Kaiseki: A Feast for the Stomach

Kaiseki: A Traditional Style Japanese Dinner

Traditionally called Kaiseki ryori, it is a traditional Japanese dinner comprised of different courses served in a particular order. It is comparable to multiple course dinners from the west, which is usually served at luxurious restaurants. However, an interesting thing about kaiseki dinners is that it is, culturally and historically significant to the Japanese.

Having originated many centuries ago, it deep-fried began as a humble meal that is served during traditional tea ceremonies, however, it evolved through time into a much more elaborate dining style. The evolution was driven by the Japanese nobility at the time, who were fans of kaiseki style dinners. Eventually, kaiseki evolved into the dinner format. At present, kaiseki is served in traditional-style Japanese restaurants all over Japan, or at the more luxurious ryokans. Japanese locals also conduct kaiseki at home during special occasions.

Like many Japanese traditions, kaiseki meals have also followed a prescribed order of serving dishes. The dinner format is interesting as it follows multiple common cooking techniques in Japan. Since the times are now more modern, kaiseki chefs are also allowed to exercise their freedom when arranging the kaiseki menu.

Chefs preparing for kaiseki are now able to modify by adding or removing courses in order to customize the menu. A common reason for tweaking the menu is to highlight regional and seasonal delicacies, while others choose to infuse the menu with their own personal style. The next section of this article will go in-depth with the traditional format of a kaiseki dinner.

A Breakdown of the Japanese Kaiseki Menu

Since the Japanese Mizuki for being a stickler to tradition, it comes to no surprise that there is a strict and prescribed order for enjoying kaiseki. However, as mentioned earlier, the more modern times have been lax about altering the standard kaiseki menu. Customization in the menus is now much more acceptable, given that the main essence of kaiseki style dinner is preserved and very much present.

This section will look into each segment of the kaiseki, and the dish or drink included for every portion, starting from the dish set which is considered to be the appetizer up to the dessert set.

Usually, meals are started off with a glass of Japanese wine. In order not to spoil one’s appetite, the serving of the alcoholic beverage is quite small. The type of wine served is usually on the sweeter side, and not too overpowering so that it could complement the succeeding dishes perfectly. This part of the kaiseki dinner is called the aperitif, or in local Japanese language: the shokuzen-shu.

The next set that comes after the wine is a no-brainer of beautifully prepared appetizers. At this part of the meal, the chefs are able to choose their own preferred appetizer. Since the well-loved served during this part is meant as an appetizer, it comes to no surprise that the serving is quite small. Traditionally, the appetizer is served in a hassun. A hassun is a long serving dish that has been used since the early days to serve not just appetizers but other Japanese dishes as well. This prepares the visitors for the main course, which are coming up next.

Kaiseki courses leeways by cooking method, which is not common in other parts of the world as dishes are usually served depending on the meat used (pork, beef, chicken, or fish). In a kaiseki dinner, there is one dish representing each cooking technique. Of course, not all dish types have to be present, since customized menus are common nowadays.

Of course, no multi-course meal will be complete without the soup. The soup is an important part of a kaiseki meal. The soup segment features a simple broth, which is clear and light in appearance and texture. Both are commonly served with a generous amount of vegetables, while other variations may include tofu or seafood.

After the soup has been consumed, it is now time for the sashimi. The sashimi, a well-loved Japanese delicacy. In fact, even the western world has caught up with the sashimi craze and eating raw fish has become trendy on the other side of the globe.

For those who may be unaware, sashimi is just raw fish. It is not cooked but served raw in thin slices. To accompany the sashimi, it is usually served alongside Japanese radish. It is best eaten with Japanese soy sauce (Kikkoman) and wasabi paste as condiments. The wasabi is also essential as it contains components that kills any bacteria present in the raw fish.

In some types of kaiseki dinner, the sashimi is served with the first set. This means that the sashimi can be considered as part of the appetizer set.

The first dish served is Nimono, a dish made by either boiling, simmering or stewing. Since this technique is flexible, the set served during this segment can be a wide assortment of vegetables, meat, fish, or seafood. Usually, these dishes are served with a base primarily composed of either soy sauce, sake, or sugar, though it is not mandatory.

After the Nimono, the next set that will be served is the Yakimono. As implied by the name “yaki”, this dish is cooked by grilling. Yakimono dishes are usually grilled variations of meat, though sometimes it can be in the form of fish, seafood or vegetables. Regions with a robust fishing industry frequently opt for grilled fish as part of the local kaiseki style dinner. On the other hand, wagyu is a popular form of meat served as part of the kaiseki dinner. Wagyu is a luxurious form of beef that is native to Japan.

After the boiled and the grilled dishes then comes the fried dish. The fried dish is usually a no-brainer - it is usually tempura. Tempura is one of Japan’s most popular dishes, and it is well-loved in different parts of the world. Tempura dishes usually comprise of seafood and vegetables, which are deep-fried in a light flour batter.

It is commonly served towards the end of the meal. It is best enjoyed with a specific tempura sauce, which is much lighter in consistency than that of Kikkoman. Others opt to savor the fried taste completely by just adding a plan dash of salt, but this is rather uncommon.

The last two dishes are much lighter than their predecessors, as they are steamed and vinegared. The steamed dish is often a chawanmushi, a form of savory egg custard flavored with fish stock. The chawanmushi is a dish with an interesting mix of mushrooms, chicken, nuts, and seafood. It is traditionally served in a teacup shaped, lidded dish and eaten with a small spoon. Interestingly, the name chawan means “bowl”.

The next meal is the sunomono, which is much lighter in nature. Usually, the sunomono is made from vegetables or seafood. These dishes are usually served in small, shallow bowls to accommodate their vinegar dressings. Once all the dishes have been served, the shokuji set consists of rice, miso soup and pickles are served to signify the end of the meal and the start of the dessert segment.

Of course, a Japanese meal can not be complete without rice. After all, Asian nations are popular for their affinity towards rice. A bowl of white rice is most commonly served during the multi-course meal. However, some ryokan has come up with creative variations such as Mugi gohan (a mix of white rice and barley), okayu (sticky rice porridge), takenoko Gohan (rice with bamboo shoots) and other seasonal rice dishes for variety.

Accompanying the rice is a bowl of miso soup, which is a common favorite among the Japanese. The miso soup is simple, as its base comprises only of miso paste and fish stock. However, the taste may be enhanced by adding toppings such as vegetables and the like.

As a side dish, a small assortment of pickled vegetables is served during the kaiseki dinner. This set is called the shokuji set. It may include pickles such as takuan (pickled radish), umeboshi (pickled plum), or hakusai no sokusekizuke (pickled cabbage).

Lastly, a set of dessert is served to cleanse the palate. Usually, the set comprises of local or seasonal fresh fruit, sorbet or another light dessert.

Traveling to Japan: Enjoy Traditional Kaiseki Restaurants at Kyoto

In addition to its holy sites, Kyoto is famous for its kaiseki. There is no other place in Japan worth experiencing real life kaiseki more than Kyoto. Since it is the center of Japanese culture, it is filled with elements that allow visitors to time travel back to ancient Japan. There is a good number of restaurants offering kaiseki lunch and dinner sets, and below are the top recommended restaurants in no particular order.

The first restaurant on the list is Izusen, which is located in close proximity to the grounds of Daitokugi Temple. A kaiseki meal would cost around 3,150 yen. This is more affordable than Ganko Takasegawa Nijoen, which is the next restaurant on the list. Here a lunch set would cost around 3,000-4,000 yen, while a dinner set could go for 5,000-6,000 yen. It is much more expensive, but the ambiance of the place transports everyone back to feudal Japan.

The 400 plus year-old establishment used to be a vacation home for a powerful merchant but has since been converted into a beautiful restaurant, hence its old world appeal. Aside from the surreal ambiance, there are also maiko performances by apprentice geishas for guests to enjoy.

While Gako Takasegawa Nijoen focuses on preserving culture, Gion Karyo is another kaiseki restaurant which exudes more of a modern appeal. The first indicator of this is the signage outside the establishment which is purely in English. It’s a popular choice of restaurant for tourists since it is foreigner friendly. The dishes are also quite unique. However, a downside to Gion Karyo is that the prices cost twice as much of Gako’s.

The next restaurant is even more expensive than Gion Karyo, which is the Kaiseki Mizuki. Located at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, this kaiseki restaurant just screams sophistication and luxury. Those who dine at Kaiseki Mizuki can even opt to have their kaiseki dish paired with fine wine. The cheapest lunch set can go for 5,000 yen, while dinner can go above 20,000 yen.

Those who wish to experience a traditional Kaiseki dinner but are going to Tokyo should fret not, as the city also offers many kaiseki style restaurants to both locals and tourists.

How to Make Your Own Kaiseki Dinner: Where to Find Recipe and Other Guides

Those who are looking into having their own kaiseki at home, whether to celebrate a special life milestone or just for fun may want to consider some things before deciding to take the plunge. Since the meal involves cooking several dishes, there are some precautions that one must first consider. Luckily, this section contains tips on how to successfully prepare a kaiseki dinner at the comfort of one’s home.

The first thing to consider when thinking about preparing a kaiseki dinner is the dishes which will be served. Since it is a home setting, there is a lot of leeways to tweak the traditional order of dishes. Having a menu would allow the person preparing the meals to know what recipes to look for. The internet is a goldmine of recipes for practically any dish so there is no need to spend cash on Japanese cookbooks. Even sushi can be added as part of the kaiseki dinner if one wishes to.

One must consider his or her own skill, as choosing a dish that is too complicated may result in failed attempts and wasted ingredients. It is also important to know how many people would be participating in the kaiseki in order to determine how many ingredients are needed. This advice is particularly helpful so as not to end up buying too many or too little ingredients.

Once the recipes are all set, one must strategically plan how to acquire the ingredients which would be used. It is important to know which ingredients are required, and what is the quantity required for each dish. An important consideration is how accessible the ingredients are. Japanese ingredients are not as easy to come by, though some people get lucky and find rare ingredients at Asian supermarkets.

Having the ingredients ready and available in one’s kitchen means that a lot of the work is done already, the next part is to cook the dishes as instructed by the recipes. Not everyone can cook like a Michelin star chef, so it is important to internalize and understand the recipes down to a tee. Allocating sufficient time to prepare the dishes is quite important, however, one must still be cautious not to prepare way ahead of time as some dishes (such as raw fish) are time-sensitive and must be consumed immediately.