You might have heard the word kaiseki-ryori before. It’s a simplified honzen-ryori course meal that is well known as a ritualized form of serving food: dishes are carefully arranged and served on legged trays. Originally, honzen-ryori developed among samurai society during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). Meanwhile, the beginning of kaiseki-ryori was a cuisine served at gatherings. Kaiseki refers to a gathering to read haiku (Japanese short poetry) or renga (Japanese collaborative poetry). In the present age, it’s synonymous with a fancy, traditional Japanese meal. Just so you know, there is a homonym of kaiseki-ryori utilizing different kanji (Chinese characters). This kaiseki-ryori is a meal served before a tea ceremony, so it is also called cha-kaiseki.
A kaiseki-ryori meal is composed of four basic courses: one soup, and three distinct dishes. It’s called ichiju-sansai, the basis for a healthy Japanese diet.
Soup is always served with rice, dish #1 is usually raw fish or something vinegar-based, dish #2 is either a simmered or soup dish, and #3 is a roasted or grilled dish. Every restaurant customizes the basic template to their original expression. Additionally, some course meals are served one by one, while others are all at once. Consequently, every time you experience kaiseki-ryori, you will be amazed with unexpected concepts and beautiful presentation from the host.
Partaking in kaiseki-ryori is not just fine dining, but a cultural experience. You will see the delicacy of Japanese culture tied to the specific season, and hopefully you will be impressed by the tremendous spirit of Japanese people as well. Washoku (traditional Japanese cuisine) has been designated as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO since 2013. Experiencing kaiseki-ryori is the perfect way to see that precious heritage.
The 8 basic menu categories you should know when you experience a Kaiseki course meal.
1. Sakizuke: 先付
2. Wanmono: 椀物
an soup dish, or simmered dish
3. Mukouzuke: 向付
raw fish, or ingredients soaked in vinegar
4. Hachizakana: 鉢肴
a roasted dish, or grilled fish
5. Shiizakana: 強肴
some ingredients cooked respectively and served in one dish
6. Tomezakana: 止め肴
a vinegared dish, or a Japanese salad dressed with sesame, soy sauce, or etc.
7. Shokuji: 食事
rice, miso soup, and Japanese pickles
8. Mizugashi: 水菓子
dessert (fruits or sweets)