Did you eat already some Japanese traditional food? But you might have heard the word kaiseki-ryori before and didn’t try yet. It’s a simplified honzen-ryori course meal that is well known as a ritualized form of serving food. The term also refers to the collection of skills and techniques that allow the preparation of such meals, and is analogous to Western haute cuisine.
The 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 is usually raw fish or something vinegar-based, dish is either a simmered or soup dish, and 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.
Kaiseki restaurants have a very formal atmosphere. You don’t need to wear your absolute best, but avoid dressing too casually to show your manners. Business attire is virtually always a safe bet. Remember that in most formal settings, you’ll find yourself removing your shoes before entering a room with a tatami mat floor.
People generally do not tip at Japanese restaurants, as waiters and staff are expected to do their best without this incentive. However, if you feel compelled to leave a tip for particularly excellent service, leave at least 3000 yen in an envelope. Doing so without the envelope is a cultural taboo.
As seen above, food will be served in small portions over multiple courses. Feel free to take your time eating, remember to drink in moderation, and don’t hesitate engage in light conversation with those around you (without being too loud, of course). A kaiseki dinner shouldn’t be rushed so that you can really take a chance to appreciate the very best Japanese cuisine has to offer! Are you hungry? Interesting? Please check it out!