Japanese Kaiseki

I’m a firm believer that food is art. In Japan, this is particularly evident in kaiseki ryori, a traditional multi-course dinner where each plate is as delicious on the eyes as it is on the tongue. Kaiseki meals are generally served at ryokan, traditional Japanese inns, and are as finely prepared as those you might find on tasting menus in haute cuisine.

Kaiseki are made with fresh ingredients, and each course is served as soon as it is prepared in order to maintain its freshness and integrity. There is usually a prescribed order of courses, however, the different types of ingredients in each dish depend on the season and location of the kaiseki,

I tried kaiseki in a ryokan in Kyoto, and had a chance to experience just how beautiful this meal could be. Kaiseki are often described as a meal in harmony with nature, with both the expert flavors and beautiful presentation of the food reflecting the shapes, textures, and seasons found in the environment. The plates and dishes are a reflection of nature as well, with different colors and shapes complimenting each course.

Because I tried kaiseki in November, many of my courses were decorated for fall and included dishes appropriate for colder weather. Keep reading to see exactly what I tried, and how each course traditionally progresses throughout the meal.

The menu

The menu

1. Shokuzen-shu (alcohol) and Sakizuke (bite-sized appetizer, similar to a French amuse-bouche)

Kaiseki usually begin with a small glass of sake or alcohol, with a selection of bite-sized appetizers. Mine included both sweet and savory elements, and were decorated with maple leaves.

Kaiseki usually begin with a small glass of sake or alcohol, usually locally made (lower right)

Sakizuke

Sakizuke

2. Hassun (a second course of bite-sized appetizers, usually seasonally themed)

DSC_55493. Soup

The soup course is usually a clear broth, with vegetables, seafood, or in my case, tofu.

The soup course is usually a clear broth, with vegetables, seafood, or in my case, tofu.

4. Sashimi

A selection of thinly sliced raw fish, served on a bed of daikon (radish). Also served with shoya (soy sauce) and wasabi

A selection of thinly sliced raw fish, served on a bed of daikon (radish). Also served with shoya (soy sauce) and wasabi

5. Shiizakana (a substantial dish)

Shiizakana is often one of the larger courses of the meal. At my kaiseki, we had shabu shabu, or meat and vegetables simmered in broth.

Shiizakana is often one of the larger courses of the meal. At my kaiseki, we had shabu shabu, or meat and vegetables simmered in broth.

Each guest had their own personal stove to cook the shabu shabu in!

Each guest had their own personal stove to cook the shabu shabu in!

6. Yakimono (grilled dish)

Grilled fish, usually from a local source

Grilled fish, usually from a local source

7. Nimono (boiled dish

Simmered vegetables

Simmered vegetables

8. Agemono (deep fried dish)

The deep fried dish is usually a selection of tempura, including fish and vegetables. It's generally served towards the end of the meal.

The deep fried dish is usually a selection of tempura, including fish and vegetables. It’s generally served towards the end of the meal.

DSC_56319. Mushimono (steamed dish)

Kaiseki often offer chawanmushi for the steamed dish, a savory egg custard with fish stock, and bites of mushrooms, chicken, and seafood. It's served in a teacup-sized lidded dish and eaten with a spoon.

Kaiseki often offer chawanmushi for the steamed dish, a savory egg custard with fish stock, and bites of mushrooms, chicken, and seafood. It’s served in a teacup-sized lidded dish and eaten with a spoon.

DSC_561710. Sunomono (vinegar dish)

Seafood and vegetables served in a vinegar-based sauce. This was probably my least favorite dish.

Seafood and vegetables served in a vinegar-based sauce. This was probably my least favorite dish.

11. Gohan (rice dish)

Rice with seasonal ingredients. This course was also cooked in individual pots at our seats.

Rice with seasonal ingredients. This course was also cooked in individual pots at our seats.

11. Mizumono (dessert)

Dessert at kaiseki are typically light, and consist of a small confection or fruit. We were served a fruit jelly.

Dessert at kaiseki are typically light, and consist of a small confection or fruit. We were served a fruit jelly.

 Because of the quality and number of dishes, kaiseki can get pretty expensive. At kaiseki with as many as 20 courses, the set can cost up to $500 per person.

However, you can typically find kaiseki lunch sets or bentos for a heavily discounted price, with the only exception that the dishes all come at the same time, rather than course by course. You can also get the kaiseki experience by staying at a ryokan (like I did), where the course meal is often included in the cost of your stay.

Thanks for reading once again, and I hope I made you hungry!

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6 thoughts on “Japanese Kaiseki

    • Kaiseki can get really expensive, so this definitely wasn’t an everyday thing! I didn’t have a set food budget, but tried to stay around $75-$100 a week, with grocery shopping and a few meals out.

      Also, I wish the fish were from Minerva! They were definitely as fresh and tasty as the ones in the lake…but with a much larger variety of course!

  1. Shabu shabu—can’t wait to have it again. Have you heard of any US restaurants offering Kaiseki? All the china/serving dishes in your photos are very beautiful. How long do chefs have to train in Japan?

    • I think you can find a few kaiseki-esque lunches at upscale Japanese restaurants. Besides that, the closest thing to kaiseki would probably be a tasting menu. I haven’t seen any yet, but I’ll keep my eyes out!

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