Kaiseki has been described as “perfection on a plate”, and we have to agree. We’d even say it’s “art on a plate” or “edible art”. We were on the sacred Miyajima Island, in Hiroshima Bay, and stayed one night at the Hotel Kinsuikan, a traditional hotel with a spa and onsen or baths. They also serve traditional meals and we were promised a kaiseki feast for dinner. We signed up for 7pm and were told to arrive on the dot as the chef prepares each meal separately. Our table was next to a picture window overlooking a gorgeous outdoor garden, with lanterns, stones, a small waterfall, and lots of greenery. Our hostess wore a very pretty blue kimono, she served deftly and unobtrusively, and the scene was set.
We started with a glass of sweetish plum wine, and with the meal they served either red wine, Japanese beer, or sake. A series of small dishes arrived, all on beautiful plates and bowls, reflecting shapes found in nature. Each dish was like a small still-life, a miniature work of art, almost too gorgeous to eat except that we guessed that incredible, and often unusual, flavors and textures awaited our tastebuds.
And in fact, we were treated to an explosion of different colors and flavors that had been carefully designed to complement each other. Our meal was a series of 8 savory dishes, followed by dessert.
Our Kaiseki Feast Menu:
An avocado, eggplant and crunchy vegetable salad.
A hassun appetizer plate each, with pieces of vegetable, fish, seafood, and fruits artfully arranged on tiny skewers, or wrapped in a bamboo leaf
Cooked fish with grated daikon
Hot conger eel (hamo) with cooked radish
Rice, with a few mushrooms, and a bowl of red salmon roe
A plate of Japanese pickles (kounomono) of varying shapes, colors, and textures
Dessert of 3 pieces of Asian pear, a huge grape and a square of red bean jelly.
An exquisite meal, elegantly served—-this is Japanese cooking at its best. We felt privileged to be able to experience this in such an appropriate setting.
In medieval times, it was the simple meal of Buddhist monks, accompanying the tea ceremony after daily fasting. In Japanese, ryori means dishes, and the meaning of kaiseki comes from this story: Buddhist priests in strict Zen training used to keep a hot stone (seki) wrapped in a towel in their kimono pocket (kai) next to their stomachs in order to make their fasting more bearable. It was thought that the tea would taste better if the people weren’t starved so they came to believe that only a small amount of kaiseki would be enough to take away their hunger. So the word kaiseki was originally used for the light vegetarian meal served during the tea ceremony.
But over the centuries it has evolved from a strictly vegetarian meal into a feast of between 6 and 15 dishes that change with the seasons. Most of the courses are either vegetable or seafood-based, although in modern times some of the more leading-edge chefs have started including meat as well. The spread is rarely found outside Japan because of the strict reliance on fresh ingredients that can be found only in and around the Japanese archipelago. Kaiseki-ryori uses the fresh ingredients of the season, cooked in ways that enhance the original taste of the ingredients. Each dish is simply seasoned and presented beautifully on lovely tableware. Often, things from nature, such as leaves and flowers, accompany the dish. Although each dish holds only a small serving, it’s good to take your time to eat, being sure to enjoy the presentation of the food and the atmosphere of the room.
Kaiseki–ryori is most commonly found in traditional Japanese inns (ryokan) or in fancy restaurants. At a Japanese ryokan, one of the highlights is dining on kaiseki. Indeed, many Japanese think of a ryokan as a place to dine on kaiseki rather than as a type of accommodation. One Kyoto ryokan owner commented that over 70% of his income was from his diners while the rest came from overnight guests.
Although the meal can be found at top restaurants around Japan, Kyoto is believed to be home to the very best kaiseki eateries. Here diners have a wonderful experience in elegant establishments—for example, Yoshihiro Murata’s Kikunoi restaurant—where the exquisitely presented courses are served in private tatami dining suites by geisha-like hostesses wearing silk kimonos.
However, these feasts are not cheap, so get ready for “sticker shock”! Japanese people go to a kaiseki restaurant during special occasions or if they need to entertain special guests.
Kaiseki varies from restaurant to restaurant. Seasonal ingredients are key to good Japanese cooking and therefore change according to the season, so really there is no best time to go. However, winters may be cold and snowy and summers are hot and humid, so perhaps spring or autumn are the best seasons.
The basic cha kaiseki course served in a tea ceremony includes one kind of soup and three kinds of vegetable dishes. In general, each menu nowadays consists of different types of food, including appetizers, sashimi, simmered, grilled (yakimono) and steamed (mushimono) dishes, and others decided on by the chef. In addition, there will be a cup of clear soup called hashiarai (which means “washing chopsticks”), pickles (konomono), and/or sunomono (food marinated in vinegar).
Note: many riokan also regularly offer a special traditional breakfast, in the kaiseki style, which Japanese travelers really look forward to. Ours did, and here’s a picture.
For More Information:
http://www.approachguides.com/how-to-read-a-japanese-kaiseki-menu/ (this is great for trying to explain the various dishes on a kaiseki menu)