Transforming a cucumber into a flying fish, a tomato into a rose, an apple into a rabbit, and a zucchini into a daisy is what the Japanese call mukimono, or the art of slicing fruits and vegetables.
This ancient practice originated when food was served on unglazed clay pottery. The pottery was covered with a leaf on which food was placed. Mukimono became quite popular in the 1720s, and street artists would amuse their customers by creating clever garnishes upon request. Now mukimono is an important part of every Japanese chef's training.
The authors, Bob Haydock, a graphic designer, and his wife, Yukiko, a Japanese culinary expert, have simplified the techniques enormously to make the garnishes fairly easy to prepare in Western kitchens. Most of them can be fashioned with only a paring knife, a little artistic skill, and some practice. A few require such special tools as a zucchini corer, potato cutter, or vegetable peeler, all of which can be found in kitchen supply stores.
These garnishes are very different from the elaborate and pretentious decorations of haute cuisine. Some of them are surprisingly simple, but are more attractive than just a sprig of parsley on a cold buffet plate. Some are humorous, silly, and witty, and will bring smiles to the faces of dinner guests. Some will catch a child's interest, such as shaping a hard-boiled egg into a frog, rabbit, chicken, and other equally ridiculous figures.
The book is arranged by foods -- apples, carrots, and cucumbers, to squash, tomatoes, and turnips. Each of the 50 garnishes is introduced with a short description, a list of necessary tools and ingredients, and possible serving suggestions. Instructions for peeling and slicing are illustrated step by step, with a black and white photograph of the finished design, and an inspiring four-page insert of 36 of the garnishes in full color.
Here are directions for making a tomato rose, a popular garnish. Although it looks complicated, it is really one of the simplest to make. You only need a tomato, a paring knife, and a few lettuce leaves or celery tops. It looks especially nice as a garnish for fish because of its bright color.
Select a firm tomato and begin to peel it in a long strip. The strip should be about one-half inch wide. A small, sharp paring knife will do the job well. Try to peel the tomato in one continuous strip. The rose is made by beginning at the center and wrapping the peel around and around in a spiral fashion. On the serving platter, add some lettuce leaves or celery tops to look like rose leaves.
A radish fan is another pretty garnish, depending on how thinly you can cut the radish. For best results use a small sharp knife with a fairly thin blade. This is a good garnish for a platter of cold cuts, or for tuna, chicken, or celery tops to look like rose leaves.
Pick out a radish with nice leaves, as they will stay on as part of the finished garnish. Cut off the tip of the radish, then cut it in as many thin slices as you can. Spread out the radish in a fanlike manner. It will be easier to spread if soaked in a salt solution of one tablespoon salt to one quart water for a few minutes. Be sure the leave don't touch the salt water. They will wilt if they do. Then rinse the radish.
Orange loops are a nice garnish for roast duck, pork, or around the rim of a punch bowl, and require little work to create an attractive design. Slice an orange in half, cutting through the stem end. Cut each half into slices about three-eighths of an inch thick. Make a cut between the skin and the orange to separate the skin. Cut almost to the end, leaving only about one inch of skin connected. Curl the skin under.
After trying a few of the decorations in the book, it is easy to understand why the Japanese believe that "man eats with his eyes as well as his mouth," and for special occasions, or for a bit of fun, this book is an inspiration.