve seen this done with Korean cuisine, and I don’t doubt that it happens in Japanese cuisine as well. I find this a fascinating and very heavily designed method of consuming food - overloading your senses with something bland, which will prepare you for the shock of whatever’s coming next.

I also have it on good authority that the umeboshi is considered a health food in Japan and other parts of Asia. It’s similar to the ‘apple a day’ axiom propagated frequently in the West. So I guess here is where I could talk about being ethical and informative with your minimalist design power. Use it for good, delivering information and a quality user experience that will help your viewers access that information in the most beneficial way possible. It’s okay to have a lot of information, or a ton of things to say. The key is in arranging it all so that people are not overwhelmed, and they have a chance to absorb it in a way that is pleasant and balanced.

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