• The zensai platter at Melbourne's Ishizuka showcases ingredients at their freshest. (Kristoffer Paulsen)Source: Kristoffer Paulsen
Kaiseki: it's the height of Japanese dining, it has a long history and is about the joy of eating ingredients at their peak.
By
Audrey Bourget

2 Nov 2020 - 1:43 PM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2020 - 1:45 PM

When the elevator opens into the basement of 139 Bourke Street, it feels like you’re miles away from the Melbourne CBD. Once you sit at Ishizuka’s long wooden bar, you can watch chef Hitoshi Miyazawa make a flower-shaped pumpkin cake inspired by his grandma, grill wagyu with miso on a magnolia leaf and slice into a piece of tuna belly.

Observing the chef at work, it becomes rapidly clear why kaiseki is considered to be an art form in Japan. The multi-course dining experience is as beautiful and intricate as it is flavourful. And despite being the inspiration behind modern fine dining, it has humble origins.

Kaiseki can be traced back to meals served in the 16th century during tea ceremonies in Zen Buddhist monasteries. “Originally, it was simple dishes using the best ingredients from nature, which were prepared without unnecessary waste,” explains chef Yuuki Tanaka of restaurant Ise Sueyoshi in Tokyo. During the Edo period, a more luxurious type of kaiseki emerged and became popular with the nobility and samurais.

An ode to nature

One thing that has always remained a vital part of kaiseki is the “shun” or the importance and joy of eating seasonal ingredients at their peak. “It is thought that using seasonal ingredients is very important because most people feel and notice each season through the seasonal ingredients in Japan,” explains Miyazawa.

And Japanese chefs take the concept of seasonality seriously. “Many people know that there are four seasons in Japan. But in old Japan, there were 72 different micro-seasons. Each micro-season has different shun (seasonal) ingredients. To use these ingredients is one of the important [parts of the] traditional culture of the kaiseki,” says Tanaka.

Beauty in structure

Whether you’re enjoying kaiseki in a restaurant or a ryokan (Japanese inn), the chef will follow a certain order, adapting dishes to their style and showcasing different techniques.

The meal starts with a series of small appetisers before being followed by several main courses (soup, sashimi, boiled, grilled, fried, steamed, pickled and rice dishes) and sweets.

"In old Japan, there were 72 different micro-seasons. Each micro-season has different shun (seasonal) ingredients. To use these ingredients is one of the important [parts of the] traditional culture of the kaiseki.”

At Ishizuka, Miyazawa especially loves preparing the zensai, one of the appetiser courses that hints at what’s to come. “There are a variety of things to eat on the zensai plate. This is because zensai is a showcase of all the techniques used in preparing kaiseki,” he says. Seasonality is expressed in the choice of ingredients, but also the colours, textures and tableware.

He also enjoys the sashimi and wagyu courses, which he says are very representative of Japan.

“In the cold season, we make our wagyu dish with Ishizuka's original miso called hoba miso, which is made with fig and butter and has a sweet and savoury taste. This is an amazing combination with wagyu beef.”

At Ise Sueyoshi, Tanaka loves making the hassun course, a seasonal platter that changes monthly. Unlike most kaiseki restaurants offering only one set menu, he can cater to vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free and halal dietary requirements.

“It’s a challenge, but a requirement for people from all over the world to experience kaiseki cuisine,” he explains.

Before opening his restaurant, he backpacked and worked all over the world. He’d ask fellow chefs if they like Japanese cuisine and they would say yes, mentioning mostly sushi and ramen, but never kaiseki.

“I believe kaiseki is one of the most important Japanese cuisines, because it reflects the different seasons and expresses our culture through fresh ingredients. I felt very sad that kaiseki had been so overlooked. I decided to let everyone know about the culture of kaiseki,” he says.

“I believe kaiseki is one of the most important Japanese cuisines, because it reflects the different seasons and expresses our culture through fresh ingredients."

He now likes to shine the spotlight on ingredients from his hometown in the Mie Prefecture.

In Melbourne, Miyazawa imports some ingredients from Japan, like tuna. But in the spirit of celebrating the surrounding nature, he also loves using local ingredients, like Tasmanian periwinkle.

From accessible to exclusive

A kaiseki meal can be pricey and is usually reserved for special occasions. If you’re interested in an affordable alternative to start your immersion into the world of kaiseki, look for lunch kaiseki and restaurants offering a more relaxed experience. Kyoto’s Giro Giro Hitoshina, for example, mashes the principles of kaiseki with the vibes of an izakaya (make sure to book a table a the counter to see the chefs in action).

But if you’re after the real deal, Ishizuka is the closest thing to the true Japanese kaiseki experience in Australia. In Japan, you can visit dedicated restaurants like Ise Sueyoshi, as well as enjoy kaiseki meals in certain ryokans.

 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Instagram @audreybourget and Twitter @audreybourget

More kaiseki flavours
This Tokyo restaurant serves high-level Japanese food that also caters to vegetarian, vegan and halal diners
Ise Sueyoshi makes sure that people with dietary restrictions don't miss out on kaiseki – the ultimate in Japanese fine dining.
Trend: Kaiseki
Kaiseki is fine dining Japanese-style, where exquisite flavours, artistic presentation and a wealth of history come together for a truly unique dining experience.
Sweet chestnuts in burr

As part of a kaiseki menu at the Japanese Embassy in Canberra, chef Mr Shioi takes inspiration from the seasons by recreating autumn foliage with this beautiful dish. "Here, we’re looking for a drink that can let the delicate flavours shine. It should be able to hint at the sweet nuttiness of the chestnut, while also cleaning the palate after the crunch of the fried noodles and meringue. Time to turn to Australia’s small but prospering sake industry. Based near the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Sun-Masamune have been producing sake from high-quality Australian rice and natural water for more than 15 years. The most readily available is their Go-Shu Blue sake, which is a good place to start: dry, smooth and with a nice interplay of sweet and savoury flavours." - Dan Coward