Kaiseki: Defining Japanese Seasonal Cuisine with Four Transplanted Chefs
Cha Kaiseki: Kai meaning “fold” or “robe” and seki meaning “stone,” recalling the practice of ascetic Zen monks putting warm stones in their robes to stave off hunger; less literally, the spare, vegetarian meals eaten by the monks to fortify them for strong ceremonial tea.
Ryoriya Kaiseki: Kai meaning “meeting” and seki, meaning “seat,” which recalls the multi-course banquets that emphasized ornamentation and sake pairings practiced by the Japanese aristocracy in the early 17th century; evolved out of tea ceremonies
Shokuzen-shu: Small drink, usually alcoholic, to start the meal
Hassun: Assortment of seasonal appetizers
Suimono: A soup to start the main courses, often clear
Otsukuri: Thinly sliced seasonal sashimi often served on a bed of shredded daikon
Nimono: Boiled, stewed, or simmered mixture of meat and seafood
Yakimono: Grilled fish or meat
Agemono: Tempura seafood or vegetables, often served with light dipping sauce
Mushimono: Steamed dish served at the end of the meal, often a savory egg custard
Sunomono: Seafood or vegetables in a light vinegar dressing
Shokuji: Served with the meal, typically consists of rice, miso soup, and assorted seasonal pickles
A servant cuts every last flower from a lush gardenia bush. Upon his return home that night, his master notices the naked plant and becomes enraged. Naturally, the master draws his sword and confronts the servant (presumably to give him slightly more than a stern talking-to). But when he enters the house, the master stops in his tracks at the sight of a single—perfect—gardenia blossom hung against a bare wall in the moonlight. Its beauty is essential, its scarcity arresting.
This isn’t a cautionary tale of extreme gardening. It’s meant to demonstrate the art of Kaiseki: careful selection and preparation of products to emphasize the essential character of the season. Kaiseki chefs operate under less physical threat than this—swords tend to stay sheathed in most restaurants. But it’s an apt display of the kind of meticulous preparation and profound hospitality that characterizes Kaiseki. And, happily, nobody was hurt in the process.
The Cliffs Notes version of Kaiseki is a succession of courses balancing texture, temperature, and flavor with specific, seasonally varying preparations (e.g. broiled seasonal fish, an acidic soup, seasonal pickled vegetables). Contemporary Western cuisine may have its ingredient-driven seasonal tasting menus, but Kaiseki it ain’t—to the tune of several hundred years and several thousand miles. For one thing, Japanese topography almost necessitates hyper-seasonality. But beyond the island-masses, strong ocean currents, and distinct seasons that create a constantly changing roster of ingredients, Kaiseki has deep—albeit slightly tangled—roots in the history of Japanese culture.
It’s essentially the culinary love-child of two divergent traditions. Confusion—especially for our acronym, emoticon, slang-happy vernacular—arises with the name of those traditions: Kaiseki and, er, Kaiseki are pronounced the same,” says Chef Isao Yamada. “However, each of the two styles has a different background and tradition.” But they have since intermingled in much the same way Christianity and Paganism collided and produced so many commercially viable religious holidays.
Kaiseki’s roots, says Yamada, extend back to traditions of banquet feasting by the imperial court and the austere tea ceremony and fasting practices of Zen monks in the 17th century. As unlikely cultural bedfellows as a pre-diabetic chocolate-hocking Easter Bunny and an all-powerful deity, but bedfellows just the same. Over the centuries, “they have influenced one another,” says Yamada, and Kaiseki has since evolved into overarching culinary practice that can be applied to various aspects of Japanese cuisine (e.g. Zen vegetarianism, sushi). As we know it today, says Chef Masato Nishihara, “Kaiseki cuisine is a total art.”
Like all great cuisines, Kaiseki hides its manipulations in dishes that seamlessly reiterate and re-imagine pure flavors and textures—all emphasizing product. In this sense, it does have similarities to Western seasonal cuisine. Locavore standard bearer Chef Dan Barber might create a dish to emphasize the properties of local beets in much the same way Chef Nishihara uses different preparations of hearts of palm for several components of the same dish. It is elemental cuisine at its core.
For this reason alone, “the quality of fresh ingredients is the most essential factor,” says Chef Makoto Okuwa of Sashi in Manhattan Beach—something almost every modern chef can appreciate. The Kaiseki chef must rely on product first to ensure the kind of ingredient-specific potency for which the cuisine is renowned. “Each ingredient has a unique character,” says Nishihara. “[I] try to maximize and utilize it.” Seems like he does pretty well, as his entirely vegetarian menu at Kajitsu is a success in a town that shamelessly lusts for pork, foie gras, and sweetbreads.
Techniques and proper tools are paramount to successful Kaiseki. And knives, the great equalizer of all cuisine, matter as much in the East as the West. Nishihara might use a Ryoba knife, with teeth on both sides, to cut his vegetables at Kajitsu, but Chef Okuwa uses a Rataba knife for his sushi Kaiseki so “the remaining part of the fish doesn’t get affected by the pressure of the knife.” Okuwa also relies on traditional practices like the Arai technique, in which rigor mortis is preserved so the fish flesh is firm and toothsome without being heavy. Other practices—using fattier fish in winter and leaner, vinegared fillets in warmer months—abound.
But Okuwa doesn’t feel limited by either the practices or emphatic seasonality of Kaiseki. “Sushi Kaiseki has one of Kaiseki’s most supreme strengths: its flexibility” says Okuwa. “Each season there are eclectic types of fresh seafood, so a Kaiseki chef can illustrate the different ambiance and essence of the season through his dishes.” Unlike Western cuisine, where egregiously out of season ingredients have only recently begun to seriously disappear from restaurant menus, Kaiseki has been respecting seasonality and locality for centuries. Not that anyone’s keeping count.
Plating in Kaiseki isn’t merely an aesthetic finishing touch. It’s a continuation of the preparation, a furtherance of the cuisine’s innate naturalism, making use of centuries of Japanese ceramic production. “Japanese ceramics are a very old tradition that has been passed on for a long time,” says Chef Noriyuki Sugie of the LA-based IRONNORI, adding with diplomatic understatement, “Western ceramics do not have such an old tradition.”
However comparatively wimpy the roots of our own plating traditions—we’re the pimply pre-teens to Kaiseki’s bearded sage—Western chefs can certainly relate to the effort to match each course to the perfect vessel. “There are a lot of different types of dishes used in Kaiseki,” says Sugie. The trick, as ever, is finding the right dish for the right course and once again, hiding the effort of selection behind the dish’s coalescent unity. Whether a Kaiseki chef is using an old company like Bizen or Arita (with a whopping 400 years in the ceramics business) or one of the newer companies—Sugie says there are a total of 18 regions currently producing Kaiseki dishware—the end goal is harmony “so the dish becomes a whole,” says Nishihara.
We love to bastardize imported culinary traditions. Just ask Chef Boyardee. But Kaiseki is unlikely to suffer such a fate. Even in the land that created P.F. Chang’s Chinese Bistro, the land that turned fusion cuisine into conceptually crowded, edible ethnic collages, Kaiseki will likely endure American influence relatively unscathed—thanks in part to the Western recommitment to seasonality, and in large part to Kaiseki’s own innate adaptability.
“I would like to keep adopting wide varieties of ingredients and culinary techniques into this traditional Japanese cuisine,” says Chef Yamada. Sure, a few cavalier Japanese chefs might have gotten a handful native seeds through customs, (only to produce paler incarnations of their hometown produce). But the real virtue of Kaiseki is its ability to enhance local, seasonal product, wherever and whatever that might be.
Kaiseki is a much more than the sum of seasonality and ceremony, and certainly nothing to be lost in the morass of locavore buzzwords. It is generosity and nature tempered by design and technique, and in that sense it reminds us of the best aspects of maturing Western cuisine. The uninitiated might begin by getting in touch with the seasons. Prune something drastically. Just make sure no one nearby is heavily armed.