The culinary art form of kaiseki is Japanese fine dining mixed with art, history and culture. Kaiseki meals are multi-course celebrations of the seasons, and a chef’s artistry. Meals consist of small, beautifully arranged seasonal dishes to engage all the senses with the beauty, intricacy and the amount of thought and effort put in.
This traditional kaiseki experience dates back to the 1500s when tea master Sen no Rikyū created wabi-cha, a simple, traditional tea ceremony that began with small, uncomplicated dishes known as cha-kaiseki. The literal translation of the word ‘kaiseki’ means ‘stones in the bosom.’ Initially fed to monks, the term refers to when they would put rocks in their robes, close to their stomachs to fight hunger pangs during the day.
Rikyū valued four main qualities during his tea ceremonies: harmony, purity, respect and tranquility. These principles can be seen in kaiseki today with the purity of and respect for the ingredients used. The harmony between each course is also evident, as is the tranquility and poise the chefs display with cooking each dish.
Over time, the term kaiseki and its characters have come to mean an elaborate seated gathering with nine dishes, with tea at the end. Today’s more contemporary kaiseki restaurants range from nine to 13 courses.
Each course is prepared using a different cooking method and the optimal seasonal ingredients. It starts with sakizuke, a pickled course to open the palate; and ends with mizumono, Japanese sweets or ripe fruits. In between is a sashimi course, a grilled course, and what many consider to be the most important of all—the suimono, or soup course. Often made with a clear dashi broth, it is considered the true measure of a chef’s ability.
The rice, miso soup and pickled vegetable course known as shokuji is the traditional heart of a kaiseki meal, and everything before is a kind of luxury. Served just before dessert, this simple course dates back to the beginnings of kaiseki, when these humble foods were served at temples to pilgrims and travelers.
Kaiseki meals are not merely about the food; they are equally about the concept of each dish, the floral and crockery, and the ambiance. Chefs go to great lengths to select the perfect seasonal flower, the most appropriate lacquerware and dishware, the hanging scrolls and lighting levels. Every detail is planned and seamless, touching the diner in ways they may not have even noticed but that come together to create a relaxed, harmonious environment.