Saturday 3 July 2021

When is a Chawan not a Chawan?

When is a teabowl not a teabowl? 

When it is a rice bowl! Or a soup bowl, or any of a wide variety of vessels in Japanese cuisine with the appellation “Chawan".

"Cha" means tea, and "Wan" means bowl, and any of these bowls could be comfortably held in the hand and used to drink tea. In the case of a rice bowl, it is called a "Gohan Chawan", or more informally "Meshijawan", and in days past tea would often have been poured into the bowl after the rice was eaten to finish the meal and wash down the last skerrick of goodness! "Go" is an honorific prefix, which is dropped in informal situations or when referring humbly to one's self, and both "Han" and "Meshi" are different readings of the same kanji character which means simply "cooked rice”.

But this is where it gets interesting...there are four different kanji characters which all say "Wan" and all mean bowl, but with subtle differences in meaning! 

Four Kanji that all say "Wan" and mean bowl, from left: Wooden, Metal, Pottery,  Bowl for Tea Ceremony

Three of them differ only by a change in one part of the character which indicates whether the bowl is made of wood (kihen), metal (kanehen) or ceramic (ishihen)! All of these kanji also include a portion which is called an "ukanmuri" which in this case symbolises a lid. 

From left: Ki (wood), Kane (metal), Ishi (stone), Ukanmuri

 Traditionally, these bowls would have been accompanied by a lid, though that is not very common these days except at restaurants. I always make a series of small plates which can be used separately for soy sauce, pickles, condiments or any variety of dishes, but also as lids. Which is why the underside is just as important as the upper surface! 

Incidentally, if you add the kanji for powder in front of these "Chawan", they become "Machawan" meaning tea bowls for the tea ceremony. The fourth kanji for "Wan", however, has neither a symbol indicating what it is made from, nor that it has a lid, does not require the inclusion of the "Cha" or "Macha" characters, but always and only means a teabowl for the tea ceremony. But that is another story... 

I was asked about the traditional size of "Gohan Chawan" (rice bowls) in Japan and the short answer; there is no hard and fast size, but there are a set of principles. They are based on the size of the human hand and the way that the bowl is used. 

The rim diameter of the bowl is based on the circumference which your hands can encompass when you make a circle with your thumbs and middle fingers. The average, in traditional measurements, for the large diameter is usually "4sun" (about 121mm) and the smaller is usually 10% smaller at "3sun 6bu" (about 109mm). Having said that, large bowls would range from 110~135, and small bowls between 92~115. These days people generally tend to be larger than they were during the Edo period, so I make mine in the upper range. (Anything larger than 140mm would probably be considered a Domburi, but that is also another story!)

The internal proportions are usually Depth 1: Diameter 2, but not a hemisphere, rather a parabolic curve which makes it easy to use with chopsticks. 

The foot of the bowl rests in the crook of the fingers, on top of the second and third phalanges, not in the palm of the hand, and the first phalanges extend beyond the foot. This makes the grip on the foot very stable, and also allows the middle finger free movement to assist in changing the dominant hand's grip on the chopsticks. This usually gives a diameter range of 55mm for large to 45mm for small. 

A high foot is important so that the hand doesn't come in direct contact with the hip of the bowl, which can become quite hot to the touch when rice is freshly served! 

A vessel is not complete until it is in use. Every part of the process of making a pot is a step toward this objective. Even though each of those steps requires my full presence at the time and each task gives a unique sense of fulfillment, they are all part of a journey that culminates in a culinary event. 

Just as the food that comes to the table is the culmination of a process which begins with tilling the earth, and planting and nurturing the crop till it comes to harvest. Taking that harvest, planning and preparing each individual dish, balancing and combining flavours, colours and textures, then serving them into the perfect vessels. 

A meal isn't just about filling your stomach, it is about nourishing body and spirit. It is about experiencing the sensory pleasure and the beauty of that moment. It is about sharing and being shared with.

This is always in my mind when I am making pots, whatever stage in the process that may be. It may seem to take an hour to prepare a meal, but it only seems that way. For every meal there are days, and weeks, and months, of often unseen preparation. And every vessel which I make and every meal I share with my loved ones has taken me a lifetime.

My son reminded me yesterday of something which I told him many years ago; that a potter is to the vessels they make as a tree is to it's leaves. We must make them in order to grow, they are expressions of our essential selves, but we give them up gratefully that they may become nourishment for others.

As a maker, I feel very grateful when others use my vessels with as much love and care as I did in making them. 

We need beauty in our lives every day, to nourish our spirit as well as our body. In a world which is inundated with the artificial, isn't it nice to share something real?

If you would like to own some of these works, I invite you to the opening of the New Euan Craig Online Gallery!
We open Today, Sunday the 4th till Sunday the 18th of July, 2021, with our First Exhibition of New Wood Fired Bowls, fresh from the Kiln! 

I have missed being able to exhibit at real world events over the past year and a half, mostly I have missed the conversations with friends and patrons, but this is a way to share my new works with everyone wherever you may be!