Eating in Japan- Kaiseki

Kaiseki is an elegant, stylised and ritualised multi-course set meal served in ryokan and restaurants in Japan. The highly trained chefs present the food in such a way as to embellish but not detract from the natural beauty and freshness of the ingredients. There is always a seasonal element to the meal and the local specialty will often be the highlight. The emphasis is on balance of taste, texture, appearance and colour. The serving ware is used to further enhance the aesthetic pleasure of the meal fo the diner. Kaiseki is Japanese haute cuisine, or “high cooking”. Meticulously prepared and presented. It is usually very expensive.

Kaiseki has its roots in Kyoto. The first tradition from which kaiseki was developed is yūsoku ryōri. Imperial Court cuisine prepared for the Emperor and Imperial family during the Heian Period, from the 9th century. The second tradition is shōjin ryōri, or Buddhist temple cuisine, which is made without meat, fish or any animal products. Becoming popular by the 13th century, this cuisine was believed to bring balance and alignment to the body, mind and spirit.

The third tradition contributing elements to the modern kaiseki meal is honzen ryōri, or samurai cuisine. From the 14th century the samurai had increasing power and authority in Japan. Entertaining became very ceremonial and formally arranged. The meal would begin with shiki sankon, meaning triple round of drinks. Sake of course. This is where the ritual of sansankudo was born. This is still an aspect of Shinto wedding ceremonies. You can read more about sansankudo here.

The final tradition from which kaiseki evolved is cha-kaiseki, or tea cuisine. Served before the tea of a traditional tea ceremony, this meal consists of miso soup and three side dishes. Tea Ceremony emerged in Japan around the 15th century. This tradition and the shōjin ryōri are both very restrained styles of cooking, where honzen ryōri and yūsoku ryōri are far more elaborate.

My experience of kaiseki is that these styles are perfectly integrated. The food is spectacular and elaborate however, the garnishing and styling of the dishes is always very precise and simple. A single shiso or maple leaf. A perfect selection of small dishes on a footed tray. A seasonally appropriate colour scheme. Even a ceramic box with a recognisable, local landmark. My cooking background makes me shudder to think how much time goes into preparing this visually spectacular banquet.

After my first experience eating kaiseki I wrote it was “every foreigner’s dream and worst nightmare rolled into one”. This was, perhaps, a little harsh. I was slightly traumatised, and very aware of Super Sake Boy’s aversion to most fish and seafood. My empathy of his desire to not offend but also to not have to eat roe and raw scallops and raw prawns was visceral. As I became more accustomed to the style and the flavours, it was less intimidating. The formality with which the meal is served can also be quite overwhelming for the uninitiated.

Some of the most delicious kaiseki dishes I have enjoyed include; Wagyu shabu shabu steamed in a stone box; grilled salmon with matsutake mushroom; matsuzake-style grilled chicken paste with raisins…and my favourite, chestnut and black honey mousse with apple compote. I have included photos of kaiseki from Hoshino Kai, in Nikkō.

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