Mukimono: origins and history

The art of decoration with sculpted or carved vegetables and fruit began in China, specifically in the region of Xi’an during the Tang Dynasty to celebrate their return to the throne after the bastard usurpation conducted by the Zhou Dynasty (690-705).

According to the poet Li Po (or Li Bay, in ancient Mandarin), Emperor Zhong Zong wanted to celebrate his triumph with great demonstrations of gratitude to the gods and thus, seeking the maximum possible brilliance, had his cooks and artisans carve mythical animal shapes and objects of worship, such as dragons, birds, fish, etc in fruit and vegetable offerings.

Japanese tea ceremony. Tea house.

Japanese tea ceremony. Tea house.

The mid-ninth century poetess and revolutionary feminist Yu Xuanji spread this art among the people until it became very popular, but always with a certain sacredness, mostly for funerals.

With the expansion of the empire during the reign of the Ming Dynasty, Chinese culture spread throughout countries bordering the China Sea, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the mediation of the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, establishing trade with countries like Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Japan, The Philippines and so on.

The dazzling banquets and offerings the powerful Chinese bestowed on their neighbours were so well valued that the art of fruit carving was promptly included in their own customs, although adapting the forms to their own tastes and religious practices.

Thus, Thai culture (then known as Siam) splendidly carved imaginary flowers, which is the most famous shape in the world since it was adopted by the majority of those countries colonized by tourism during the twentieth century, such as Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia and The Philippines.

A third more practical approach is the Japanese one, the Mukimono, a real cooking technique as all its preparations are eaten as a garnish of the dish, usually Sashimi and Sushi, unlike others that only serve as ornaments at parties or in offerings to the gods. These differ, in addition to the culinary use, in the purely aesthetic geometric shapes that distinguish the sober beauty of the Shinto philosophy.

Mukimono history is not very clear because in the sixteenth century St. Francis Xavier talks about the beauty with which the inhabitants of Kagoshima (then capital of Japan) decorated the simplest dishes of rice and vegetables with beautiful artistic embellishments.

According to the most zealous defenders of legendary Japan the full range of techniques is two thousand years old. More eclectic historians say that elaborate culinary techniques appeared with the fall of the Shogunate or Bakufu, the military regime that ruled the archipelago from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. In those centuries emerged the lavish Tea Houses with their legendary geishas, and the cuisine known as kaiseki, in which aesthetics prime not only in decoration but also in the tableware, which should have prevailing lacquer, clay or bamboo depending on the time of year it was used.

At present the interest in carving fruit and vegetables is returning to Western tables, perhaps because of the American influence which has always considered it a vital element of the big buffets in the best hotels. We can not ignore Mukimono applications in the presentation of nouvelle cuisine dishes where this art, brought to Europe by Paul Bocuse in the 1970s, has transformed our culinary aesthetics.

To summarize this brief history of carving fruit and vegetables, we can conclude that there are three basic schools:

  • The Chinese, which was the original and creates sculptures with traditional motifs of sacred animals, dragons, fish and birds, always in motion.
  • The Thai, which is the most widespread and includes exotic flowers showing a relative simplicity.

And the Japanese called Mukimono, with geometric shapes and whose function is not only aesthetic but is included as an edible garnish, especially in the preparation of sashimi and sushi.