Kaiseki is a multi-course Japanese meal style that includes the sequential serving of a variety of small, artistic and seasonal dishes. Kaiseki ryori is not about volume; it is more so an art form that uses small delicate dishes as vessels to serve art that is balanced in its taste, appearance, color and texture. They are often garnished with edible, non-edible flowers and leaves to enhance the visual impact of each dish.
While the former kaiseki was composed of miso soup with a few side dishes,it has since then transformed to usually include an appetizer, sashimi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish and a steam dish. Each restaurant will likely add supplementary dishes to the meal, and the sequence in which they serve up each of the dishes varies on the establishment. Below are some of the dishes you'll likely be served during your experience:
Sakizuke: an appetizer, much like an amuse-bouche in French haute cuisine
Shrimp and soybeans in a sweetsauce, pickled yellow paprika and white radish, and seasoned sweetened small fish.
Hassun: introduces the idea of seasonality into the experience, usually sushi or small side dishes.
Mukozuke: seasonal sashimi
Maguro (Tuna) and Hamachi (Pacific yellowtail) with soy sauce mousse.
Agemono: Fried foods, most commonly tempura of shrimp and seasonal vegetables.
Shrimp, red paprika and daikon tempura with dipping sauce and grated daikon.
Takiawase: simmered vegetables with meat, fish, or tofu, each simmered separately and arranged in one dish.
Simmered mountain yam, shiitake mushroom, long beans, pumpkin, white radish, and carrot with grated yuzu garnish.
Futamono: literally translates into “lidded dish”, such as a soup.
Steamed grated mountain yam with gingko nut and grilled anago, topped with popped rice and ankake (thick textured broth).
Yakimono: frame-broiled food, usually fish.
Broiled fish with pickled myoga (Japanese ginger)
Gohan: a rice dish made with seasonal ingredients.
Ko no mono: seasonal pickled vegetables
Tome-wan: miso or vegetable soup served with rice
hijiki (brown sea vegetable) and carrot takikomi rice (Gohan element), cucumber and cabbage pickles (Ko no mono), and red miso paste soup with abura-age.
Mizumono: seasonal dessert, such as fruit, cake or icecream.
Fresh kiwi with yuzu-based ice-cream
All of the dishes are prepared to call attention to the freshness of the ingredients used, especially the fresh seasonable vegetables. The focus on seasonality plays an integral part of Japanese cuisine. Since the dishes come in small portions, it is easy to think that you may not be full by the end of your meal. Do not be deceived by the appearance of these compact portions; by the time you end the entire sequence, you will be leaving with a full stomach and gratified palate.
However, the entire experience is intended to stimulate and satisfy all of the senses, not just the palate. The way that the food tastes is just as important as the experience and satisfaction you can gain from the visual and experiential elements of a kaiseki meal. The dishes are served one by one, so the element of surprise in a kaiseki meal is always present.
As with many aspects of Japanese culture and gastronomy, seasonality is the running theme of dishes served at a particular restaurant. Hence, the dishes served at these establishments are constantly in the process of evolving. In the wintertime, one ingredient that commonly makes an appearance on the dishes is yuzu.
Yuzu is a special kind of citrus that is distinct to Japanese cuisine but is slowly gaining a spot in the culinary spotlight in the United States. The aromatic zest of the yuzu fruit plays a far more important role in Japanese cuisine then does the juice or meat itself. The zest is tart, with a taste that one could describe as a blissful marriage of grapefruit and mandarin.
As with French haute cuisine, you should prepare to pay a price to experience kaiseki ryori. However, there are ways around the shocking price tag of these kaiseki dinners. As a rule of thumb, dinners are always expensive in Japan, so opt for a lunchtime meal. Many of the restaurants that serve up kaiseki ryori also offer lunch specials in the price range of 4000 – 8000 yen, while one can expect to pay 15,000 yen upwards for dinnertime. A perfect option to fully engage in a traditional Japanese experience would be to stay at a traditional inn, or ryokan, that includes a kaiseki dinner as part of the rate of accommodation. You will likely be seated in a tatami room with other diners or your own room and feast on seasonal delicacies while dressed in the cotton kimono often provided at these ryokans.
While large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka surely have kaiseki ryori options, Kyoto is where you want to experience a kaiseki meal. Kyoto, the once capital of Japan, was home of the imperial court and nobility in days bygone. Hence, kaiseki ryori flourished in this city and to this day, many of the famous kaiseki restaurants can be found here. Check out our blog article on Kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto for more information on where to eat kaiseki ryori in the cultural capital.