It has taken the fine dining restaurant world by storm; Japan’s kaiseki tradition, which involves a procession of small, painstakingly prepared tidbits deeply entrenched in nature and the seasons, has become one of the greatest forces influencing modern dining.
Literally translated from Japanese as “bosom stone”, the word kaiseki was originally used to describe the habit of Zen Buddhist monks- who by nature of their vocation, were required to endure hardship and be strict vegetarians- to carry warmed pebbles inside their robes to ward off hunger.
Kaiseki underwent its first transformation with the introduction of highly formal tea ceremonies in Japan in the 16th abounded in caffeine and hence, was strong on the stomach, drinking it was teamed with eating small morsels of food, to aid digestion and stop caffeine shakes. It was in Kyoto, a town brimming with Zen Buddhist temples, that kaiseki flourished. Located in the fertile Yamashiro Basin, with mountains alive with spring water flanking three sides, and a placid climate of cold winters and hot, dry summers, Kyoto is blessed with perfect growing conditions. So it was no surprise that when Japan’s imperial palace was moved here in 794 AD and palace chefs were forced to innovative and create delicate and tasty dishes worthy of entertaining the Emperor on a daily basis, that kaiseki took on a life of its own. Far from its humble Zen beginnings, kaiseki became synonymous with what it is today: A symbol of luxury and time, a meditation in eating. “The most important thing about kaiseki is the seasons”, says Yoshihiro Murata, the semi-retired chef of Kikunoi. Arguably one of the most experienced and respected kaiseki chefs in Japan, and the world for that matter, Murata has taught many chefs the art of kaiseki, including Heston Blumenthal, René Redzepi and Ferran Adrià. Kaiseki is food cooked with soul, gushes Adrià, “a communion between the work of man and the gifts of nature... exemplified in the work of Yoshihiro Murata”. Of course modern degustation menus are merely an interpretation of kaiseki, the latter following a strict format that sees a procession of dishes rolled out- something grilled, something acidic, a soup, a vegetable dish- each with contrasting tastes and textures and aesthetically surprising and sensational.
“It’s the process of kaiseki that foreign chefs find so interesting”, says Murata. “The process of creating balance, harmony and appreciating nature; the art of controlling umami all while keeping the attention of the guest and most importantly, respecting the ingredient”.
A meal at Kikunoi can involve up to 65 dishes, all featuring ingredients at their prime and all chosen to represent that specific time of year. In spring one dish may be a single red apricot, pickled in dashi stock and topped with a snow white shirako sauce, which is, perhaps a little alarmingly, the sperm of cod fish. The apricot sits unadorned in a dusky orange lacquer bowl, its curvaceous sides hand painted with golden coloured clouds. The dish is designed to signify the beauty of spring’s cherry and plum blossoms, which in late March, when the dish is served, are a profusion of bright pink flowers throughout the streets of Kyoto and visible from Kikunoi’s elegant but understated tatami lined private dining rooms. The apricot might precede ice fish, their two inch century. As matcha, the powdered green tea used, translucent bodies to be eaten whole, heads and all, with rice seasoned with sweet potato vinegar. Then squid, cut to resemble a fern, and dusted in the bud of a prickly ash, one of Kyoto’s most prolific symbols of spring. Each is ceremonially presented by a waitress wearing a pale blue kimono who on her knees, touches her head to the floor each time before leaving the bare wood-clad room. Then the meal will end, as perfectly as it began, with a single strawberry, slice of melon, or cumquat, sweet as candy, seamless and pure just by itself.