An aspect of Japanese cuisine that sustains me in a near perpetual state of wonder is the uncomplicated manner in which art meets nature in so many of its dishes. The meal style called kaiseki ryori, originating in ancient tea rituals, aptly illustrates how Japanese food, in addition to sustaining the physical being, can also evoke reflection upon the seasons, tell stories, and express moods and poetry. From preparation to presentation, attention to aesthetic harmony and simplicity is an obvious consideration when preparing kaiseki.
No coincidence surrounds the fact that “kaiseki” is the name given to a tradition that licenses creativity in assuaging the appetite. The term comprises the Japanese words for “warm” (kai) and “stone” (seki) and recalls the days when fasting Zen Buddhist monks would carry a warm stone inside their robes, holding them against their stomachs to relieve hunger pangs during devotions.
A meal comprising multiple courses and utilizing fresh, seasonal ingredients, kaiseki evolved during the 16th century from the serving style that characterized the tea ceremonies of tea master Sen no Rikyu. Wheareas conventional mealtime wisdom of the day had previously favored the simultaneous presentation of all dishes, Rikyu implemented at his tea ceremonies the serving of small food portions one course at a time, and in timed intervals. This, he felt, was the purest expression of hospitality, as it imbued each moment with an elevated sense of anticipation and appreciation. His new ideas would form the foundation of modern kaiseki ryori.
The most notable hallmark of kaiseki is in the crafting of each course, the painstaking care taken to breathe levels of cultivated beauty into every creation as if composing edible works of expressionist art, care that can be easily perceived not only in the tasting, but in the sheer viewing. The usage and interplay of fresh, seasonal ingredients, along with the habit of garnishing dishes with real flower blossoms, tree leaves, and branches, goes a long way toward accomplishing this as it evokes artistic as well as cultural sensibilities. A pairing of matsutake mushrooms, for example, typically an Autumn harvest, with tilefish, most available during Winter, calls to mind changing seasons. By incorporating nagori (fresh, late-harvest ingredients collected during a departing season) into a kaiseki meal, a skilled preparer draws forth thoughts and memories of Autumn. Conversely, a dish making use of hashiri (fresh ingredients typifying the season yet to come) would inspire feelings of anticipation. Such an example would be the inclusion of arrowhead bulbs, commonly associated with Spring, into a late-Winter kaiseki meal, to remind guests that Spring is just around corner.
Though the abundance of seasonal earthly delights to which Japan can lay claim would seem to open this cuisine to seemingly boundless artistic interpretations, the food courses do follow certain guidelines. The first course of a genuine kaiseki meal begins with three small dishes bearing servings of rice, a clear soup or broth (suimono), and mukózuke (raw fish or other food dressed in a vinegar marinade). The second course will consist of boiled or simmered fish, called nimono-wan, and matsutake mushrooms. This course is generally followed by yakimono (grilled fish). The yakimono typically gets served on a large dish or platter from which everyone shares. A course of hassun, light fare to complement the enjoyment of drinks, will present delicacies of the mountains and streams, and offers much visual poetry to the eye. Appetizer, dessert, and other rice courses are not uncommon here, and while chefs may be free to omit courses or alter the order in which they get served, the conventions from which they rarely stray lie in employing traditional cooking techniques to bear culinary fruit evocative of seasonal relevance.
Today, the traditional kaiseki experience can be found in restaurants and ryokan (traditional Japanese establishments that provide meals and lodging) throughout Japan, and ranks among its more lavish dining experiences. A typical kaiseki enjoyed in a restaurant can cost as much as 20,000 yen (approximately $222 U.S. dollars) per person, making it a style of eating in which people tend to indulge more on special occasions than for casual meals.
Growing interest in kaiseki ryori around the world continues to guide chefs to Japan to learn its nuances. This gives birth to ever newer styles of cooking that combine traditional kaiseki with modern Western ideas about meal preparation. Like these ideas, kaiseki continues to evolve centuries after Sen no Rikyu first challenged its tenets. With anticipation and appreciation, I will be watching intently as it does.
Learn more about kaiseki cuisine:
Japan’s Traditional Food Styles
Kaiseki Ryori at About.com
This article first appeared on AssociatedContent.com
[Images: Pixabay.com Top Image: Ernesto Andrade]