A distinct strand of Japanese cuisine, kaiseki is introduced below.
Originally, the term "kaiseki" meant a meal served at a chakai (tea party) by the host to entertain guests, and the name is derived from an old custom of Zen temples (temples belonging to the Zen sect); for details, please refer to the history section. It is also called kaiseki ryori. If kaiseki is made as a boxed lunch it is called tenshin.
Kaiseki ryori is a form of meal which follows the manner of sado (Japanese tea ceremony). In a chakaiki (record of chanoyu gatherings) written in the time of Rikyu, a meal served at a tea party was described just as 'kai' (a party), which illustrates that kaiseki ryori (懐石料理) has the same origin as kaiseki ryori(会席料理). As sado was theorized in the Edo period, the characters '懐石' (kaiseki) which were related to onjaku (a warm stone kept in the pocket of Zen monks to keep hunger away) in the Zen sect started to be used. Kaiseki means a warmer such as heated serpentinite and pumice or warmed konjac which were kept in the pocket during cold periods.
There are several theories on how 'kaiseki' related to cuisine. There is a theory that a Zen monk gave an onjaku which was kept in his pocket to beat the cold and hunger to a visitor to give relief from hunger. There is another theory that the last character '玉' of the word 被褐懐玉 (lit. Clothes do not make the man. Fine clothes make not a gentleman.) described in "Te Ching" (the last volume of Lao-tzu's "Tao Te Ching ") was replaced with '石'.
During the Tensho era, wabicha (wabi style of tea ceremony) was formed among the townspeople who lived in Sakai and a meal with one soup and three (or two) side dishes became established as the form of the meal. This form of meal was emphasized in a tea book called "Nanporoku," and the formula that 'kaiseki' equals 'one soup and three side dishes' was officially established. Also, in the Edo period, it became established that the three dishes should consist of sashimi, or mukozuke (a dish placed on the far side of the rice and soup), nimonowan (a bowl of boiled food) and yakimono (grilled or broiled fish or meat). With the development of cooking techniques, 'hospitality' came to mean 'devoting a great deal of time and effort', and 'kaiseki' ryori came to value highly those forms currently seen at sado or fancy Japanese-style restaurants.
There is no reference to the word 'kaiseki' before "Nanporoku" and it is considered that "Nanporoku" was the first book describing 'kaiseki.'
Kaiseki ryori and 'Chakaiseki' (dishes coming before the tea ceremony)
Today, the original meaning of kaiseki, which is entertaining guests, has faded away and it means such practical things as a light meal or similar Japanese multi-course meal served at tea parties which is served to avoid drinking strong tea on an empty stomach and has no connection to the appreciation of tea.
Nowadays, kaiseki ryori is often served at places other than tea parties such as fancy Japanese-style restaurants and kappo-ryotei (fancy restaurants serving mostly Japanese cuisine) which are specialized in Japanese cuisine, and various other restaurants.
Sometimes kaiseki served at chaji (the tea ceremony) is specifically distinguished by calling it 'chakaiseki.'
One of the reasons for this is that the order of bringing or serving dishes in restaurants is slightly different from that of 'chakaiseki.'
For example, the rice and miso soup served first in chakaiseki are omitted and hassun (Japanese appetizer sampler) are served first in kaiseki at many restaurants. Generally kaiseki ryori served at restaurants is served in a more casual style, for example, dishes are put on individual plates and there are no special manners for serving out to people. Some restaurants serve only meals and usucha (thin tea) is not served after the end of the meal.
In addition, kaiseki ryori was originally served in small portions and generally multi-course meals with small portions tended to be called kaiseki, with the result that there are western kaiseki and European kaiseki.
Order of service for kaiseki
The following explanation is based on the assumption that the kaiseki is being served at a chaji held at noon. There are some differences between schools.
Rice, soup and mukozuke
The host carries a lacquered wooden tray bearing a rice bowl, soup bowl and mukozuke. The rice bowl, soup bowl and mukozuke are placed on the left side, the right side and the back section of the tray respectively, and Rikyu chopsticks (chopsticks made of Japanese cedar and which are tapered at both ends) are put at the front. No chopstick rest is used and the chopsticks are put on the edge of the lacquered wooden tray. Normally, lacquerware having a lid is used for the rice bowl and soup bowl, and a ceramic plate is used for mukozuke. A small amount of soft freshly-cooked rice is put in the rice bowl and a modest amount of miso soup is poured into the soup bowl so that it doesn't quite cover the vegetables. Mukozuke is the first dish of the meal with one soup and three side dishes which may contain namasu (a dish of raw fish and vegetables seasoned in vinegar) or a selection of fish. Leaving a mouthful of rice, eating all of the soup then starting to eat the mukozuke after sake is served are considered to be the appropriate manner. When the host sees that the guest has eaten all of the soup he carries a sake decanter and a sake cup table (with the same number of sake cups as the guests) and pours sake for the guests. The guests then begin eating the first mukozuke dish. Sake is served around three times during kaiseki.
After the first serving of sake, a boiled food bowl which is the second dish of the meal with one soup and three side dishes is served. For the boiled food bowl, a bowl with a lid which is slightly larger than the rice bowl and soup bowl is used. Boiled dishes are central to kaiseki and within them fish cakes are colorfully arranged. The boiled dishes are followed by the serving of the rice container and the guests help themselves and put an extra serving of rice in each rice bowl. Also, the host offers another cup of soup and refills the bowl with miso soup if required.
Yakimono is the third dish of the meal and also contains one soup and three side dishes. Whereas boiled food bowls are served for each guest, yakimono (such as grilled fish) is put on a large bowl and shared. To serve the meal serving chopsticks made of green bamboo or white bamboo are used. Each guest dishes out the food with the serving chopsticks and puts it on the mukozuke or the lid of the boiled food bowl. Sometimes yakimono is put in a jubako (tiered food box), and in that case yakimono is put on the lower layer and pickled vegetables are put on the upper layer. Then, the second rice container is served and a second refill of soup is recommended, but usually guests decline the second refill of soup. After the boiled dishes and yakimono are served a second cup of sake is recommended.
Azukebachi (extra side dishes)
In modern chaji, an extra dish called 'azukebachi' or 'susumebachi' such as takiawase (food cooked separately but served together in one dish) is usually served in addition to the meal with one soup and three side dishes. As with yakimono, this is dished out from a large bowl with the serving chopsticks.
A modest amount of Japanese-style soup is served as the last dish and it is called the 'hashiarai' (washing of chopsticks) or the 'susugijiru' (washing of the soup). After this, the drinking party starts.
Two or three kinds of delicacies are arranged on a hassun, an approximately 25cm square tray made of unprocessed Japanese cedar (which is called hassun) as an appetizer. If there are two items, it is customary to include a contrast, such as if one of them is seafood, the other would be a food from the mountains. The host pours sake into the guest of honor's cup and dishes out an appetizer from the hassun onto the lid of the guest's soup bowl. As the sake and appetizers go around, the host returns to the guest of honor and says 'Onagare wo' (Could I have a cup of sake?) to request the guest's sake cup for him. After that the host and the guest share one sake cup. Since the cup of sake goes around from the guest of honor to the host, from the host to the next guest and from the next guest to the host, this is called 'Chidori no sakazuki' (a sake cup going around in a meandering fashion).
If the guest is a strong drinker, sometimes another delicacy called shiizakana is served with the meal of one soup and three dishes (ichiju sansai) but also on any special occasion as an extra dish or accompaniment to sake, and in some cases shiizakana is served before or after the 'azukebachi.'
Hot water and pickled vegetables
After the sake cups are put away, the yuto (lacquered pot used for pouring hot water or sake) and a dish of pickled vegetables are served. The yuto contains hot water and 'yunoko' (browned rice in hot water). Originally yunoko was always 'browned rice,' but sometimes cubic rice crackers are used as a substitute. After the taking of the yunoko and putting it into the rice bowl and soup bowl with the attached yunoko ladle, hot water is poured into both bowls and this makes rice with hot water using the small amount of rice left in the rice bowl. A piece of pickled vegetable should be kept to one side in order to clean up the bowl. Finally, after the guests drink all the contents they clean up the bowl with kaishi and return it to the host. Kaiseki is influenced strongly by the manners found in Zen temples.
Sweets are served after the meal. Sweets are put in a jubako called fuchidaka (a tray with high edges) and a wooden toothpick called kuromoji is attached. There is one layer of fuchidaka for each guest, and each layer contains a sweet. The guest of honor leaves the bottom layer of the fuchidaka and passes it to the next guest (the next guest follows in the same way). Sweets are dished out on a kaishi (Japanese tissue) and eaten with a kuromoji.
Lacquerware was mainly used until the time of Rikyu, but various plates started to be used as domestic ceramics such as Oribe ware were developed.
Today, the dishes used for kaiseki ryori include pottery, porcelain, lacquer ware, plain wood and glass. Usually, lacquerware is used for the rice bowl and soup bowl. During a tea party, after the dishes go around from the guest of honor to the last guest and hassun is served, the host joins the guests and a drinking party starts, and after eating the sweets there is a break time when the guests leave to go to the reception room, and then return to where they were at the signal of a gong. However, tenshin is often served in a separate room during a so-called oyose chakai (a large tea party), and in this case the break time is omitted.
A jubako is used as a container to serve all the kaiseki dishes. Shokado-bento is served in the same way.
Famous restaurants serving kaiseki ryori include 'Hyotei' located near Nanzen-ji Temple in Kyoto, 'Kakiden' and 'Tsujitome' which are also located in Kyoto (these two restaurants are caterers), 'Kitcho' in Koraibashi in Osaka, and 'Shofukuro' in Higashiomi City, Shiga Prefecture.
All the above restaurants have a chashitsu (tea-ceremony room), and chaji can be conducted in some.