The Japanese Delicacy (XIV): Kaiseki Ryori
Kaiseki ryori is Japanese luxury cuisine. It values harmony, balance and the spirit of craftsmanship. Each dish is made from premium seasonal ingredients and served on well-decorated plates and bowls. With as much emphasis put on the dish’s flavor as its aesthetics, Kaiseki ryori is a feast both for taste buds and eyes.
What is Kaiseki Ryori
Kaiseki ryori is a traditional multi-course cuisine that consists of four courses - starters, main courses, shokuji, and dessert. The starter course includes an aperitif and a plate of small appetizers. After the starter, the main course comprises a series of dishes that showcase different cooking methods. Then comes the "shokuji", which is kind of like a second main course, yet essential for Japanese course meals. It contains rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables. Though rice is considered a staple, it is sometimes replaced by noodles. Finally, the dessert is usually a wagashi or fresh fruit. The order is fixed while the menu is not. The content and number of dishes are decided by the chef according to the season.
Kaiseki ryori is a formal meal that requires a dress code and etiquette. You'll need to wear socks because you may be required to remove your shoes before entering, and people are not allowed to walk barefoot on tatami mats. Today, Kaiseki ryori can be enjoyed in specialized restaurants and ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). If you have Kaiseki ryori in a ryokan, you can wear a yukata (casual kimono) provided. Most dishes are eaten with chopsticks, and it’s impolite to poke or slice food. Just pick up food by the tip of the chopsticks. Spoons are used for soup dishes and desserts. For soup dishes, once you've eaten everything inside the soup, you can pick up the bowl itself and drink the broth directly from the bowl.
History of Kaiseki Ryori
Kaiseki ryori began as an extravagant meal favored by aristocrats and evolved into a simple meal served during a tea ceremony. In the Heian era (794-1159), the imperial court began organizing feasts featuring a wide range of dishes (up to 28), which include dried foods, fresh foods, fermented foods, and sweets. The luxury banquets did not last long. The feasts became simpler during the Kamakura period (1185-1333).
Buddhist monks were another factor that influenced Kaiseki ryori. The Buddhist diet requires abstinence from consuming meat. The simpler version of Kaiseki ryori is known as shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine). It is worth mentioning that “kaiseki” can be written in two ways: 懐石 and 会席. When written as “懐石,” it means “stone in the robe”, referring to a warm stone that Buddhist monks wear in their robe near their stomach to control hunger during fasting. In this case, Kaiseki can also be written as Cha-kaiseki which refers to the meal served at a chanoyu (Japanese tea ceremony). It became widespread during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603) by Senno Rikyu, the father of the Japanese tea ceremony. The meal was originally simple and meditative and has grown more elaborate over time.
Today’s Kaiseki ryori draws on four types of traditional Japanese haute cuisines: yusoku ryori (imperial court cuisine), shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine), hozen ryori (samurai cuisine), and cha kaiseki (tea ceremony cuisine). Different chefs weigh these differently. Court and samurai cuisine is more delicate, while temple and tea ceremony cuisine is simpler.
Order of Kaiseki Ryori
- Shokuzen-shu (Aperitif): Kaisaeki ryori usually starts with a small glass of alcohol. Normally, it is Sake or Umeshu.
- Sakizuke (Appetizers): It’s a bite-sized appetizer to whet the appetite.
- Hassun (Appetizers): They are small appetizers served after Sakizuke, consisting of local delicacies, seafood, or vegetables. Hassun means eight suns, referring to the size of the tray containing the food.
Each dish represents one of the cooking methods, and not all the dishes will be present.
- Wan-mono (Soup): It is usually a clear broth garnished with vegetables, tofu, and seafood.
- Mukozuke (Sashimi): It is a dish of seasonal raw fish, usually 2-5 varieties.
- Takiawase (Boiled Dish): It is a boiled or simmered dish consisting of vegetables, seafood, or meats.
- Yakimono (Grilled Dish): It is usually grilled fish or meat.
- Agemono (Deep-Fried Dish): It is commonly tempura.
- Mushimono (Steamed Dish): Normally, it is a savory egg custard topped with mushrooms, chicken, ginkgo nuts, and seafood.
- Sunomono (Vinegared Dish): It’s a dish consisting of vegetables and seafood seasoned with a vinegar-based sauce.
The "Shokuji" Course
- Rice: A bowl of rice topped with seasonal ingredients. Sometimes, it will be replaced by udon or soba noodles.
- Tomewan (Miso Soup): It is a bowl of miso soup served with rice.
- Tsukemono (Pickles): It is served with rice as well. It may include takuan (pickled daikon radish), umeboshi (pickled plum), or hakusai no sokusekizuke (pickled Chinese cabbage).
It may be seasonal fresh fruit, wagashi, ice cream, or cake.