If you’ve ever heard of a kaiseki dinner, chances are you’re a little confused by the multitude of details it involves. Much more than just a particular type of Japanese food, kaiseki is a formal dining experience based on hundreds of years of tradition. Diners are presented with a series of intricately planned courses that reflect the seasonal produce available at the time – sometimes down to the week.
Kaiseki can be traced back to Buddhist tea ceremonies in the 16th century, and is traditional Japanese cuisine like no other. It might feel something like a banquet – no surprise, as it was originally reserved for the ruling families and noble classes – but today a kaiseki meal can be enjoyed by anyone.
But first you need to understand exactly what kaiseki is!
Where Does Kaiseki Come From?
Historically, kaiseki dates back to the Heian period (794-1185), when imperial court members enjoyed elite banquets that were reminiscent of today’s kaiseki. As you’d expect, the meal has gone through many iterations over the centuries since then.
The kanji characters that are used to write ‘kaiseki’ (懐石) translate to mean ‘breast pocket stone’. This phrase clearly has some fascinating etymology; namely, that Zen monks would stave off hunger and cold by placing warmed stones in their pockets. Sen no Rikyū, the 16th century master of the Japanese tea ceremony, is thought to have coined the phrase as a way of indicating the simple meal often served to monks in the style of chanoyu (the tea ceremony).
Traditionally, kaiseki was a meal consisting of many small courses that used only seasonal ingredients as a way to celebrate their fresh and natural flavors – creating, in essence, a seasonal theme. Each dish would be served separately to allow diners to fully appreciate it before moving onto the next. With kaeseki’s long history, it’s likely that the tradition served as inspiration for modern-day degustation menus.
The 2 Types of Kaiseki
The word ‘kaiseki’ actually has two meanings – or rather, it refers to two different types of meals. As the word sounds the same in both versions, we look at the two sets of kanji characters to discern their difference. (For those who don’t read kanji, though, it’s easiest to see these two versions as ‘one that’s focused on a tea ceremony’ and ‘one that pairs sake (alcohol) with your meal’.)
Kaiseki (懐石) is a light meal that fills the stomach before a tea ceremony, so as to enhance the experience of the tea. It’s focused on the formal Japanese tea ceremony from the 16th century, a meal which preceded drinking cups of matcha. This is the kaiseki closest to the ‘breast pocket stone’ experience of Buddhist monks.
Kaiseki (会席) is a more resplendent meal that pairs with sake to further one’s enjoyment of each dish. It’s the more contemporary and luxurious version, and refers more to a social gathering.
Typical Kaiseki Courses
Back in the days of tea ceremonies and monasteries, the kaiseki courses served to Buddhist monks were more simple, designed to be meditative. As such, a kaiseki dinner only included a few courses – typically one soup and three dishes. Now that repertoire has expanded somewhat: guests can expect anywhere from six to fifteen courses depending where they choose to dine. That said, you’ll usually see appetizers, cooked dishes, sashimi, rice and various palate cleansers throughout the meal.
Kaiseki courses are designed to highlight different cooking methods, so the order in which these courses appear can change: both at the whim of the chef, and at the availability of the seasonal ingredients required.
Kaiseki chefs can riff on the cultural or seasonal themes that particularly resonate with them – and even on the historical associations with each dish that may have been lost to the past.
Arrangements of food on the plate are an important part of kaiseki too. The plating will be designed to draw your eye from left to right, emblematic of the movement of energy from the mountains down to the sea. As a result, you should feel calmed and soothed by the sight.
At a kaiseki dinner, the host brings out each dish and places them in specific parts of the table. There are guidelines for where and how chopsticks are placed, how much food is served and when.
Sakizuke / Zensai
This appetizer is the first dish you eat after sipping your sake. It’s often a refreshing dish, perhaps with thin strips of vegetables or fish in vinegar.
An integral part of kaiseki cuisine, suimono is the soup that begins the experience: usually a light, clear broth with added garnishes, served in a lacquered bowl. It’s deceptively simple; the suimono course marks a chef’s ability to showcase their skills.
Hassun is an assortment platter that encapsulates the seasonal theme of the meal. The dish is both expertly arranged and served on a specifically measured eight-inch wooden tray (which the word ‘hassun’ literally translates to).
Mukozuke / Tsukuri
Tsukuri is a sashimi dish that might involve kombujime, a method wherein the raw fish is placed between two pieces of kelp.
This is the grilled course, typically grilled fish, with the tail and head still attached. It’s respectful to eat the dish in a particular way: first eating the meat in the middle, then using chopsticks to remove the bone before finishing.
A selection of carefully cut vegetables makes up the Takiawase dish, often served in a bowl with a lid.
Gohan / Shokuji
Shokuji is a set of dishes served close to the end of the meal. It consists of rice, a few kinds of pickles and miso soup. The pickles signify the meal’s end.
Mizugashi / Mizumono
Mizumono is the dessert course, consisting of traditional Japanese sweets and a selection of seasonal fruits.
Proper Kaiseki Etiquette
As Japan is a country with traditional behaviors, there are certain aspects of kaiseki etiquette that guests should be aware of:
- It’s expected that you’ll dress in accordance with the formality of the experience.
- If you’re dining in a Japanese-style room or ryokan, you’ll remove your outdoor shoes at the entrance, so don’t be barefoot. No socks with holes either!
- No strong perfume or aftershave to avoid tainting the air
- Use your left hand for lifting and serving from the bowl and right hand for chopsticks. Pick up and hold the bowl while you eat from it – or, if it’s too heavy, to stay touching the bowl until you’ve finished with that dish.
- Don’t eat all the rice, pickles or soup at once. The polite way is to take bites from each in succession until they’re finished.
There will be an oshiburi provided for you at the kaiseki. This is a towel meant exclusively for wiping your hands, and should not be used for clearing up table spills!
Where to Enjoy a Kaiseki Dinner
A kaiseki meal is regarded as Japan’s answer to haute cuisine, and it’s one of the world’s most refined dining experiences. As such, it can be rather costly.
Kyoto is well known for its kaiseki meals, although you can find them all across the country too. It’s recommended to book kaiseki in advance: the best locations will be full of reservations for weeks, if not months, in advance.
Most hotels in Japan will be able to facilitate booking a kaiseki for you, but you can also research kaiseki restaurants on your own.
Experience Japanese Culture with Bokksu
The most beautiful aspect of kaiseki is the sheer love of culture and history that expresses itself through the food, presentation, service and surroundings. Simply put, it’s a meal you’ll never experience anywhere else in the world, and one you’ll certainly never forget.
At Bokksu, we have many of the kaiseki flavors with just as much care in the selection process. Our monthly themes mirror the celebration of seasonal ingredients that kaiseki does too, like our Onsen Vacation box. Get your own Bokksu Japanese subscription box today!