While many gourmands around the food world laud the current trend of “farm-to-fork” cuisine – with its focus on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients and simple-but-elegant presentation – the Japanese have been raising the same approach to a high art for centuries.
Kaiseki, Japan’s multi-course haute cuisine, has been refined over the four hundred years since it was introduced as a meal served during the famous Japanese tea ceremony. In its original, simpler form, it is still served, and is known as cha-kaiseki; in its finer form, it is known as kaiseki-ryori. Both forms are a set menu, served as much to the eyes as to the palate.
Originally vegetarian and austere, kaiseki has evolved into the most elegant of Japanese dining experiences, and has earned Japanese restaurants around the world the coveted Michelin stars.
As with the original tea house version, the contemporary kaiseki-ryori is served with great care given to its presentation, from the artistic plating of each dish to the setting in which the dinner is served, often times with each diner given a view, often of a garden, that complements the food.
The dishes, some subtle, some elaborate, come in a particular sequence in which each dish complements the previous dish and prepares the way for the next, always with attention to balance and variety. From a lighter dish focused on vegetables to a heavier one of grilled fish, then back to something to cleanse the palate, a kaiseki chef is always concerned with flow and variation. In that way, the diner does not tire over the course of a dozen dishes or more. This is a meal as a performance of favors, textures and, of course, visuals.
The original, 16th century cha-kaiseki was simple, consisting of miso soup and three dishes. This is now the standard form of Japanese meals, often referred to as a setto, or set meal. But today’s kaiseki-ryori is something else altogether, a parade of dishes that almost always features an appetizer, some sashimi, perhaps sushi, a simmered dish (and/or soup), a steamed dish (and/or a hot pot), a grilled fish or meat, pickled vegetables, and a dessert.
The variety of dishes created within those categories is virtually limitless. Fish is more common than meat, and dairy virtually never appears. Since there is an emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce, the seasoning of various vegetables is very light, the better to emphasize their natural flavors.
While kaiseki is served all over the developed world, and certainly all over Japan, it is most at home in Kyoto, where it grew under the auspices of the imperial court and its nobles, whose tastes for the finer things in life drove chefs to gastronomic heights even for a culture as refined as Japan’s – and continue to do so even now.
Kaiseki can be quite expensive, with most top-end restaurants starting at 15,000 yen and going as high as 40,000 yen, $130-350 at 2016 exchange rates. There are often different price levels offered, sometimes described in the traditional terms of sho chiku bai: pine, bamboo, plum, with pine being most expensive. But there are also lunchtime versions available at roughly half the price, and some restaurants have started serving “mini-kaiseki” for those on a budget.
But this is one high-end meal in which one can actually see where that money is going: a kaiseki can be an unforgettable experience, both in the high quality of the ingredients and the skill with which they are prepared, but also in the deliberate, delicate and often breathtakingly-beautiful manner in which each dish is displayed: a kaiseki dish can look like a work of art as beautiful as any flower-arrangement or painting.
Plating is an art in high cuisine all over the world, but kaiseki raises it to a level simply not seen elsewhere, from the hand-made dishes, sometimes rough, wabi-sabi, sometimes elegant china. On them are set hair-thin shaved seaweed, tuna sashimi in the shape of a rose, single tiny leaves of micro-greens, petals of flowers, thin slices of beef, kanji written in delicate sauces beneath tiny, layered morsels of almost indescribable flavor – a kaiseki is not just a meal, but a cultural experience that fuses the finest elements of Japanese life, and art.