You may not know the word, but when you think of the fanciest, most elaborate form of Japanese cooking, what you’re thinking of is probably kaiseki. Rooted in aristocratic samurai circles, kaiseki is a formal, highly ritualized way of eating elaborately crafted dishes: the epitome of Japanese high cuisine. Kaiseki is the complete opposite of casual dining; it’s a meal that feels more like a ritual, made up of a carefully orchestrated sequence of tiny, minutely designed dishes.
You eat a lot of different things in kaiseki. In fact, you enjoy every different type of traditional Japanese dish in the course of a single meal. This is why each dish has to be very small, like a miniature work of art on a plate. This way of cooking allows Japanese chefs to indulge their passion for miniature. Small is beautiful. Tiny dishes where maniacal attention is paid to every single detail is the key to the kaiseki experience.
Naturally, every kaiseki menu is seasonal. Pay close attention and you’ll notice that right from the moment you enter a kaiseki restaurant. Look at the ornament at the entrance and you’ll find a vase in a niche with some flower or sprig from that season. And when a waiter brings you the menu, you may find seasonal decoration next to the writing. In early spring, a Japanese apricot design would be typical; later in the season, cherry blossoms may be featured. The sake offered to you will, of course, also be seasonal. When the appetizer arrives, notice how the ingredients as well as the design represent its season. Even the china used for plating will change from one time of the year to another.
There are two kinds of kaiseki. The first is traditional for feasts and banquets, such as at official occasions like weddings and funerals. The other, sometimes called “cha-kaiseki” to distinguish it from banquet kaiseki, is the supper traditionally served before the tea ceremony. In brief, the former is composed of dishes to enjoy with sake, while the latter is conceived as a complement to the matcha (green tea) served at the end.
Kaiseki and cha-kaiseki have the same origin, but they developed quite differently. The common element of both is that tiny dishes are served one after the other, unlike the normal Japanese meal where all elements are served at once. The main difference between kaiseki and cha-kaiseki concerns the sequencing.
In banquet kaiseki, you’re served a miniscule appetizer first, followed by a very light clear broth. Then comes sashimi (raw fish), and then a tiny grilled dish. This is followed by a simmered dish—often consisting of vegetables—and then comes a fried or a steamed dish. After that comes a marinated dish; only at the end are you served rice, miso soup and pickles. Dessert usually centers on seasonal fruit. That’s nine different dishes, each made using a different cooking technique, and all crafted in minute detail.
Cha-kaiseki’s sequence is different, but similarly involved. The key thing to notice is that the sequence focuses on cooking techniques more than given ingredients. Yet, for all that, the most important element of kaiseki is neither its appearance nor its taste, but rather the spirit of hospitality. This isn’t surprising, considering how tightly bound the history of cha-kaiseki is to that of the tea ceremony. From the outset, the Japanese tea ceremony has been based on the art of hosting. It’s a tightly scripted form of hospitality, but it’s hospitality nonetheless: a host organizes and leads the ceremony and his or her guests are invited to participate. Each party has a specific, highly ritualized role—just about the polar opposite of a casual cup of tea with friends. Something similar happens in kaiseki: the guests are not invited to satisfy their hunger, but to share a unique aesthetic experience with the host and receive his or her regard and attention.
Banquet kaiseki dates back to the literary salons once held for poets and connoisseurs by their patrons. In the 17th century, such salons started to be held in restaurants, and little by little, the tradition of highly refined, elaborately sequenced feasting developed. Elite hosts would invite artists and dilettantes to dinner and showcase their refinement by offering dishes to inspire their taste, aesthetic and poetic sensibility.
Kaiseki, in that sense, is a kind of theater. In a kaiseki feast, the host enacts his devotion to his guests by offering an unforgettable sensory experience. The aesthetic experience is meant to excite all your senses and, through them, your soul. The careful orchestration of cooks and servers and guests, the intense concentration it demands of everyone involved, the seasonality of every element in the feast—all these components underline the unique nature of each kaiseki experience. A kaiseki meal can never be repeated. Its sophisticated atmosphere is impossible to recreate at home, even if you can cook to a similar standard.
Reading this far, you may feel uneasy with kaiseki. Perhaps it seems really complicated and just too much for a simple dinner. Some might find the elaborate table manners and byzantine code of etiquette simply frightening.
So, is it possible for someone non-Japanese to enjoy kaiseki? I think it’s quite easy. Forget about philosophy and manners. Just be curious and mindful. Concentrate closely on each dish as it comes, making remarks on what you see, smell and taste. Approach each part of the experience with keen attention, and let your host see that you are fully engaged.
In a word, kaiseki is art. It’s a synthetic form of art, bringing together everything from interior design and artisan pottery to painting and gastronomy: a rich and elegant pleasure for discerning adults. So approach it more as you might approach a museum experience than a restaurant experience.
Kanako Noda started helping her mom make dinner in Shiga, Japan, at the age of four. An artist based in Montréal by day, she evangelizes on the Japanese way of eating by night. "There's a fantastic, dazzling variety of Japanese dishes that Americans keep missing," she says, "because they can't see past the thick undergrowth of sushi bars everywhere." Kanako believes in real food made by real people using real ingredients, and is allergic to food gimmicks, straight-from-the-lab ingredients and diet fads of all kinds. Most of all, she's into introducing Westerners to Japanese common sense on what you should eat, when, how much, how and with whom. Her Japanese home cooking recipe blog is at KanakosKitchen.com.