For those of you who’ve had the somewhat rare chance to eat it, no further explanation is needed and hopefully these pictures (scroll down to the end) will evoke some blissful memories. For those who’ve never experienced Kaiseki in its true form, you might wonder what is so fascinating about this Japanese delicacy. You’ve probably had some passable tempura and might even consider yourself a sushi aficionado. But Kaiseki lies far beyond the standard idea of what most know Japanese food to be. From a Westerner’s perspective I might say it’s the “French Laundry” experience as though dictated by Alice Waters, yet with traditional Japanese flair and perfection.
Modern Japanese Kaiseki is truly high food art that is experienced not just with your palate, but is equally savored and feasted upon with your eyes. It is the ultimate designer food, albeit without the designer label, i.e. flashy star chef. In fact the chef, or artist, is typically not acknowledged or even known, but rather the reputation of the establishment is what is remembered.
What sets this food apart from other haute cuisines is not that it has been around so long and continues to this day, but rather its continued perfection and adherence to the same core principles. Whereas modern western plating techniques are more akin to Jackson Pollock, with smears of puree and dots of basil oil, Kaiseki is the equivalent of a Dutch master’s still life. The Dutch’s exquisite arrangement of nature along with their expressions of vanitas, Latin for emptiness and embodiment of the brevity of life, are captured in high contrast and extreme realism. Kaiseki is no different. It showcases nature’s bounty and, along with the chef’s creative and technical skills, displays it in stunning clarity for you to savor, if only for a fleeting moment.
Kaiseki’s design focuses on the details. It begins with selective ingredients and the artful way they’re prepared, arranged and served dish by dish. Use of local ingredients is nonnegotiable. Since freshness and seasonality are paramount, the ingredients are usually not served much farther than from where they are gathered and almost always the same day. The benefit is fresh, unique and local flavors. It also means you’ll never get the same meal twice.
In addition to what goes in the bowl or on the plate, just as much attention is given to the vessels in which the ingredients are served. The service pieces are chosen not only to properly house the ingredients (liquids or solids, hot or cold) but to showcase and harmonize with them. Even the smallest served item can command an individually selected bowl which could be no bigger than a shot glass. Each item is basically given both its own frame and backdrop. And the gallery of food you receive in one sitting is curated extremely well.
Most Kaiseki contains a multitude of courses which include an appetizer, simmered, broiled, boiled, baked, grilled, pickled, steamed and chilled ingredients, along with traditional rice, pickles and soup. A small confection or piece of sliced fruit may be a closing dish.
What is so beautiful about the meal is that it showcases the ingredients as they are – natural and without fanfare. There are no foams or towers of food and no sauces or overpowering seasonings. The chefs are simply craftsmen out to honor their ingredients. Their humble designs result in the most exquisite plates for our enjoyment. Kaiseki is pure art without the fuss.
To make your mouth water a bit, some pictures from my own travels:
Time to rest with a bit of mochi and tea. Note the pattern and color of the plate bring focus to the humble confection.
Some veg and pork ready for the hot-pot. Notice the delicate piece of citrus on the sliced meat.
More hot-pot treats. The mushrooms will be the star of the resulting broth.
Tempura done the right way. Light as a feather and accompanied by a small leaf’s worth of seasoned salt for dipping. Not all tempura uses a sauce.
Tofu pillows decorated with fishcake cherry blossoms and snap pea leaves in a light broth.
Some fresh prawn and clam served with grilled vegetables in a bit of herb sauce.
A cool summer variety of fish and veg. Note the pine needles stuck through the edamame and a simple maple leaf as decoration on top and the citrus leaf under the spoon.
A typical breakfast of champions (setting for 3). Not quite as elaborate as dinner and served all at once, but a pretty artful way to start the day.
The end of the meal is coming to a close. Pickles, miso soup, rice and tea. The pickles all handmade and artfully arranged.
Dessert is served. Some $100 melon and a bit of pineapple and orange. The orange rind has been repurposed and the melon rinds inserted to show that the slicing has already been done.