Kaiseki Ryori is the Japanese version of Haute Cuisine, the ultimate in Japanese fine dining. If I were to summarize this type of cuisine in a few words, it would be: many courses, seasonal ingredients, no replication. Everyone who tries a Kaiseki Dinner for the first time will invariably find it to be an exquisite dining experience.
Where is it served?
You can order a Kaiseki set-meal in many up-market Japanese restaurants but these generally pale in comparison to those served in restaurants that specialize in Kaiseki Ryori specifically. It’s easy to tell if a restaurant is serving true Kaiseki Ryori, they won’t be open for business during lunch as they’ll be preparing dinner the whole day long. Kaiseki Ryori is also served in Ryokan, old-style inns dotted around hot spring areas in Japan. This rural variety of Kaiseki will typically use only traditional cooking techniques and focus on produce from nearby farm areas. For the purposes of this post, I will be referring more to the urban variety of Kaiseki Ryori, the type which can be found in major cities outside of Japan.
Meaning of Kaiseki Ryori
The meaning of Ryori is ‘cuisine, so its quite a straightforward translation, but Kaiseki is a term bit harder to explain. Loosely translated it means ‘stone in bosom’, a figurative reference to monks putting warm stones in the portion of their robes next to the stomach to ward off hunger. Why anyone would want to associate a sumptuous meal with starvation is rather perplexing, but then again many Japanese concepts are like that.
A quiet tranquil environment is a tradition for Kaiseki dining and in fact I have been to many restaurants where each table has its own room. Furniture and decorations are typically solemn and spares, but tasteful. I think its to do with the fact that Kaiseki Ryori at one time was associated with the formal tea ceremony. Probably for the same reason, patrons are normally served an expresso-like cup of thick green tea at the end of the meal. The restaurant may sometimes have its own Japanese garden which guests are welcome to explore.
A top-notch Kaiseki meal comes in many courses, usually about 8-10. You do not get to choose anything although if you tell the waiter what foods you are allergic to, some emergency alternative ingredients will be rustled up for you. Seafood is favoured and sometimes the whole meal will not contain any chicken or pork at all, as they are ‘lesser’ meats. Each of the courses is small, so it is quite like the tasting menu in fine French restaurants, except you won’t be able to order the ‘full’ portion of anything. This is a good idea. The cooks won’t be distracted by haphazard a la carte orders. Having the entire kitchen staff focused exclusively on the same few dishes for the night goes a long way to ensuring a quality meal for eveyone.
Each course will typically comprise a few distinct components. For example if one of the courses is charcoal grilled beef, the meat will only be like a third of the dish. You won’t get a slab of steak with some sauce. Visual appearance is important and in each course the multiple components will be of contrasting shapes and colours. Unlike at high end Western restaurants which use a fixed set of signature tableware, for Kaiseki Ryori the plates, cups and bowls for each course will be in different colours and designs, to better match the food. Be aware, sometimes courses will be served with items which ‘complete the ‘picture’ but are actually inedible, like stones, flowers and leaves; although I particularly remember this one time in Nagasaki we were served stones which turned out to be edible giant beans glazed to look exactly like black river stones.
Pick of the Season
Only the freshest and choicest produce of the season will be used. For example, Sansai(mountain vegetables) are in season in the spring while Nasu(egg plant) is in season in autumn. In the summer Unagi(eel) is preferred, but in winter Fugu(puffer fish) is popular. Sometimes a dish item belongs to a particular season only because of the prevailing outdoor temperature, for example Oden (fish cake and tofu simmered in soy flavoured dashi) is ‘in season’ in winter because it warms you up. This focus on seasons is a nice touch but it also means the menu is not adjusted frequently, and if you revisit a restaurant too soon, chances are you will be served almost exactly the same meal.
No Duplication of Ingredients
One other feature of Kaiseki Ryori: there is no duplication in ingredients across all the courses. If even a bit of beef appears in one course, it won’t appear again in another. Fish is an exception. Different species of fish are not considered duplication, so different types of fish may be served during the dinner. High end Western elements such as caviar and truffles are slowly finding their way into the kaiseki kitchen, especially in the more urban areas, so don’t be surprised if you find some western produce being mentioned in your Kaiseki menu.
No Replication of Cooking Styles
There is also no duplication in cooking methods across all the courses. This ensures that the diner will continue to experience ‘new’ tastes and textures throughout the meal. How can this be possible for up to 10 courses you may ask? The answer is: Japanese cuisine has more cooking styles than any other. Besides being served a salad and soup there would also typically be a savoury custard. For the remaining courses there are literally dozens of Japanese cuisines to choose from, like: Sushi, Sashimi, Siero(box-steamed), Sukiyaki(soya-parboiled), Shabushabu(dashi-parboiled) and Sunomono(vinegar-simmered). Actually I’ve only named some cooking styles starting with S here. If we were to look at those starting with T, you’d have Tempura(batter deep fried), Tonkatsu(breaded deep fried), Teppanyaki(griddle fried), Teriyaki(sauce-grilled). You get the idea.
Example of Kaiseki Ryori
For reference, Here I’ll post the courses I had at a recent Kaiseki Dinner. It was quite a modern version of Kaiseki Ryori, from an esteemed restaurant called Ryu Gin: