Japanese Kaiseki Feast

When we stayed in Japan in late 2010, we were extremely lucky to experience a real Kaiseki meal on Miyajima Island, close to Hiroshima.

Take a look at that experience here:


October 2011: Thanks to our friends Hiro and Mina, we were again able to sample this amazing Japanese tradition, this time in Kyoto, which is considered to be one of the originators of the tradition, and certainly is still a leader today. This time, they hosted us to a Kaiseki lunch feast (on Miyajima we had dinner). They took us out for the day in Kyoto and were determined that we try this style of food preparation.

What is this special food? This special meal is Kyoto Kaiseki, or Kyo-ryori, the local Kyoto variation on Kaiseki cuisine. Kaiseki is now an expensive experience, as great attention is paid to service and details, and the emphasis is on fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. Kaiseki was originally simple food prepared for the tea ceremony for the monks after fasting, but evolved into an elegant full-course meal popular with the nobility. It's a series of dishes that are appropriate to the season, as well as being delicious, good to look at, and nutritious. The meal is usually presented in small dishes or bowls, selected to match the shape and size of the food on it. Ingredients are chosen for texture, scent, flavor and seasonal freshness. The cook aims for a balance of 5 flavors with the other ingredients: shoyu, sugar, vinegar, salt and spices (ginger root, sesame seeds, wasabi). Ideally Kaiseki is taken in a tatami-mat room with a traditional hanging scroll and simple flower arrangements, within earshot of running water.

Our venue that day succeeded admirably.

The restaurant name is Issin-kyo, in the Yuzuya-ryokan (Inn), right next door to the Yasaka Shrine. Hiro knows about this place and made a reservation—luckily, as visitors would never even know it was there nor be able to find it. We went through a small entrance gate, up rough stone steps that circle, past actual rock walls as it's cut into the hillside. A riot of green plants and ferns lines the step-path. In the entrance hall, we saw traditional old ovens on the right, where rice was cooking. At a platform seat, where we waited, are baskets with three crops that are important in traditional Japanese food—soybeans, azuki beans, and rice. **pic

To the left is the restaurant, dim and quiet, almost cave-like with partial rock walls, a small stream and lots of greenery to one side, opening up to the outdoors. It feels rural, peaceful and quiet, here in the middle of this huge city, an atmosphere that a true Kaiseki place wants to achieve.

Our server was gracious, deft, and explained all the courses. She was wearing a traditional dark-patterned kimono, but pinned up around her waist and with special long baggy pants underneath, for easier movement.

What a feast it was! So unique and memorable that we tried to savor each second and commit every part of it to our memory.

We opted to drink Japanese brown tea with our lunch-time meal, rather than sake—it's a mix of roasted rice and green tea and is lovely.

Our lunch consisted of 4 main courses: an astonishing tray of special small entrees; a sweet-fish dish; a large fish hot pot; and a small final dessert dish.

To try and capture the truly wonderful variety of foods, flavors, and colors of our meal I will attempt to make a full summary here. It was like a culinary exploration of Kyoto, a sampling of all the best it has to offer, and an indulgence of so many more tastes and flavor sensations than we'd ever had before. To try and find all the correct English terms for many of the special items, Hiro resorted frequently to his electronic dictionary, and even then we discovered that many of the items may not exist/be available in English-speaking places.

First, the Entrée Tray (one tray per 2 persons, with 2 servings of each item) had 15 delicacies in 3 rows, each so artistically presented it almost (but only 'almost'!) seemed a shame to eat it:

—first row, chestnut; wheat gluten; eggplant; carrots with miso paste; Kyoto green leeks with mustard vinegar.

—second row, white radish and yuba; snapper with seaweed; kinko beans and mucago in a seaweed basket; konyaku (potato starch) and stems of cane; burdock in sesame.

—third row, shiitake with fish paste; herring; Kyoto potato (called ebi, which means shrimp, because of its shape); mackerel sushi; egg omelette.

Second, Sweet River Fish, called ayu. This local delicacy is only in season in early autumn. Each person gets a small whole fish that is served with the fish roe cooked inside. It has a texture like a rough stuffing, white in color. Unusual, but sweetly tasty.

Third, a type of Kaiseki Hotpot with snapper. A large ceramic pot arrived at the table, and when the waitress removed the lid the contents were still bubbling. Inside, was a kind of rice porridge with chopped green onion and baby leeks and pieces of snapper. Four whole poached eggs sat on top of it all, but when she served our food, she broke our egg onto our serving. Pieces of warm yuzu (Japanese word for a Chinese lemon—a citrus fruit we've never encountered before) gave a very unique flavor.

Finally, the dessert. This was warabi mochi, which means bracken fern starch cake. This is a new type of starch to us, but is very popular here. The cooked starch is made into rough balls that are stuffed with red bean paste and rolled in black sugar powder. They have a very unusual texture, very soft and rubbery, hard to pick up, but are tasty once you do get them into your mouth!

If you're not lucky enough to be treated to one of these exquisite meals, try to find a kyo-bento—a special version of a bento box (best found in train stations and basements of big department stores).

We felt very honored and privileged to have been to this wonderful place.