Just over 15 years ago, back when Japanese restaurants mainly served sushi, an authentic Japanese fine-dining tradition was introduced here in Toronto. They call this tradition Kaiseki.
But while it’s relatively new here, Kaiseki (懐石) dates back to over 500 years ago. Back then, the great tea master Sen no Rikyu introduced the cuisine that had originated in the imperial courts to be served alongside the Japanese tea ceremony. The cuisine’s name, meaning “stone in bosom,” was derived from the practice of Zen monks who placed a warm stone in their robes to ward off hunger during long meditation sessions. This term can also be used to describe the feeling of “Hara-hachibun-me” (腹八分目), which means “stomach at 80 per cent full”—this is a healthy amount of fullness to enjoy after a meal, but achieving it is much easier said than done.
A Kaiseki meal is made up of courses served in a particular order. These involve the season’s freshest ingredients, from the ocean and the mountains, to be prepared in a well-balanced and harmonious way that also celebrates the season. The end result is a meal that portrays culture through food and that can be appreciated using all five senses.
It wasn’t until I had gone to train in Kyoto myself, trying to understand the “Japanese Way,” that I finally began to understand what really goes into Kaiseki and the hospitality that is required for the occasion. And yes, Kaiseki really is an “occasion”—because, with all that goes into preparing such a fine meal, there comes a price as well. Ranging anywhere from $100 to over $900, this is definitely a meal that takes some preparation; you’ll want to understand the history and culture behind Kaiseki so you can fully appreciate the experience.
The tea ceremony plays a huge role in becoming a specialized Kaiseki chef—but even the average diner can benefit from learning the ritual. Tea ceremonies involve all of the essential knowledge and skills of Japanese culture: starting from (obviously) the tea itself, then moving on to flower arrangement, calligraphy, using the tatami space and even handling antique dishes. Since Kaiseki meals will often use dishes from past generations, knowing how to handle these delicate antiques is essential. And while you won’t be eating the flower arrangement, this skill plays an important role in Kaiseki presentation: it pays homage to the season and provides the base for the presentation of all the dishes in the feast.
A Kaiseki meal portrays culture through food and is appreciated using all five senses.
While Kaiseki is often enjoyed for special occasions or important business meetings, don’t be shy: try using it as a way to impress your date. No matter what you decide, if you haven’t experienced Kaiseki yet, you’ll want to save up for it. The experience is definitely worth every penny.