I eat way too damn much kaiseki when I’m in Japan, so an explainer on Japan’s highest edible art form was sorely overdue.
What is it? Kaiseki is a way of cooking, quintessentially Japanese, that defines itself on an intense focus on produce seasonality. It requires a breathtaking amount of skill to master, due to the number of possible courses, their preparation and their derivatives. It can be considered to be the highest-level of nihon-ryōri or Japanese cuisine. The structure of kaiseki may seem to be tantamount of “throwing dishes at the customer and see what sticks”, but in reality, follows a semi-regimented system of multiple, relatively small courses which, when consumed one after another – ultimately culminates in an electrically stimulating food opera for the diner.
No doubt about it, kaiseki can be extravagant. Ingredients are chosen with a level of care and undertaking that could petrify the average chef, done so to produce an exacting balance of texture, taste, colours, appearance, placement, and yes, even including the choice of crockery and dishware that each course is served in. For example, the experience of cupping a kiln-fired, beautifully textured ceramic cup while sipping on matcha is as much an experience of the feel of the cup in your hands as it is enjoying the tea itself. The final presentation of any given kaiseki dish is never an accident, and thus, always resplendent to the eye. Quite pertinent, what with this day and age of Instagramming, don’t you think? Bet the kaiseki chefs of old didn’t see that one coming.
Kaiseki is essentially Japan’s version of a western degustation, but I won’t mince words here: when asked “what is kaiseki?”, head chef Yoshihiro Murata (of Kikunoi fame) answers simply with this: “it is eating the seasons”. And really, that is truly the best answer there is.
A Brief History of Kaiseki
The origins of the word “kaiseki” merits some discussion. Originally, its kanji was written as 懐石, which translates into “stone in robe/bosom stone”. The rather odd (and hard to believe) story here is that Japanese monks, living in austerity, would ward off hunger by placing hot stones within their robes, next to their stomachs. This particular form of kaiseki forms the essence of cha-kaiseki (tea-kaiseki), which refers to the meal that contextualises the first part of Japanese tea ceremonies (chanoyu) – with the tea at the end being the highlight. Tea is kind of a big deal in Japan, and cha-kaiseki was popularised by a monk called Sen no Rikyu, considered the progenitor of, and master of the craft. In his version of kaiseki, the concept of wabi sabi – which accepts the beauty of imperfection and simplicity – is in use. Thus, his version of kaiseki was originally a four-course, relatively ascetic affair known as ichiju sansai (one soup, 3 dishes) – guess the monks do get to eat something now and then.
So how’s this even relevant to modern kaiseki? Well, “kaiseki” as it is known today – that is, denoted with the kanji 会席 (formal occasion), took many cues from the austere, 懐石 kaiseki form.
But that’s literally not even the half of it. While modern kaiseki is predominantly influenced by 懐石/cha-kaiseki, there are also strong influences from Buddhist vegetarian cuisine (shōjin-ryōri), as well as samurai cuisine (honzen-ryōri). In the former, you’ll find the reason why much of kaiseki emphasises vegetables – especially what’s fresh and in season. As for the latter, samurai households (who, by the way, were the equivalent of the 1% of that period) had rather extravagant tastes – and thus their versions of kaiseki were exceptionally elaborate. Naturally, the royals in the imperial court also have their own version of luxuriant feeding (yūsoku ryōri). As samurai and royalty began developing the kinds of palates that far surpass the candor of ichiju sansai kaiseki, its modern variant naturally evolved to something far, far more sophisticated – and it is indeed this “formal occasion”, ultra-luxe version of kaiseki that is prevalent in high-end restaurants (or ryotei) today. This is what you will see in all my blog posts on kaiseki restaurants. To recap:
Cha-Kaiseki: tea ceremony kaiseki; notion of ichiju-sansai
Honzen-ryōri: samurai multi-course cuisine, very extravagant
Shōjin-ryōri: Buddhist monk cuisine; vegetarian and very austere. Linkages with 懐石 “kaiseki” – wabi sabi philosophy
Yūsoku ryōri: imperial court/royalty; pretty much the reason why kaiseki today is just a bit “OTT“.
While you can definitely find restaurants that specialise in just one of the above types of cuisine, most modern kaiseki restaurants incorporate elements from each. And as for what region of Japan kaiseki owes its origin? It is widely accepted that Kyoto – the old imperial capital – is where it all began. You could make a good argument that to experience a true kaiseki experience at its roots, you must visit Kyoto.
Luckily, that’s not true, strictly speaking – kaiseki is everywhere in Japan!
So that was a bit of a history lesson, but hopefully an informative one.
Kaiseki has evolved in such a way that it allows masters of the cuisine to express their appreciation of the seasons to the fullest, whilst keeping to a familiar structure that can be thought of as “regimen without limitation”. Indeed, you just know it when you’re enjoying a kaiseki meal, but each kaiseki restaurant is most definitely endowed with its own identity. At least, the best ones are. Most kaiseki will follow a structure that is similar to one I’m about to outline below. There is generally only one rule – you can never take out the rice and soup dishes in constructing the menu. Any other course is fair game. I mean, it’s soup and rice we’re talking about here. Need I say more?
Of course, any course, even soup and rice, can be dramatically altered. That’s where the innovation lies.
The chopsticks below are called rikyu-bashi, and you could probably guess who invented them. Traditionally, the master of ceremonies at a tea-kaiseki makes the chopsticks personally for his guests, usually using wood from red cedar. It was considered the height of treatment when “served” chopsticks this way.
Curious note: in Japan, even at ryotei (high-end restaurants), chopsticks carry that “disposable” feel, likely due to hygiene reasons. Something to get used to if you were expecting chopsticks with a bit more substance and heft.
Not unique to kaiseki is oshibori, which is provided at just about every Japanese restaurant. Usually used for cleansing the hands, some do use the hot towels to go for the face as well. There’s no hard rule here, though hands and face with the same towel is considered a bit unhygienic.
It might seem odd to be including “water” at the beginning – shouldn’t this be a given? Regular water maybe, but not this – at some ryotei, a special cup of water is served to guests, which in my experience was one of two things. One: brown rice-infused water, poured from a yutō pitcher; two: a cup of salted, slightly-sweet water with a “cured” sakura flower within. I believe the latter is a specialty of spring and in particular, Kyoto, given that’s when sakura bloom (always remember – kaiseki is above all else, seasonal!)
This means “sacred sake offered to the gods”, and it is a small sake drink that is meant to be the restaurant’s way of welcoming diners into their abode. Technically, the drink is offered to the gods first, then to the diner. In my experience, I don’t know what that’s meant to look like, so I just uh…drank up. Awkward.
The appetiser(s). The easiest way to explain this is to compare it to the amuse bouche from Western fine dining. It introduces the diner to the meal, is generally light, and creates the first impression of food.
Hassun is the second course, and chefs can get pretty liberal. Usually, it’s a sushi and/or a series of several small side dishes, intended to further ramp up appetite and setting the overall seasonal tone of the meal. Hassun may not come all at once, instead comprising a series of quick, snack-like bites of food. A fully vegetarian hassun can sometimes be interchanged with zensai – a series of vegetarian appetisers. Curious side note: the name hassun is derived from the serving dish’s side length, which is traditionally 8 inches long.
If the dish box that contains courses (not necessarily just for hassun) is square, that dish is called oshiki.
Here the chef demonstrates his slicing skills with otsukuri – a sliced dish. This is almost always seasonal sashimi, and at high-end venues, is served with the restaurant’s house-made soy sauce.
A simmered dish of vegetables and seafood, often including tofu. The ingredients are cooked separately but served together in the one bowl. Can sometimes show up as a soup dish.
Deep-fried dishes. Quite rare as they’re rather heavy on the stomach, but if served, are often small in size. Really a bite-sized snack. Usually, it’s a deep-fried fish. Think tempura, you’ll be on the right track.
“The” soup dish (one of the dishes that can’t be omitted). You know it’s here when a lidded bowl arrives. It can be confusing because some kaiseki restaurants serve several futamono. The Japanese really do love their soup. Again, vegetables, seafood and tofu dominate.
A flame-grilled course that usually takes the form of fish. Yakimono will almost often include a seasonal vegetable highlight or two, and yes – tofu again. In my experience, these courses are usually gobsmackingly delicious.
Shiizakana: Aemono, Mushimono or Sunomono
Shiizakana refers to an umbrella of courses:
Aemono: often served cold, where the dressing is what’s being shown off. While I’ve come across this dish in my research for this post, I’ve actually never encountered it myself. It’s probably a summer thing.
[no picture, sorry!]
Mushimono: a steamed course, but usually omitted or replaced with more soupy dishes.
Su-zakana/Sunomono: two words: palate cleanser. More words: you might have been thinking a sorbet or something refreshing and western. Actually, su-zakana is a vinegar-centric course, think Japanese salad with dressing and you’re on the right track. More common in summer I assume, but I got it now and again.
The second “must-have” dish in any kaiseki, this is the rice dish (gohan = steamed rice). Chefs can do a lot here, but the most common types of gohan I received were had seasonal ingredients layered on top, or the kaiseki restaurant’s take on chirashizushi. This is also the course that’s designed to fill you up, and the chef often prepares enough that you can ask for a 2nd bowl. If you’re still hungry, steamed white rice is also on standby. I never went that far though – kaiseki can be surprisingly filling after eating like a rabbit for two hours!
Ko no mo/Tsukemono
Pickled vegetables, again seasonal, served with the rice dish. Pickled veg is almost as commonplace as rice, so you’ll be coming across this a lot.
A…porridge? Basically, it’s soup that’s got rice in it, and again incorporates ko no mo. I actually only got this once, so it seems like it’s not all that commonplace in spring.
And we’ve arrived at dessert. Typically, it’s seasonal fruit with little else prepared. Don’t think that’s meagre though – fruit in Japan is on a different level. You’ll know what I mean when you take a bite into a strawberry that cost you $20 for a punnet.
Some kaiseki restaurants serve more elaborate desserts, and the really innovative ones in Tokyo even venture into western-style fare. There are no rules in sugar land.
Wait, what did I just read?
Yeah…I’m still processing all of this as well. I wrote this post because I hope it will be of interest, even if nothing was retained. The best bet is to actually go out and try out a kaiseki restaurant. Unfortunately, there really aren’t many in Sydney (only Yoshii comes to mind). For the full experience, Japan is where it’s at.
Don’t worry, I know I haven’t convinced you yet – but with my next 16 blog posts, I will – stay tuned for the rest of the Japan series!