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If you’ve been to Japan, you may have eaten a kaiseki meal. You definitely wouldn’t forget it, that’s for sure. Simply put, a kaiseki meal is a traditional Japanese multi-course feast for both the eyes and the stomach. With sometimes up to a dozen or more courses, kaiseki is equal parts a meal and a spectacle. Some have likened kaiseki to actually ‘eating art’; indeed, the extraordinary care that has gone into not only cooking the food but also arranging it just so can make it feel like you’ve been served a painting instead of a dish.
Lacquerware. Knives. Pottery. Bonsai. For most of us, these are quintessential Japanese artforms. The very words may evoke images of a lone artisan, hunched over a white-hot fire, fixated on perfection. Or, in the case of bonsai, carefully snipping and shaping small, fragile branches in order to best mimic full-grown trees. In any case, all these art forms illustrate the Japanese penchant of striving for exemplary craftsmanship. Of course, the Japanese have a short, perfect word for it: kodawari.
Kodawari, according to some Japanese, represents a single philosophy – that a person’s absolute dedication to a single discipline creates a higher standard for everyone else. Kodawari can be expressed in any number of ways: fixation, attention to detail, fastidious perfectionism, even obsession. All of the previously mentioned artforms easily fit this definition. But there is one art form that draws out all of these qualities in its practitioners that goes a bit unnoticed but is arguably the most important one of all – kaiseki-ryori.
The traditional multi-course meal is usually served at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Certain restaurants are also known for their kaiseki. But what goes into creating a kaiseki meal? And does it stop at just the food? What factors are considered, i.e. micro-seasonality, ingredients, cooking techniques, serving materials, etc.? Let’s go a bit deeper into the world of kaiseki-ryori!
Kaiseki is made up of sometimes more than a dozen courses. Usually, though, there are some mainstays. There is always a soup course at the beginning. This is followed by a sashimi course. Next is usually a boiled course, often vegetables and a protein, such as fish or pork. After that, there’s the grilled dish, the deep-fried dish, the steamed dish, and so on. I know, lots of food, right? And it is a lot of food, but one of kaiseki’s most distinct characteristic is the size of the portions. Each dish is very small, sometimes just a single bite. Just enough to get across what the chef wants to evoke or say with their creation.
Aiming for perfection
Each chef is a trained artisan; a master craftsman. Besides the years of training and apprenticeship, sometimes each individual dish needs to be laboured over and practised for years before it can be served. Each chef needs to be aware of much more than the singular ingredients of the dish, though those are very important.
Kaiseki is notable for using not only seasonal ingredients but hyper-seasonal ones. Each and every location of a kaiseki restaurant or inn is important to the overall atmosphere and taste of the food. If a ryokan is located in Kyoto, arguably the capital of true kaiseki, don’t be surprised if you find many tofu-based dishes. Likewise, if you’re eating kaiseki in Kanazawa, near the Sea of Japan, you’ll most likely be dining on succulent seafood straight from the source. I once stayed at an unassuming ryokan in the far southwest of Japan and was informed the chef was out at the moment picking mushrooms and mountain vegetables for that night’s meal.
The dedication and relentless striving for perfection is at the heart of all kodawari.
Besides the ever-important ingredients, what else goes into a master craftsman’s kaiseki meal? One of the most striking characteristics are the dishes the food is served on. Each chef meticulously chooses the design, colour, size, and even material of every bowl and plate of each course. This is also subject to all kinds of factors, from the current season to upcoming festivals. For example, if you visit during cherry blossom season, you’re sure to have the pink and white petals incorporated in the meal.
The overwhelming thought that goes into each meal doesn’t stop there. Everything from the size and colour of the room you’re served in, to the way the menu is written out, to the style and colour of kimono your server is wearing is all part of the kaiseki experience. All of these disparate factors come together to form a seamless dining experience. It’s no wonder kaiseki was designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2014!
So, on your next visit to Japan, by all means, slurp up some ramen and chow down on okonomiyaki. Go to town on some sushi and eat your fill of yakiniku. But don’t forget there’s a different, more traditional Japanese meal out there, hidden behind the doors of an old ryokan or inside a cosy restaurant nestled between mountains. Give kaiseki-ryori a try and appreciate the art and craftsmanship that goes into this ancient, traditional meal. Where else can you get a chance to eat art?