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Kaiseki: the Zen and the art of food

Far from everyday Japanese cooking, lies a purer and superior way of creating and serving food, which has its roots in Zen Buddhism: the Kaiseki cuisine.

by Ayaki Ito

These days you can find a sushi bar or a (more or less authentic) Japanese restaurant in every neighborhood of every large city in the world. So we think we have a pretty good idea of what Japanese cuisine is all about. And yet it is probably still one of the least explored aspects of the Land of the rising Sun.
We tend to think of Japanese food essentially in the limited terms of sushi, due to its international success, which became a trend in the 1980s thanks to diet-crazed supermodels. We are less likely to think of sushi and sashimi in terms of their actual cultural status, which is a far cry from the fast food it has become. Now any seafood restaurant worth its salt will have fish “carpaccio” on the menu, but if it weren’t for sushi the idea of eating raw fish would never have been accepted in the West. Just a few decades ago the whole idea of eating uncooked fish was not only unthinkable but completely revolting. Sushi introduced the Western palate to the taste of raw fish.

Here are a few historical notes about kaiseki.
There are two types of kaiseki meals and although they have the same name, they are written using different characters:

懐石 (懐 dress 石 stone)
会席 (会 meeting 席 place)

The form of kaiseki written 懐石 is the older of the two and refers to the dish that developed as part of the tea ceremony founded by Sen no Rikyū (1522–1591) and which was inspired by two previous types of meals: Honzen-ryori, used by the Imperial court kitchen and noble warrior classes, and Shojin-ryori, the strictly vegetarian food of the Zen Buddhist monasteries.
The image of a stone in a dress is taken from the monks, who were said to keep a warmed stone on their stomachs to keep hunger at bay while fasting.
Honzen-ryori also derives from the food offerings made to the gods, which probably explains its complexity and extremely formal style.
The meal is arranged on a set of trays, originally seven and now more commonly five or three, on which there are lacquered wooden or porcelain bowls in certain positions, containing foods that follow a precise order.
Kaiseki 会席 (meeting place), which is more commonly found these days, takes inspiration from the tea ceremony on the one hand, and Honzen-ryori on the other, but it actually has commercial origins. It began either in luxury eateries or in the tearooms of geishas. The meal is therefore no longer part of a ritual but is designed to be appreciated in its own right, or to accompany the drinking of sake.

Yet this is not the only contribution of Japanese food to the “great cuisines”. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss some aspects of Japanese gastronomic culture starting with the little known kaiseki cuisine, which is perhaps its most developed expression.
The few people who know about it and have tried it often mistakenly describe it as “Japanese nouvelle cuisine”— mistakenly because, to be precise, it is not new at all but is entwined in history.

This form of kaiseki, while maintaining some of the basic principles of the cuisines that inspired it, is more creative and playful and less symbolic and formal. The components of the meal are also taken from the previous versions and usually include:

Sakizuke: a small appetizer, similar to the French amuse-bouche;
Hassun: an appetizer made up of small tasters divided into an equal number of small bowls;

Futamono: a light, usually clear broth;
Mukozuke: a sashimi dish with seasonal fish;
Yakimono: a grilled dish;
Nimono/Takiawase: a simmered dish;
Agemono: a fried dish;
Mushimono: a steamed dish;

Sunomono: a dish with rice vinegar;

Shokuji: rice with miso soup and vegetables in brine; and to finish

Mizumono: a taster of fruit and/or a traditional Japanese dessert.

In the composition of this menu, the season - or more precisely the particular moment of the season - must always be expressed as fully as possible. Ingredients are always chosen from the best available, and the flavors should convey the idea of the season.
The presence of all five colors is taken into consideration: blue-green, yellow, red, white and black-purple, always in their seasonal variation. Summer whites are for example different from winter whites.
During the meal, all five flavors are expressed: salty, sour, bitter, spicy and sweet, as well as the various possible kinds of preparation: raw, grilled, boiled, stewed, steamed, sautéed, in brine, and dried.
Precisely for this reason kaiseki meals have always been made up of small portions, which is the only way to fully enjoy all these taste experiences while maintaining a sensation of lightness at the end of the meal. There are seven types of food arrangement in the kaiseki style, all of which have influenced modern cuisine:

sugimori – vertical

hiramori – horizontal
yamamori – mountain
tawaramori – pyramid-shaped
yosemori – bend together
chirashimori – scattered
ayamori - woven

The founders of the famous Gault et Millau guide, who coined the phrase “nouvelle cuisine,” set out some rules to define that revolutionary, new style of food preparation. It is interesting to note decades later, how many of these points were already historically present in kaiseki, such as short or delicate cooking at low temperatures in order to preserve the flavor of the ingredients. The lack of heavy, strong sauces and attention to and preference for local products. There are so many correlations that one of the founding chefs of nouvelle cuisine, Alain Senderens, came to say: “Nouvelle cuisine is now Japanese cuisine.”
Another aspect of kaiseki, which is less predominant in Western food, is the care taken over the huge variety of containers used for the food, which like the food itself follows a seasonal pattern. The bowls or plates used in summer are different from those used in winter. While in spring a design with cherry blossom petals will feature on some dishes, and others have colza flowers, in autumn the food might be served
in a red maple leaf shaped tray with patterns suggesting a traditional festival of the period.
It is not unusual for these dishes to be genuine museum pieces or masterpieces of craftsmanship collected from generation to generation by restaurant owners, from ceramics made by hand by master ceramicists from different schools, to the precious lacquers.
Luxurious but always simple, where the original Zen aesthetic defined by Sen no Rikyū of the 侘び寂び (wabi-sabi) can still be detected: the imperfect, the incomplete, the impermanent.