My father believed that the act of eating was more than just unconsciously stuffing your mouth with food. He was a man of few words; he spoke through his actions – particularly cooking. My most cherished memory growing up is sitting around the dinner table with my family, breaking bread together and delighting in my father’s cooking. Every time I asked my dad why his food tasted so good – he would invariably respond, “Because I made it with love.”
During my culinary expedition in Japan – eating my way through Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – my father was constantly on my mind. I remember watching the TV show Iron Chef with him – He was always intrigued by the Japanese chefs. While in Japan, I had several opportunities to watch some chefs in action. The way they handled the food, their focus and dedication, and the way they put the ingredients together into visually appealing and absolutely delicious dishes reminded me of what my father taught me: That food tastes good not only when it’s made with carefully-chosen ingredients, but above all, when it’s made with love and passion. A top experience in Japan was eating Kaiseki – I think my father would have been fascinated by this type of meal. And it definitely reminded me of my dad’s approach to food, cooking, and eating.
What is Kaiseki?
Kaiseki or kaiseki ryori is described as Japanese haute cuisine. This type of dining is steeped in history and tradition, originating from the ancient Japanese tea ceremony. The meal is served in several courses comprised of various small dishes – approximately 8 to 13 in total, and it is made with seasonal, local ingredients sourced on the same day the meal is prepared.
There are restaurants that specialize in kaiseki, but for an unforgettable cultural experience in Japan, I’d highly recommend staying at a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn – where your stay is complemented by an outstanding kaiseki meal.
This past spring, during the Cherry Blossom Season (Sakura), I had the amazing opportunity of staying at a ryokan in Kyoto for a couple of nights. I’ve had many food experiences in my life – and kaiseki definitely ranks at the very top.
In Kyoto, food is not just eaten for nourishment. Kyo ryori or Kyoto cuisine is a variety of kaiseki, where food is elevated to an art form. Part of the kaiseki experience involves eating in a tranquil environment. Many restaurants serve kaiseki in separate rooms, where the guests will have complete privacy. In a more traditional ryokan, your meal is brought right to your room.
Kaiseki meals are traditionally prepared, although chefs have flexibility in how they present the food and what courses to include or omit. On our first night at our ryokan, our kaiseki ryori was brought out in 4 courses – a total of 16 dishes, including dessert. You do not have a choice of the food you’ll be served. However, you’re always asked if you have certain allergies before you place your order, so that the chef can make the appropriate accommodations.
When we checked into our ryokan, we were assigned an attendant, Ayia, who took care of us during our stay. We had scheduled our dinner at 6 pm, and she walked in at the precisely appointed time. We were already sitting at our low table, wearing our yukatas (cotton kimonos), anxiously awaiting our meal. I had done very little research about kaiseki on purpose – so the whole experience would be a surprise. Aiya came into the room, knelt in front of our table, and presented us with two little dishes containing our appetizers or sakizuke. She also served us a ceremonial cup of sake.
Just a few minutes later, Aiya’s assistant came in with two trays filled with delicacies, which were covered with stiff parchment-like paper. What to do? Where to start? We didn’t know, so we began by uncovering the food; it felt like we were opening up a present. Before us were 5 different appetizers, plus a cold, creamy soup with fish eggs floated on top, as you can see in the little blue bowl in the photo below.
One of the hors d’oeuvres was inside a hand-painted clam shell, placed on top of a green leave typical of a plant in Kyoto. There were two other tiny dishes, plus a larger one in the shape of a flower. The shell and what looked to be like a tri-color lollipop were laid out on top of a piece of carved bamboo. This is called hassun, where a few appetizers are arranged on a single plate or tray, like still life, to express the season.
Admittedly, some of this food looks very unusual, particularly when compared to Western food. The texture may seen strange to you as you look at these photos – and probably even unappetizing. This was adventurous eating for us, no question. Yet it was something so new and delicious that it’s hard to compare it with other dining experiences.
Since we were in Japan during sakura – we saw pink everywhere in the streets – and now we also saw it in our kaiseki dinner. There were cherry blossom stems used as decoration and little dishes painted with pink petals. Some dishes where in the shape of a flower and certain items of food were pink resembling the cherry blossoms and green simulating the green leaves of the trees.
With our first course, Aiya also set up two small cast-iron pots with wooden lids, lighting a fire underneath. Curious to see what was cooking in the pot, I lifted the lid and saw a cloudy broth. This was shiizakana – a hot pot dish. To that, we added the ingredients that were set to the side on a separate dish – a prawn, fresh fish, noodles, green onions, silky tofu, and mushrooms. The soup was light, smooth, and very tasty.
Our next wave of food came in almost at the exact moment we had finished the first group course. This time, we had a small dish of fresh, raw fish – mukozuke. There was also a shrimp, horseradish, soy sauce, and a couple of other raw white fish that melted like butter in my mouth.
For the third course, we were served some tempura fish and vegetables, perfectly fried and displayed on a small plate; a lidded bowl – futamono, which contained soup with mushrooms, and another earthen bowl with a delicately-painted lid which had different mushrooms, cabbage – and… I don’t know what else under the small green decorative green leaves. But it was unlike anything I’ve ever had. While very different, it was also very good.
Surprisingly (at least for me), our last course was a small bowl of rice, pickled vegetables (suzakana), and clear miso soup. We had been missing the rice all along! We had no idea it would served at the end.
And last, but not least, in came dessert. We received two dishes. One looked like a fruit cocktail set in a clear jelly with a dollop of cream or something similar on top. It was refreshing, airy, and sweet. I can’t say what the other one was, but it was wrapped in a dark leaf. I ate that one, too.
We washed all the food down with chilled sake, which was dry with peach notes and went down super-smooth. While food is included in your nightly rate at a ryokan, alcohol is not. The prices for the sake were very reasonable, however. By the time we finished the meal, dessert and the sake it was almost 10 pm. We got up and walked for a bit while Aiya and her assistant came in and made our futon beds. We were definitely ready to turn in for the night.
On our second night, we were served sukiyaki. Yaki means to sautée – you start by stir-frying some different variety of onions, vegetables, then add the meat and noodles. The ingredients are covered with a soy sauce and mirin (sometimes sugar) preparation. Sukiyaki is extremely popular in Japan and the ingredients vary from region to region. It is a fun meal – and completely different than the labor-intensive and sophisticated kaiseki. You can also easily find it at many restaurants in the country.
Once we were ready for dinner, Aiya walked into the room with a small portable gas stove. She set it down on the table and placed a heavy cast iron pot on top of it. She served us sake and left the room to bring in our appetizers. She presented us with two beautifully-arranged trays of hassun – totally different than the ones from the previous night. We had octopus, prawn boiled in spices, and other things you can see below. Unfortunately, I don’t know what they are – and it has been impossible to find more information on the internet about them. Together with our hassun, Aiya also served us a small dish of sashimi. It was some of the freshest and best fish I’ve ever had.
After our appetizers, Aiya started to make the sukiyaki for us. She first greased the bottom of the pot, next adding the onions, followed by thinly-sliced beef. This was excellent kobe beef – some of the best kind of beef available in Japan with incredible marbling and awesome flavor. She then covered the ingredients with the pot of soy sauce-based liquid, then the noodles and different mushrooms. The video below shows a bit of the process.
Lastly, Aiya cracked a couple of raw eggs open and put them in small dishes, one for each of us. She then showed us how to eat this meal. Basically, you take a piece of the meat or vegetable out of the pot, you dip it in the raw egg, and then you eat it. We never eat raw eggs, so we skipped that part!
After a palate-cleansing dish of picked vegetables, we were served our dessert – some strawberries, matcha sorbet, and a green fruit that tasted like a peach with gold dusted on top.
Even though this meal was so different than the kaiseki dinner, it was still perfect – and it gave us a chance to try out something new.
And that’s the end! I usually try to replicate meals that I’ve had while traveling when I return home. I’m pretty sure I could make sukiyaki, but there’s no way I could ever even try to make real kaiseki. However, I think I could mimic the idea of kaiseki – by preparing a tasting menu that represents a specific season using only ingredients available during that time of the year, and making sure to source them locally. It would be fun preparing such a meal – and I think my dad would’ve really enjoyed planning and cooking something like that together.
Hope you enjoyed this post and that it might have inspired you to try new foods – whether in your own town or during your upcoming travels!