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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Yakiniku

Japan has a real love for going to restaurants and cooking food themselves. I’m not exactly sure why (isn’t the point of going out to eat so that you don’t have to cook?), but it’s certainly a lot of fun. With a group of friends, shared dishes, and the possibility of lighting your sleeves on fire, it’s really neat to try cooking delicious food yourself without the hassle of prep work.

Although you can rarely find these types of restaurants in America (I’m sure people are afraid of lawsuits), there are several types of cook-it-yourself dining experiences in Japan. Today, I want to show you Japanese yakiniku (grilled meat), and introduce you to one of my favorite meals while I lived in Tokyo.

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At yakiniku restaurants, guests sit at tables with a small charcoal grill built into the tabletop. It’s not hot when you when you sit down, so no one risks setting themselves on fire. Later on, your server will spray the grill with oil and light the flames so that it’s hot by the time your dishes come out of the kitchen.

A traditional yakiniku grill

A traditional yakiniku grill

DSC_0651Yakiniku menus offer a variety of meats and vegetables that are seasoned or marinated in many delicious sauces. If you want a little of everything, a lot of restaurants offer a set meal to share, often with steamed rice. If you’re more adventurous or know exactly what you want, you can also order items a la carte.

The menu of a yakiniku restaurant near my university

The menu of a yakiniku restaurant near my university

DSC_0658Some of the most popular meat choices include kalbi (boneless short rib), harami (tender beef from around the diaphragm), beef tongue, chicken, various seafood, and pork belly. Mushrooms, onions, kabocha squash, corn, and peppers are also commonly available for vegetables. If you want to get a little more daring, you can also find a lot of organ meat as well- including heart, liver, intestine, tail, tripe, and stomach.

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I'm getting hungry just thinking about how delicious this was

I’m getting hungry just thinking about how delicious this was

The meats and vegetables come to your table raw and cut into bite-sized pieces. The server will tell you how long each meat needs to cook, and then it’s time to start grilling. Using tongs, you put the raw meat onto the grill and cook to your heart’s content. There are usually several different dipping sauces to choose from on the side, including ponzu (citrus soy sauce) and spicy chili oil.

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DSC_0661Most restaurants will also offer steamed rice or other side dishes to help fill you up. I enjoyed marinated bean sprouts and seaweed with one meal, while another yakiniku restaurant with a Korean influence had a vegetable omelet, kimchi, and salad.

Several types of bean sprouts and seaweed

Several types of bean sprouts and seaweed

Japanese yakiniku is a ton of fun if you don’t mind a little work, and extremely delicious. All the meat is super tender and marinated in amazing sauces, from miso to barbeque.

Yakiniku at a Korean barbecue restaurant

Yakiniku at a Korean barbecue restaurant

And you know what’s awesome? You don’t need to go to Japan anymore to enjoy this awesome experience! Gyu Kaku, a Japanese yakiniku chain I actually ate at in Tokyo, has restaurants all across the US! There’s one right down the street from where I live in Boston, and it’s just as delicious as the yakiniku in Japan. Plus, they offer s’mores as dessert…it’s seriously too hard to resist.

I hope I made you hungry today! Would you try yakiniku, or are you afraid of cooking your own food?

Ramen in Japan

I want to begin this post by saying that those who haven’t tried authentic Japanese ramen haven’t really lived. Now, I’m not talking about those freeze-dried noodle chunks you can find for 50 cents in the grocery store (although those can be delicious), but the savory, perfectly balanced noodles served fresh with meat and vegetables. In Tokyo alone there must be hundreds of ramen shops, all with their own unique approach and styles of ramen.

My first ramen experience in Japan, served with soup, salad and fried rice as a lunch set. It was so good, I almost cried (and I wish I was kidding about that!)

My first ramen experience in Japan, served with soup, salad and fried rice as a lunch set. It was so good, I almost cried (and I wish I was kidding about that!)

These noodles aren’t just a popular dish. Ramen is a countrywide delicacy, an art form, and a huge cultural phenomenon.

Second favorite ramen from Japan. This shop was located in Shibuya, and I ate there after class all the time.

My favorite ramen from Japan. This shop was located in Shibuya, and I ate there after class all the time.

I ate ramen at least once a week while I was in Japan, and I never got tired of it. It’s sometimes called gakusei ryori (student cuisine) due to its cheap and filling nature, but even foodies of Japan go to great lengths to grab the perfect bowl. On my way to school, I often passed a popular ramen shop called Ramen Jiro that had lines wrapping around the block at 8 am…. and the restaurant didn’t even open until 11!

Ramen Jiro has a cult-like following in Japan. It's known for its insane portion sizes, fatty broth, and heaping toppings of pork belly, garlic, and vegetables. I never got to try it, but I did go to school right near its original location in Mita!

Ramen Jiro has a cult-like following in Japan. It’s known for its insane portion sizes, fatty broth, and heaping toppings of pork belly, garlic, and vegetables. I never got to try it, but I did go to school right near its original location in Mita!

Different areas of Japan are known for different styles of ramen, each with unique broths and toppings. Sapporo style ramen, for instance, has a rich broth and is topped with corn and butter, while Tokyo style ramen has a soy and dashi (fish and seaweed stock) based broth with bamboo shoots and green onion.

Traditional Tokyo style ramen with shoyu (soy) broth

Ramen with shoyu (soy) broth

Tomato ramen from a specialty ramen shop. The tomato-based broth was filled with angel-hair like ramen noodles, bok choy, and a giant heap of parmesan cheese.

Tomato ramen from a specialty ramen shop. The tomato-based broth was filled with angel-hair like ramen noodles, bok choy, and a giant heap of parmesan cheese.

Typically, there are 4 types of broth, including shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), miso (miso paste), and tonkotsu (pork bone).  Depending on the style of the dish and type of broth, ramen can be topped with a countless number of different ingredients. Some of the most popular include nori (seaweed), bamboo shoots, scallion, leeks, garlic, bean sprouts, egg, and fish cake.

Tonkotsu ramen from Osaka. Notice the cloudy, rich broth. This was by far my favorite type of ramen.

Tonkotsu ramen from Osaka. Notice the cloudy, rich broth. This was by far my favorite type of ramen.

Ramen from a Chinese restaurant

Ramen is originally a Chinese dish, so it’s easy to find in Chinese restaurants across Japan!

Yasai (vegetable) ramen

Yasai (vegetable) ramen

Ramen shops are typically very small, and only have seats at a counter or a few small tables and booths along the wall. Because of this, the shops fill up quickly and customers only stay long enough to eat their ramen before they go. To expedite the process even more, customers often pay for their food before they enter the restaurant using what looks like a vending machine. The guests enter their money, choose the type of ramen they want, and receive a small ticket that they hand to the chef.

Here's how I paid at my favorite ramen shop! You simply insert your money, choose the type of ramen, and get a ticket!

Here’s how I paid at my favorite ramen shop! You simply insert your money, choose the type of ramen, and get a ticket!

A counter at a traditional ramen shop

A counter at a traditional ramen shop

Ramen is great on cold days, when you’re sick, or you’re just looking for a great meal. It’s definitely the dish that I miss the most from Japan, as it’s hard (but not impossible!) to find authentic ramen in the United States. My favorites so far have been Pikaichi in Boston and Terakawa in Philadelphia.

My last ramen in Japan, at Narita airport. This was a sad day.

My last ramen in Japan, at Narita airport. This was a sad day.

Ramen from Terakawa in Philadelphia, courtesy of my Instagram account

Ramen from Terakawa in Philadelphia, courtesy of my Instagram account.

What about you? Where do you get your ramen fix? And more importantly…did I make you hungry yet?