The small plates, or ko-zara, that Japanese on their dining tables every day are such handy little things. Ko-zara came into being through Japan’s Honzen-ryori, a full-course haute cuisine style of eating where meals were served on trays. A tiny bowl known as a “choko” (what later came to serve as the sake cups with which we are familiar today) used to be placed in the center of the main tray. Choko were filled with salt, which was sprinkled on boiled vegetables and rice before being eaten.
As time passed, choko gradually came to be replaced by small plates known as “teshio-zara” (lit. hand salt plate). Just as the characters forming the word “teshio-zara” suggest, these small plates contained salt. Here we have the origins of Japan’s ko-zara. Since long ago, Japanese have used the expression “teshio ni kakete sodateru” (lit. bring up a child by sprinkling with hand salt), which means to feed a child—or in other words, to care for one. This is the story that lies behind the small plates of pickled vegetables that always accompany dishes such as tendon, which are served in bowls. So it is easy to see why, even today, salty foods like pickles, kombu, and umeboshi plums are served on ko-zara.
In recent years, ko-zara have appeared in an increasing variety of shapes and designs, and they have started to be used in lots of new ways too. They sometimes come as an accompaniment to coffee with a piece of chocolate or a macaroon on top. Or several ko-zara, each with a little hors d’oeuvres on top, are popped on a tray with a bottle of wine. There are just so many variations around. Even more imaginatively, pop a small piece of soap on top, and your ko-zara turns into a soap tray, or use it as a place for keeping rings or earrings. Ko-zara are being used in so many ways these days. Ko-zara come in diameters of 5 cm up to 9 cm, and while they are generally round, you will find all manner of ko-zara: square, octagonal, rectangular, petal-shaped, and even bird-shaped ones.
Why not take a new look at ko-zara and what a delightful part they can plan in your life each day?