Prepared by specialized restaurants and also served at dinner in ryokan (traditional inns), kaiseki typically features between 10 to 12 dishes enjoyed over the course of a couple of hours. From the traditional teahouse-like interiors to the kimono-clad staff and the tranquil atmosphere, it’s a deeply Japanese experience before you even begin to eat. While the course progression and dishes will vary, the focus on seasonal ingredients is always paramount. Dishes appear like works of art and delicately garnished with seasonal motifs like a cherry blossom bud in spring.
At the heart of kaiseki dining is the Japanese principle of shun, or taking ingredients at the peak of their freshness. Dishes are presented simply, without artifice. This is done not only to ensure that the true flavor of each ingredient be expressed, but also to properly display each and every one and the height of their natural beauty, thus creating the perfect synergy between cuisine and artistic expression.
Kaiseki-Ryori is the most refined form of Japanese cuisine, and as such requires the highest etiquette. It is important to observe a few basic formalities:
Show Respect —> Before the meal, be sure to say “itadakimasu” to show respect to the chef, the restaurant staff, and the wonderful bounty itself.
Use Chopsticks Properly —> Chopsticks should not be used to poke or cut food into smaller bites. When not using them, place chopsticks back on the hashi-oki, or chopstick rest, provided rather than placing them across the top of a bowl or sticking them into a dish.
End of the meal —> At the end of the meal, remember to thank the chef and restaurant staff with the common phrase, “Gochiso-sama deshita,” which essentially means, “It was a feast.
Kaiseki-ryori menus often begin with the sakizuke course – a small appetiser or amuse-bouche.
This light, clear soup, presented with minimal garnishes, is served as a refreshing palate-cleanser.
The most attractive and artistic of all kaiseki-ryori components, the hassun is a seasonal platter of four or five hors d’oeuvres.
The otsukuri course is comprised of a selection of sashimi, which varies by season and by region.
A lightly simmered vegetable dish served with fish, meat, or tofu.
A grilled dish that showcases seasonal fish (either fresh-water or from the sea) or meat such as local wagyu (beef).
A deep-fried dish, often featuring tempura and served with a dipping sauce or salt seasoning.
This steamed dish can contain fish, chicken or vegetables, and may also include a savoury custard.
The sunomono course is a small vinegar-based dish designed to cleanse the palate. It usually features vegetables or seafood.
A trio of dishes – rice, miso soup and pickles – that are served together towards the end of the meal.
The meal concludes with a dessert, such as seasonal fruit, ice cream or a traditional sweet.