Explore the Visual Intricacy and Refined Flavors of Traditional Japanese Kaiseki Cuisine!

  • FOOD
  • You might have heard of Kaiseki-ryori (懐石料理) before but are you apprehensive about trying this in Japan due to various reasons such as cost, unsure about how to approach the multi-course meal or feel conscious about dining in a formal setting? Fret not, let’s learn more about the world of Kaiseki and eat like an expert on your next trip to Japan!

    Origins of Kaiseki

    Unlike the elaborate lineup you see these days, Kaiseki had humble roots as a type of simple cuisine served before a tea ceremony which was first introduced by tea master Sen no Rikyu. As some types of tea were deemed too strong to be consumed on an empty stomach, there were light dishes served prior to the tea ceremony which would not overcome the taste of the tea but was enough to ensure that the guests at the ceremony would not suffer from hunger pangs. This type of cuisine was then named kaiseki (会席). However, as you will notice, the kanji used at that time is different from that commonly used today. It was only until the Edo era when the term kaiseki (懐石) was adopted from the practice of monks using heated pumice stones or serpentine with konnyaku wrapped up in cloth to keep themselves warm and ward off hunger pangs. At present, both kanji terms are in use but to make a clear distinction between them, kaiseki-ryori (会席料理) refers to the banquet where the main beverage is sake while the cuisine served as part of the tea ceremony is referred to as cha-kaiseki (茶懐石).

    The kaiseki of today is said to be influenced by four main types of Japanese cuisines i.e. imperial court cuisine (yuushoku ryori 有職料理), Buddhist temple cuisine (shojin ryori 精進料理), samurai families’ cuisine (honzen ryori 本膳料理) and cha-kaiseki. There is no fixed formula or rule on how many elements to incorporate from each type of cuisine but in general, if the kaiseki course is more heavily weighted towards imperial court and samurai families’ cuisines, it tends to be more intricate and elaborate while the reverse holds true for temple and tea ceremony cuisines.

    Elements of a Kaiseki meal (banquet-style)

    The original Kaiseki consisted of a bowl of miso soup and three side dishes only. However, with the development of the Kaiseki cuisine over the years and differences in various styles by different chefs, you may find significant variations at several restaurants. This section will help you to identify what dishes you are eating during your Kaiseki meal especially since this might be mind-boggling for a beginner when faced with a table full of food.

    Generally, a banquet-style Kaiseki will include the following items:

      1. Sakizuke (先附): the first appetiser to be served during the meal and is usually a small portion
      2. Hassun (八寸): the second appetiser to be served in a square wooden dish measuring about 24cm and is meant to be eaten with sake. There will be two types of seasonal delicacies (sometimes three) which will consist of at least one ingredient from the sea and the other from the mountains. The item from the sea is placed on the right while the mountain item is on the left. The word ‘寸’ is an old way of measurement used in Japan thus the word eight units of “sun” equals 24cm i.e. the size of the plate used for this dish. However, there are some places which don’t stick to using a plate of such a size for the Hassun.
      1. Mukouzuke (向付): contains sliced sashimi which is placed in a dish furthest away and directly opposite from the guest
      2. Takiawase (煮合): a stew dish containing vegetables with meat, fish or tofu
      3. Futamono (蓋物): a dish, usually a soup which is served with a lid
    1. Suzakana (酢肴): an appetiser which contains vegetables, seafood or seaweed cooked in vinegar
    2. Naka Choko (中猪口): a dish served in a small cup which has a wide top and narrow bottom and is usually a light soup
    3. Hiyashi-bachi (冷やし鉢): a chilled dish containing cooked vegetables which is only served in summer
    4. Yakimono (焼物): a flame-grilled dish
    5. Shiizakana (強肴): a dish to be eaten with sake e.g. stew or hot pot
    6. Suimono (吸物): a dish containing salt, soy sauce or miso-based soup with seafood and vegetables which is meant to be enjoyed with sake
    7. Kou no mono (香の物): pickled vegetable representative of that season
    8. Tomewan (止椀): a miso-based or vegetable soup served at the end of the meal with rice and kou no mono
    9. Mizumono (水物): dessert which can be in the form of fruits, confectionery or ice cream
    Elements of a Cha-Kaiseki meal

    The Cha-Kaiseki is based on the principle of “ichijuu sansai” (一汁三菜) i.e. one soup and three side dishes with rice and may be served with suimono, hassun, kou no mono, and yuuto (湯桶) which contains hot water, and scorched rice with a dash of salt. The three side dishes are made up of the mukozuke, nimono (煮物 i.e. boiled dishes), and yakimono.

    Kaiseki Etiquette

    As a general rule of thumb, proceed with your meal in the order which the dishes are served. Nonetheless, given that a Kaiseki meal is usually consumed in a formal setting, there are some things you should be conscious of so as not to appear ill-mannered. Note that this is not an exhaustive list, though:

    • Dishes should be consumed as soon as they are served: It has become a habit for many of us to take pictures of our food before starting a meal because I do the same as well. What’s more, a Kaiseki meal is such a visual feast that it’s hard to resist not taking pictures. However, in your zealous attempt to capture the food in its glory, be conscious of not letting the food turn cold which will affect the taste especially considering how much effort goes into the meal.
    • Do not dismantle the decorations: A lot of effort has gone into the presentation of the dish thus when taking items out of a dish with your chopsticks, refrain from dismantling or making a mess of the decorations.
    • The correct usage of chopsticks: Chopsticks should not be used to pierce any food items and cannot be held in one hand as you use your other hand to take a dish. As such, chopsticks have to be placed together horizontally just like the Kanji character ‘ichi’ (一) if you are going to pick up a plate/bowl. It is also a no-go to pass a vessel around with a pair of chopsticks placed on top of it.
    • The proper way to eat a dish with skewers: Some of the appetisers may contain items with skewers but it is not recommended to bite directly on the food. Instead, remove the item from the stick and place it onto a plate before you pick it up with a pair of chopsticks.
    • How to eat items which are larger in size: If an item cannot be eaten in one bite, you should try to finish it within two to three mouthfuls while holding it with your chopsticks and not place the partially-eaten item back onto the dish.
    • Multiple items on a single plate: When faced with multiple items presented on a single plate, there is no strict rule on the order of how you should approach the dish. Nonetheless, you can start from the item from the left and move progressively to the right.
    • How to handle items which break off easily: Especially in the case of tofu, it is best to break it up into smaller pieces before picking it up with your chopsticks. If the item comes in a sauce, it’s recommended to pick up the bowl and eat directly from there so as to avoid spillage.
    • The correct way to eat a soup dish in a covered bowl: Upon opening the lid, start with taking in the aroma of the dish before taking a sip of the soup. The general rule is to alternate between eating the ingredients in the soup and drinking the soup. Upon finishing the dish, place the lid back on the bowl.
    • Do not use your hands to guard against spillage: It is common for people to place one hand below the other which is holding a food item so as to avoid spillage from dripping sauces or falling food bits. However, this concept of using hands in place of plates (tezara 手皿) is frowned upon so be sure to pick up a small plate for this purpose rather than use your hands.
    Kaiseki for beginners
    Shokadou Bento

    If you still feel apprehensive about having a full Kaiseki meal in a formal setting, here are some options which may be of help to beginners who may want to give these a try:

    • A full Kaiseki meal during dinner time can be quite expensive. As such, go for a Kaiseki meal during lunchtime which is usually much cheaper.
    • The Shokadou Bento (松花堂弁当) is a single bento box which consists of small compartments thus allowing various Kaiseki dishes to be placed together rather than on individual plates and bowls. Generally, simplified versions of Kaiseki meals sold in this form are much cheaper and less complicated to eat than the full version.
    • Be aware of the different menu options. In some traditional restaurants, the prices of the kaiseki set meals may not be clearly mentioned in the menu so you may be unsure of which set to order. Instead, you will see set menus using the words shou (松 i.e. pine), chiku (竹 i.e. bamboo) ,and bai (梅 i.e. plum). As a general guide, ‘bai’ would be the cheapest tier while ‘shou’ is usually the most expensive.
    • Opt for a counter seat rather than a private room. In some restaurants, where you sit may affect the price of your kaiseki meal as a private room’s cost may be factored into the bill.

    After reading so much about the intricate world of Kaiseki, I hope that it has inspired you to try this unique and enjoyable experience for yourself during your next trip to Japan!

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