Sunday, February 2, 2020

Kaiseki: a Japanese Feast for the Eyes and Palate

--Susan, every other Sunday

Kaiseki (会席) is an elaborate, ancient, and highly celebrated Japanese cooking style involving multiple small, elaborate courses served sequentially on separate trays.

Modern kaiseki draws on a multitude of rules and traditions, many of which date back to 9th century court cuisine, 12th century shojin ryori (Buddhist temple cuisine), and the tea kaiseki cuisine that accompanied formal tea ceremonies in 15th century Kyoto.

It's one of the world's most intricate cooking styles, and the meals themselves are spectacularly beautiful and delicious. In many places, kaiseki is also served in a private dining room, to ensure that nothing distracts the diner from full enjoyment of the meal.

A traditional kaiseki dining room at KAI Nikko

A traditional kaiseki meal features between seven and twelve courses. Each course highlights a different cooking style, with colors, textures, and seasonal ingredients all playing vital roles in the chef's selections. Each course is served individually, in sequence, on a separate tray, and the dishes from the preceding course are removed from the table.

Let's walk through a semi-typical kaiseki meal that I enjoyed last autumn at the KAI Nikko Resort on the shore of Lake Chuzenji, three hours north of Tokyo.

The appetizer course begins with a bite-sized local or seasonal offering, artfully arranged and designed to prepare the diner for the meal to come. (It plays a similar role to the amuse-bouche in French cuisine.) In winter, that might mean balls of mochi (pounded glutinous rice) mixed with puree of local vegetables to give the chewy rice different colors and a hint of extra flavor:

A beautiful beginning - chewy mochi with a hint of fresh, local vegetables 

Next, a soup - sometimes served chilled in summer. In winter, it's usually a warm, clear broth (the miso soup comes later) with fish or tofu and delicate seasonal vegetables.

Vegetable broth with local tofu, radish, and "rolls" made with carrot and green bean, wrapped in thinly sliced radish
With the stomach and taste buds properly warmed-up, the next tray often contains "assorted delicacies" - one or two-bite offerings arranged on a decorative tray. This is often served in tandem with the sashimi course - which, in my case, is often made from konjac (a root vegetable) that does a fairly good impression of raw fish (at least from a textural perspective).

The "assorted delicacies" - presented, as always, in style.

Sashimi course (on the upper left) and Assorted delicacies on the right.
The assorted delicacies at this meal included (clockwise, from the "midnight" position): zunda (sweetened soybean paste), green beans with miso, pan-fried pork tenderloin, tempura mushrooms, black soybeans, and - in the center  - boiled peanuts with mustard miso sauce.

The "sashimi" stand-in: firm konjac jellies with edible flowers.
From assorted delicacies, the meal moves on to a vinegared dish or a steamed dish (some kaiseki meals have both, served as separate courses) - in my case, that meant local yuba (which literally translates "tofu skin" but is actually the skimmings of tofu milk, a delicious and high-protein substitute for the fish that normally stars in this type of course).

Yuba with a soy-miso vinegar sauce
A grilled dish or tempura often follows next. In my case, that meant seasonal vegetables flash-fried to perfection in a delicate, crispy batter. Kaiseki focuses on quality and delicacy, so the dish contained only three perfect bites: a stalk of baby corn, a green bean, and a slice of sweet potato. The little dish on the lower left is the customary complement: powdered salt combined with matcha (powdered green tea). It may sound odd, but it's actually a delicious accent, perfect for bringing out the flavors of the vegetables.

Kaiseki tempura
By this time, it's normal to start feeling full . . . but the main event is yet to come. Kaiseki's "main course" comes near the end of the meal, and usually features a local specialty, either fish or meat, either grilled or steamed.

My meal in Nikko featured paper-thin slices of steamed wagyu (high quality Japanese beef) and a box of vegetables, steamed separately to preserve their flavors and crisp textures.

Beef . . . it's what's for dinner.

The small bowl on the lower right holds a yuzu (Japanese citrus)-soy dipping sauce for both the meat and the vegetables.

The rice (lower left) and tsukemono (pickles) in the orange dish at the center are the traditional end to a kaiseki meal. Miso soup (not pictured) is also served. The type of pickles also vary by town and region. In Nikko, the offerings included umeboshi (pickled plum) and pickled garlic.

Traditional Japanese pickles: plum (left) and garlic (right)
No good meal is complete without dessert, and kaiseki is no exception. Here, as with the other courses, portion size is small, but at this point a little is more than enough! Sugar did not arrive in Japan until after kaiseki's foundations were well-established, so traditional meals generally feature fruit-based desserts--sometimes, simply a few pieces of perfectly selected fruit, sliced in beautiful ways and arranged like a work of art.

In Nikko, dessert reflected a slightly more modern sensibility: a vanilla cream custard (with a texture similar to flan) topped with a chutney made from local strawberries (a specialty of Tochigi prefecture).

Dessert - small but mighty (delicious)
With those three perfect bites, the meal came to a sweet and satisfying end.

I should mention, in closing, that this meal omits an enormous element of most kaiseki: fresh local fish. Since I'm allergic to fish of all kinds, the chef at KAI Nikko graciously substituted non-fish dishes for me. Many restaurants and ryokan can cater to certain allergies, with advance notice, so if you have dietary issues, it may still be possible for you to experience true kaiseki too.

What do you think? Would you give it a shot, if you had the chance?


  1. Like a shot! I missed such a meal on my brief trip to Japan a few years ago. Kaiseki is yet another reason to return.

  2. Where do I sign up? I had a truncated version of this, served in my bedroom, at a traditional ryokan in Kyoto. I was not quite ready for the small portions, especially after walking around the city all day. Nor was I physically ready for enjoying the entire meal sitting on the floor on my tatami. Not supple enough! But an experience not to be missed. I remember assuming very quickly that I was being spied on, because no sooner had I finished one dish that the attendant arrived to clear away the tray and bring the next.

  3. You know my frustration, Darling Susan. An allergy to soy means I can never eat Japanese food again. But I love your idea for my next visit. I will bring salt and cook my own food. If we stay in a monastery or a shrine, you’ll have to eat my dinner. I’ll bring crackers and cheese. :(