Considered the epitome of Japanese food culture, kaiseki ryori (kaiseki cuisine) is more than a gastronomical experience. Chefs emphasize not just the ingredients – always fresh, always local, always seasonal – but orchestrate an intricate interplay of all the senses. Careful arrangement of each dish or course (up to 14 in total) often includes real leaves and flowers or vegetables cut into shapes. For example, mikan, a winter kaiseki dessert, may arrive with a bit of stem and leaves still attached or a few momoji (Japanese red maple) leaves may be artfully placed on a sashimi plate.
Kaiseki, Japan’s version of western haute cuisine, is grounded in humble beginnings. Literally translated as ‘breast stone’, the name comes from the simple meal – miso soup with two or three side dishes - served to monks. Only one of perhaps two meals eaten in a day, the monks would place a warm stone inside their robes on their chests to help soothe their hunger pangs.
With the development of the tea ceremony by Sen no Rikyu in the 1580′s, the monks meal began its evolution into the kaiseki of today. Samurai wanting to show generosity to their guests began slowly expanding the simple four dish meal while still emphasizing small dishes made from local, seasonal ingredients beautifully presented. It was believed that a full stomach balanced the bitterness of the tea. Most likely this meal would have occurred, similar to today’s, in a tatami room overlooking a beautiful garden.
At about the same time, in the former capital of Kyoto, kaiseki transformed itself again into a highly ritualized meal eaten by members of the Imperial court. It is here where the number of courses increased and the complexity of the arrangement and composition came about.
The eyes eat first
Aesthetics are as integral to kaiseki as the flavors, and a good kaiseki chef considers the five senses when preparing the meal: color for the eyes, aroma for the nose, flavor for the taste buds, sizzles for the ears, temperatures and textures for touch. Chefs train for upwards of 15 years to build an aesthetic sense as well as a vast repertoire of recipes for varied regional and seasonal ingredients. The result is a deep understanding of Japanese culture along with an artistic eye, a creative sense of how to use seasonal ingredients, and an excellent repertoire of recipes.
Modern kaiseki and its chefs build upon these same traditions and practices making each meal a unique dining experience that is the same yet different from those before. The challenge comes in preparing beautiful and flavorful dishes in the simplest possible way, requiring a mastery that allows chefs to accentuate the best in a vegetable or fish while concealing any imperfections. Chefs must have an understanding of their ingredients and their original flavors, temperature, and the few additional seasonings on hand to make the most of each.
Traditional kaiseki courses
Sakizuke (先附?): an appetizer similar to the French amuse-bouche. usually small and bite-sized.
Hassun (八寸?): the second course, which sets the seasonal theme. This is typically one kind of sushi and several smaller side dishes.
Mukouzuke (向付?): a slice of seasonal sashimi.
Takiawase (煮合?): vegetables served with meat, fish or tofu. The ingredients are simmered separately.
Futamono (蓋物?): a small dish, usually a soup, served in a bowl or container with a lid.
Yakimono (焼物?): a flame-broiled seasonal fish.
Suzakana (酢肴?): a small dish of vinegared vegetables used to clean the palate.
Hiyashi-bachi (冷し鉢?): chilled, lightly cooked vegetables served only in summer.
Nakachoko (中猪口?): another palate-cleanser, usually a light, acidic soup, served in a choko (small sake cup).
Shiizakana (強肴?): a substantial dish, often a hot pot of seasonal fish with vegetables in broth.
Gohan (御飯?): a rice dish made with seasonal ingredients.
Kou no mono (香の物?): seasonal pickled vegetables.
Tome-wan (止椀?): a miso-based or vegetable soup served with rice at the end of the meal to ensure the guest is full and satisfied.
Mizumono (水物?): a seasonal dessert of fruit, confection, ice cream, or cake.