You Must Know This When Visiting Japan! What is Kaiseki Ryori (会席料理)?
If you travel to Japan, you probably want to taste different kinds of washoku (Japanese-style dishes), correct? There seems to be many slightly upscale restaurants and ryokan (Japanese inns) that serve their Japanese courses in the form of “kaiseki ryori”. Here are some bits of trivia on it!
Kaiseki ryori refers to dishes that are enjoyed with Japanese sake during banquets. While there are no strict rules in the formation of its menu, many kaiseki ryori dishes are served in courses. These courses are characterized with shirumono (soup) and ko-no-mono (pickled vegetables) eaten with steamed rice at the end of the meal, after enjoying the main dishes together with sake. This developed after the Edo period (1603 – 1867), and is now positioned at the mainstream of Japanese cuisine.
There is this other thing called “kaiseki ryori (懐石料理)” (using different kanji) that is a homonym of the course-type kaiseki ryori (会席料理) described above. This type of kaiseki ryori was born from “sado” (tea ceremony), which is deeply related to Zen Buddhism. The course-type kaiseki ryori (会席料理) is enjoyed with sake, while the kaiseki ryori (懐石料理) for tea ceremonies refers to dishes that are served before drinking tea, which is the main event in tea ceremonies. The “wabi” (taste of simplicity and tranquility) and “sabi” (quiet simplicity) that are at the heart of tea ceremonies are expressed in these dishes, so one of the characteristics of this type of course is that the rice and soup are served first. Its name comes from the act of putting hot “seki” (stones) into the “kai” (pocket) to prevent hunger and cold during harsh training in Zen Buddhism.
There is no set rule for the kaiseki ryori menu, but let's go through an example of a typical menu.
1. Sakizuke (appetizer)
This is the appetizer that is served at the beginning of the meal. It refers to the appetizer or snack that is brought out together with sake.
2. Wan-mono (dish in a bowl)
This refers to the soup that is put in a wan (bowl). It allows you to enjoy the taste and aroma of the season. It plays the role of a palate refresher after drinking sake and eating the appetizer.
3. Mukozuke (seasonal sashimi)
This is a slice of sashimi, a pickled dish, or something similar.
4. Yakimono (broiled dish)
It is a dish of grilled seafood, mainly fish. This dish doesn’t consist of ingredients simply grilled in salt. Rather, it generally refers to seafood that has been seasoned with miso and other condiments. Sometimes, it is a dish of grilled matsutake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and other vegetables that will make you feel the season.
5. Nimono (boiled dish)
This is a dish that is made by cooking vegetables, seafood, and other ingredients together. It is often a dish that looks simple, but has a refined taste.
6. Shiizakana (hot pot dish)
This refers to deep-fried foods, pickled foods, chawan-mushi (savory egg custard), and such. Most of the shiizakana that is served has a kind of seasoning and flavor that will make you want to drink more sake.
7. Gohan, tomewan, and ko-no-mono (rice, miso-based soup, and pickled vegetables)
These are the rice, soup, and pickled vegetables that are served at the conclusion of the sake and meal.
8. Mizugashi and kanmi (fruits and sweets)
Lastly, seasonal fruits and wagashi (Japanese-style confectioneries) are served as dessert.
There are some points that you need to watch out for when dining on kaiseki ryori.
While the number of shops with chairs has increased in recent years, there are still many old-fashioned restaurants where you need to sit on tatami mats, so it would best to avoid tight clothing and skirts. Furthermore, refrain from using perfume in order to better enjoy the delicate flavors of the food. Beware of wearing accessories and long nails too, as they may damage the dishes.
In Japan, the right dining etiquette is to hold the chawan (rice bowl), soup bowl, and other palm-sized dishes while eating. When resting your chopsticks, make sure to place them on the chopstick rest. It is a big no-no to put it on top of the dish. Furthermore, note that it is bad manners to pour the soup from the tip of the chopsticks into your mouth, move around the tip of your chopsticks while wondering what to eat, and stick your chopsticks into the food.
Try to experience eating kaiseki ryori at least once! It is served in traditional Japanese restaurants, washoku shops, and ryokan all over the country.
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.