Japanese cuisine is among the most highly regarded in the world, and nowhere is Japan’s culinary prowess better demonstrated than in kaiseki elegantly presented dishes. It started as a simple meal meant to accompany Japanese cuisine. Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese tasting course comprised of many small, tea ceremonies, but over the centuries this culinary tradition has become the pinnacle of Japanese haute cuisine.
What is Kaiseki Cuisine?
At the heart of kaiseki dining is the Japanese principle of shun, or taking ingredients at the peak of their freshness. Dishes are presented simply, without artifice. This is done not only to ensure that the true flavor of each ingredient be expressed, but also to properly display each and every one and the height of their natural beauty, thus creating the perfect synergy between cuisine and artistic expression. Now let us explore the delicious nuances of kaiseki cuisine, where every ingredient is served fresh and superior quality is an absolute must.
Features of Japanese Kaiseki Dining
This dazzling culinary tradition of Japanese kaiseki is distinguished by several key features, the first being the menu. Kaiseki cuisine features a set course meal chosen by the chef to highlight a specific seasonal theme—at the height of spring, for example, this may be represented by a budding sakura, a cherry blossom in full bloom. Such themes, each rooted in nature, highlight the superior quality of the natural ingredients used. Japanese kaiseki dining, the very epitome of the country’s formal dining experience, is characterized by a calm atmosphere featuring subdued lighting and elegant tableware. A sense that one should appreciate the artful display just as much as the taste permeates every aspect of the meal.
Kaiseki Meal Courses
There are a number of different courses to kaiseki meals, and the exact execution of the meal depends on the chef as well as the availability of seasonal ingredients. However, the kaiseki dining experience typically begins with appetizers, followed by sashimi, cooked dishes, a rice course, and finally, dessert, with optional palate cleansers in between. Here are just a few renowned examples culled from the epicurean annals of Japanese kaiseki cuisine.
Sakizuke/ Zensai (Appetizers)
The zensai or sakizuke course features an appetizer similar to an amuse-bouche. For example, enjoy an exquisite bite of horsehair crab and sea urchin tossed in a vinaigrette of Tosa vinegar from the Shikoku region, complemented by stock created from skipjack tuna and oranges.
Suimono (1st Soup Course)
Suimono is a refreshing type of clear soup that is meant to cleanse the palate, served in a delicate, lidded lacquered bowl between courses. A soup made with lightly-parboiled oxtail, green hisui eggplant, and matsutake mushrooms boiled in soy sauce stock is just one example among many tantalizing suimono possibilities.
Hassun (Seasonal Platter)
The hassun, or seasonal platter, sets the seasonal theme so integral to kaiseki cuisine. This course typically includes one kind of sushi accompanied by several smaller dishes. With such items as Sanuki-style pickled akagai clams, boiled and roasted Kawachi duck, broccolini in soy sauce, and rump roast made with Kameoka beef, it's a feast for both the eyes and the taste buds.
Mukozuke/ Otsukuri (Sashimi Plate)
The hassun course is followed by a plate of sashimi called mukozuke or otsukuri, each premium piece meticulously presented. Expect the sashimi to vary by season and location.
Takiawase (Vegetable Course)
The takiawase course features vegetables served with fish, meat, or tofu. The ingredients are simmered separately before being plated together. For example, savor an eye-catching dish of salt grilled tilefish with a medley of colorful organic vegetables from the Kaga region. The dish is served in a complex white miso and cheese sauce that perfectly accompanies the tilefish and vegetables without overpowering them.
Futamono/ Wanmono (2nd Soup Course)
As the name implies, futamono (meaning “lidded dish”) or wanmono (meaning “Japanese bowl”), is a course served in a small bowl or dish with a lid, typically a soup.
Yakimono/ Agemono (Seasonal Fish Course)
The yakimono course features grilled seasonal fish; as the term “yakimono” can also be used to refer to earthenware, it may also include some sort of pottery or ceramic element. The fish is chosen and stocked for seasonal flavor, so the item served can vary widely according to the time of year. Examples of yakimono include rosy seabass from Tsushima Island—charcoal-roasted for a fluffy, tender texture and aromatic skin and scales—or Wakasa-style grilled sea bream, garnished with salt and seasoned overnight before grilling with a light coating of soy sauce.
For the nimono course, indulge in a delicious array of lightly simmered foods, including bamboo shoots simmered in dashi broth for a taste of early spring.
The mushimono course boasts a tasty steamed dish, such as steamed egg custard with ikura salmon roe or egg custard with creamy shirako cod milt from Hokkaido and sliced tiger lily bulb.
Shiizakana's kanji can be translated to “strong snack”. Similar to “sake no sakana” - the ‘snacks of sake’ - they are small dishes designed to be eaten with sake, and are typically quite intensely savory or “shoppai” (salty) in flavor. These characteristics both balance out the milder dishes of kaiseki, and encourage the drinking of more sake. Some common examples of shiizakana include ohitashi, sunomono, nimono and other traditional dishes consumed with sake like shiokara.
Su-zakana/ Sunomono/ Nakachoko
The su-zakana, sunomono, and nakachoco courses all showcase small, acidic dishes to clean the palate. Su-zakana typically includes some sort of vinegared appetizer such as vegetables in vinegar, while the nakachoko course may feature some type of light, acidic soup.
Gohan/ Shokuji/ Tome-wan/ Ko no Mono
With these three courses, one can experience essential dishes from Japanese cuisine. The gohan course is comprised of a rice dish, such as sea bream fish and rice cooked in a clay pot, while the tome-wan course features a vegetable or miso-based soup served with rice, and the ko no mono course introduces seasonal pickled vegetables.
The kaiseki meal concludes with dessert, called mizumono or mizugashi. This course features traditional Japanese sweets such as brown sugar sorbet made with agar, a traditional Japanese gelatin, accompanied by seasonal fruits.
Kaiseki Dining Etiquette
Kaiseki is the most refined form of Japanese cuisine, and as such requires the highest etiquette. While foreigners are not expected to know every specific rule of conduct, it’s important to observe a few basic formalities.
Show Proper Respect
Before the meal, be sure to say “itadakimasu” to show respect to the chef, the restaurant staff, and the wonderful bounty itself. The towel provided, called an oshibori, is meant neither for wiping the table nor for cleaning up spills; use it exclusively for wiping hands. Use the chopsticks to pick up food gently but deliberately, without wavering between dishes.
Use Chopsticks Correctly
Chopsticks should not be used to poke, pick up, or cut food into smaller bites. When not using them, place chopsticks back on the hashi-oki, or chopstick rest, provided rather than placing them across the top of a bowl or sticking them into a dish. At the very least these practices appear extremely rude; at worst, especially if sticking chopsticks straight up in rice, one may call to mind a sacred Japanese funeral rite.
Having the Last Word
When enjoying a soup course, pick up the bowl in both hands and drink directly from the bowl. At the end of the meal, remember to thank the chef and restaurant staff with the common phrase, “Gochiso-sama deshita,” which essentially means, “It was a feast.”
Japanese Kaiseki Cuisine Epitomes Tasty Tradition
With its meticulous preparation and elegant presentation, Japanese kaiseki dining represents the quintessential haute cuisine of Japan. Any true epicurean would be amiss not to experience the seasonal tastes, textures, and visual delights that this truly refined meal offers. Visit Savor Japan for the best guide to kaiseki restaurants anywhere in Japan, and take up other food forays in the process.