Kaiseki ryori   懐石料理

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A kaiseki meal is a true feast for the eyes and stomach!

Kaiseki ryori

A fall-themed kaiseki dish

Kaiseki ryori

A feast fit for a king

As everyone knows, food is one of the essential aspects of Japanese culture. One of its most refined and sought-after forms is called kaiseki ryori, a gourmet meal consisting of many beautifully presented courses, originating from the small dishes served during tea ceremonies several centuries ago. Only specialty restaurants, traditional inns or large hotels now serve this cuisine.

Kaiseki is a Japanese culinary tradition is a constituent of many dishes.

Kaiseki is a Japanese culinary tradition made up of many small dishes.

The art of culinary composition

Kaiseki ryori is the pinnacle of Japanese gastronomy and sophistication. It is not only an extremely refined and varied menu in terms of taste; it's also a true composition of different shapes, textures and colors. A kaiseki meal is traditionally composed of a succession of small dishes, all different in terms of ingredients, cooking and presentation.

While there is no set menu in a kaiseki ryori meal, there are all the same rules to respect. First, the ingredients used must, of course, be seasonal and of the utmost freshness, according to the basic rules of traditional Japanese cuisine. The preparation, taken from Buddhist cuisine, is often centred around vegetables and tofu - but the entire meal will not necessarily be vegetarian. You'll often find sashimi, meat, soups and more... Hot and cold dishes are also alternated, as are the textures of the dishes served.

Read : Shojin ryori, the food of the monks

Refined service and presentation

Each dish is usually prepared by a chef who has mastered the techniques of traditional Japanese cuisine. Two dishes from the same menu will never look alike: the ingredients must not be repeated, nor should the cooking techniques or presentation. To encourage this diversity, tableware plays a crucial role: the shape of a bowl or plate, its color and its material are taken into account as something that should match the food itself. The whole meal is a feast, both visual and gustatory.

Generally speaking, although the preparation and the order in which they are served vary from one restaurant to another, certain types of dishes are regularly found in the menus of the kaiseki ryori. Starting with the sakizuke, a kind of appetizer, then the shiizakana, a more substantial dish in which cooked vegetables, mushrooms or meat may feature, according to the choice of the chef. Then comes the hassun, a seasonal course which often includes sushi and several side dishes, a mukosuke (sashimi course), a takiawase (a simmered tofu dish with meat or vegetables), or a yakimono (grilled item, usually fish). Your table generally ends up being completely covered with small dishes, so it feels like a true banquet!

See : Kikunoi restaurant in Tokyo

The Kikunoi restaurant, Minato (Tokyo), celebrates the kyotoïte kaiseki.

Kikunoi restaurant in Tokyo celebrates the Kyoto-style kaiseki.

A complete experience

Of course, one cannot experience a meal like this in just any setting. And with the Japanese being so adept at harmony, they would never allow such such refined food to be served in an inappropriate environment. This is why kaiseki ryori is usually served to diners in private rooms. Most of the restaurants or inns that serve kaiseki ryori are also in extremely quiet and refined locations, sometimes overlooking a Japanese zen garden for example, allowing guests to enjoy their gourmet meal in the most Japanese of atmospheres. You might even say that a meal can't be considered kaiseki without this added element of tranquility.

Of course, such refinement has a price. Truly authentic kaiseki meals can cost up to 40,000 yen (about $350), but some restaurants drastically lower their prices for lunch, giving you the chance to try kaiseki ryori at a more affordable price. In some establishments that don't offer private rooms, you can also find much cheaper gourmet menus (around 15,000 yen, or $130).

To read : Staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan

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