In our introduction to washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine, we mentioned kaiseki ryori (ryori simply meaning "cooking") as the most authentic food experience you could hope for in Japan. Here we'd like to take some time to go into more depth about what exactly kaiseki is!
Kaiseki embodies the fundamental concepts in washoku, such as the attention to the seasons, and the emphasis on using natural local ingredients to create an eating experience that is not only delicious, but also demonstrates how preparation and execution of a meal can be an art form. It is a sophisticated style of cuisine that still retains its appreciation of simplicity.
If you are staying at a ryokan or visit a ryotei (traditional Japanese restaurant), there's a good chance you'll find yourself at a kaiseki dinner. First let's talk a bit about how kaiseki has evolved to become such an important part of Japanese culture.
A brief history of Kaiseki Ryori
Kaiseki has a history spanning hundreds of years in Japan, going back to the Heian period (794-1159) when the court began holding ritual banquets. Like modern kaiseki, these banquets would have a wide variety of foods, even as many as 28 kinds at some. These could be split into four main types - dried food, fresh food, fermented food, and desserts. Dried fish or fowl would be served in thin slices. Fresh fish or fowl might also be served raw with a vinegar dressing or grilled. Fermented foods might include salt-fermented sea-squirt or fish, or even jellyfish. Dessert was typically fruits or nuts. Also like modern kaiseki, the meal would be enjoyed slowly over a period of several hours. The Heian courts also set the standard of having a rigid and formal first half to a banquet, followed by a much more relaxed and informal second half (most likely thanks in part to the consumption of alcohol), which has lasted to modern day. One aspect that did not last, however, was the ornate and flashy style of banquets, which became much simpler and more subdued during the period of samurai military rule.
Hosts would serve high-class meals to guests to go along with tea, the cuisine most likely having originated from the Heian Period (794-1159).
Another important group in Japanese society who influenced the development of kaiseki cuisine were the Buddhist monks. While the nobility viewed vegetables as inferior to fish and fowl as food, Buddhist monks were largely vegetarian, consuming Buddhist monks consumed a similar but simpler version of this cuisine known as shoujin ryori (精進料理).
It is important to note that the term "kaiseki" can actually be written with two different sets of Chinese characters, both pronounced as "kaiseki" in Japanese. If written as "懐石," the characters translate to "stone in the robe" or "breast stone," originally referring to how monks supposedly kept a warm stone in their robe near their stomach to stay warm and also keep hunger at bay when they were fasting. This way of writing the term was popularized by legendary tea master Sen no Rikyū (1522–91), who used it to distinguish the much simpler, yet highly refined meal that is served to guests who participate in traditional Japanese tea ceremony. This style specifically emphasizes finding appreciation for this simplicity. On the other hand, if written as "会席," the term simply translates to a "formal occasion" or "get-together" and refers to a much more lavish style that gained popularity during the Heian Period.
While both tea ceremony at more lavish get-togethers have both flourished to become integral parts of Japanese culture in modern day, if you are invited to a kaiseki dinner, it will be this more elaborate kind. So what exactly should you expect?
What is a modern kaiseki dinner like?
As we mentioned before, kaiseki embodies many of the most important qualities of washoku, traditional Japanese cuisine. One of the most visible manifestations of this is seasonality. Depending on what time of year you visit Japan and the region, you will see different seasonal and regional ingredients. In fact, it's rare for two meals to be exactly the same, because the uniqueness is such an integral part of kaiseki! Let's look at a hypothetical dinner menu for an evening:
- Sakizuke (先付け)
While the menu can vary quite a bit, this will virtually always be the first dish, usually a bite-sized hors d’œuvre.
- Hassun (八寸)
This term literally means 8 sun, about 24 centimeters / 10 inches, but now refers to small side dishes served on long narrow dishes of this length.
- Wan-mono (椀物)
The wan in wan-mono means bowl. This is usually a soup (such as shoyu or miso) or a boiled dish such as chawanmushi (a Japanese egg tart), both of which will come covered with a lid. Sometimes it might be difficult to remove because of the suction. If so, try squeezing the bowl so that it distorts just enough to stop forming an air-tight seal.
- Mukozuke (向付)
The first character of this dish refers to the fact that it is placed on the far side of the serving table. Typically, this will either be sashimi (slices of raw fish) or namasu, a dish consisting of raw fish and vegetables seasoned in vinegar.
- Hachizakana (鉢肴)
This course will typically be a grilled dish (焼き物, yakimono), the most standard being fish, since kaiseki meals have traditionally not included meat.
- Shiizakana (強肴)
This might include a takiawase (炊き合わせ) dish, consisting of meat, fish, and/or vegetables that are cooked separately, but served in the same dish. Traditionally, this course is also meant to encourage the guest to have another drink of sake, the drink that typically accompanies a kaiseki meal (although tea is usually an option, as well).
- Tomezakana (止め肴)
The first character in the name of this course means "to stop," indicating that the meal will be coming to a close soon. Typically, this course will be vinegared or pickled vegetables, called sunomono (酢の物). Another possibility is aemono (和え物), which is chopped fish, shellfish, or vegetables with a sauce dressing (usually miso).
- Rice (ご飯), Tomewan (止め椀), Ko no mono (香の物)
These three are listed together, since they are typically served simultaneously. The rice might be served with local seasonal ingredients on top. While rice is the traditional choice, it is not unheard of for restaurants to also offer udon or soba noodles as a substitute.
The second dish listed here is actually quite interesting. You'll notice that the first character of tomewan is also the character meaning "to stop." This dish, usually a bowl of miso soup, is very frequently left as is on the table. Rather than coming across as rude, this can indicate to the host that you enjoyed a very filling meal.
The third dish here is usually a pickled vegetable dish. This may also be called tsukemono, and for example could be pickled daikon, Japanese radish.
- Mizumono / Kudamono (水物、果物)
Last, you will be served a small desert, usually a seasonal fruit. Some kaiseki restaurants nowadays also offer a small serving of ice cream or sherbet.
Some tips for enjoying your Kaiseki experience
Kaiseki restaurants have a very formal atmosphere. You don't need to wear your absolute best, but avoid dressing too casually to show your manners. Business attire is virtually always a safe bet. Remember that in most formal settings, you'll find yourself removing your shoes before entering a room with a tatami mat floor.
People generally do not tip at Japanese restaurants, as waiters and staff are expected to do their best without this incentive. However, if you feel compelled to leave a tip for particularly excellent service, leave at least 3000 yen (~USD $30) in an envelope. Doing so without the envelope is a cultural taboo.
As seen above, food will be served in small portions over multiple courses. Feel free to take your time eating, remember to drink in moderation, and don't hesitate engage in light conversation with those around you (without being too loud, of course). A kaiseki dinner shouldn't be rushed so that you can really take a chance to appreciate the very best Japanese cuisine has to offer!