The ancient Japanese city of Kyoto is home to ryotei, exclusive restaurants which are in the business of kaiseki – multi-coursed formal meals considered to be the epitome of fine dining. Although kaiseki had the humblest of beginnings in Zen Buddhism tea rituals, it has developed over the centuries into a more refined, elegant and exquisitely beautiful way with food, made fashionable by the elite. It is only in very recent times, thanks to lightning-fast communications and the odd interpreter, that international chefs have gained access to the world of kaiseki. And they are smitten, labelling it as THE ultimate dining experience.
The experience consists of a dozen small courses of premium foods served up in a designated order on museum-like collection pieces, utilising ingredients that strongly represent the seasons and significant occasions from the Japanese calendar – such as the Lunar New Year festival of Setsubun. Kaiseki guarantees harmonious combinations of flavour, texture, appearance and colour, and is so artfully presented that you have no choice but to first eat with your eyes. The accompanying historical stories and folklore provide an essential element to this magical culinary ride.
Foreigners attempting to tap into the Japanese psyche – including entrée into the world of kaiseki – are frequently met with a navigation course of closed doors, hushed tones and polite avoidance. Many Japanese are still concerned that language barriers and social differences limit their ability to express themselves clearly enough to avoid an erosion of their long and precious heritage, beliefs and lifestyle structure. Or on a more basic level, they fear embarrassment to themselves, their families, colleagues and ultimately their country, should they provide a less than exemplary experience. And that’s one heavy pot of steaming dashi to be carrying on your shoulders!
This may help to explain why much of the detail of Japan’s cultural assets have been confined to its islands for so long, and why the true essence of Japanese cuisine, so entwined with the greater culture, has been fairly well guarded. But all of this is changing, thanks mostly to a few key characters in the Japanese culinary community, including chef Yoshihiro Murata of the famed Kikunoi restaurants. He was, and still is, instrumental in spreading the word on umami around the globe via chefs such as Heston Blumenthal and Momofuku’s David Chang.
There are a few non-Japanese chefs who are striving to emulate the experience of kaiseki, but without a deeper connection to such phenomenal culinary history, it can never be so. However, creative young Japanese chefs are developing their own, more relaxed modern kaiseki style, making for fun, exciting and less-expensive dining opportunities – and inevitable copy-cat behaviour.
But no matter which way you fold it, although the Japanese may be too humble to accept it, kaiseki is hot. Red and white!