Understanding Kaiseki

Move your mouse to either end of the slide show to view photos of the food that makes up a traditional kaiseki meal. All photos by Vaughn Tan.

I spent August of 2004 doing fieldwork in Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo. One humid Osaka evening, a group of faculty from the Tsuji Culinary Academy brought me to dinner at Hon-kogetsu, a new-style kaiseki restaurant run by a graduate of the school. For this experience, previous encounters with what passes for Japanese food in the United States and Singapore (where I'm from) prepared me only a little.

Definitions of "kaiseki" often emphasize the multicourse, highly-seasonal nature of a kaiseki meal, and compare it to tasting menus and "Western-style haute cuisine"; it is the kind of meal you would go to When Only The Best Will Do. This is true. A kaiseki restaurant is a bit like a Michelin-starred restaurant: both will likely feature labor-intensive preparations, use choice ingredients, and be expensive. But there's more to kaiseki, at least the Platonic ideal of it that was described to me.

Kaiseki can be written in Japanese using two sets of ideograms: the first, 懐石, stands (approximately) for "stone in the robe;" the second, 会席, stands (again approximately) for "formal occasion." There is broad agreement that the second evolved out of the first. The stone in the robe form of kaiseki is much rarer today. This branch derives from the tea ceremony and from the vegetarian cooking traditions of Zen monasteries (you may sometimes see it referred to as shojin ryōri), and emphasises economy and wise use of materials instead of lavish ingredients and showing-off. The story (too convenient and thus singularly unconvincing) is that the food was so austere that monks in temples would warm stones and keep them in their robes next to their stomachs to ward off hunger pangs--hence the name.

Meals in almost all culinary traditions are conversations chefs have with history and their customers, but the structure of kaiseki offers, under the right conditions, an unusually full vocabulary.

Formal-occasion kaiseki split off and took the structure of the meal on a detour through the royal court: since it was intended for royalty and the nobility, the style became associated with rare and costly ingredients and preparation, as well as numerous courses. Most kaiseki restaurants today are of this variety.

The most often overlooked aspect of formal-occasion kaiseki is that it consists of a strong and highly differentiated underlying formal structure within which chefs improvise. This structure originates from the stone in the robe branch of kaiseki and, in its most basic form, consists of a soup dish and a prepared main dish (or more; rice always being a given)--this is known as ichiju (one soup) issai/ni-sai/san-sai (one/two/three dishes).

Around and between these twin anchors, formal-occasion kaiseki chefs can add a myriad of dishes based on the time of year and the context of the meal; in creating a kaiseki menu, chefs are invariably guided by and responsive to convention. Today, a formal-occasion kaiseki meal might be structured in the following way (the chart below maps an actual menu from Hon-kogetsu onto the list of possible courses--many of the dishes can also be seen in the accompanying slideshow):




Shiizakana/sakizuki: appetizers

Kuruma prawn, jellyfish, shiro-zuiki, and mini-okra with ume sauce
Sea urchin sushi, sauce with nori seaweed

These starters are often added or subtracted depending on the drinks that are ordered. Shiizakana and sakizuki often accompany sake.

Zensai: more substantial appetizers than shiizakana or sakizuki, also mainly vegetarian

Deep-fried young ginkgo nuts in physalis
Salt-matured ayu innards with naga-imo
Dried ovary of sea cucumber
Pureed lily bulb ball with caviar
Corn tempura
Baby cucumber with moromi-miso


Suimono: the soup course

Pureed wax gourd soup with abalone


Tsukuri/mukuzuki: sashimi

Arai-style chilled ako (red rockfish) sashimi with Japanese squash

These seasonal dishes are usually meticulously prepared in order to highlight the seasonality of the ingredients.

Hassun: a platter (the name originally derives from the platter's edge-length, 8 inches or hassun) of complementary foods from either the seas and the mountains or the fields and the streams. A hassun for the early spring might be tai (sea bream) and a mountain herb like fukinoto (butterbur buds); one for the midsummer might be freshwater eel (unagi) and new potatoes (imo).



Yakimono: grilled course

Salt-broiled ayu with tade vinegar sauce

These courses will feature seasonal produce, but their emphasis is on showcasing the five traditional cooking techniques

Aemono: dressed course (usually a cold dish where the dressing is the focus of the dish)


Nimono: simmered course

[In place of nimono]
Hamo one-pot with yuba and daikon radish sprout

Mushimono: steamed course


Sunomono: vinegared course



Shokuji: course eaten with rice.

Tempura of braised shark fin
Boiled rice

The rice course is specially set apart because, really, no meal is complete without rice (even if it is only a token amount of rice). This is true in Japan as it is in China and many other parts of East Asia.


Dessert: Often fresh fruit in season, or a dessert made with fresh fruit.

Fresh white peach and peach sherbet

Tea: matcha (Japanese whisked green tea) and wagashi (a type of Japanese sweet originally made for the tea ceremony).

Warabi mochi with sweet white bean paste

* What is a physalis? Who's shiro-zuiki? See postscript

Having described the format of kaiseki, the head professor at the table mentioned that chefs are at liberty to take out or manipulate almost any course except the soup (suimono) and rice (shokuji) courses, and even those can be transformed in interesting ways. They will frequently replace courses with analogues or references--for instance, Hon-kogetsu that August night served, in place of nimono (the traditional simmered course), a braised dish of hamo (a type of eel) with daikon sprouts and a delicate soybean skin (also called yuba). Pre-soup starters are also often interchanged or omitted. In the winter, nimono is a staple but mushimono and yakimono might go away; in the summer, nimono probably goes away and yakimono sticks around. Everyone loves the grill in summer, even in Japan.

By meal's end, I was satisfied in the broadest sense of the word: fantastically delicious food made with care and thought eaten in the company of people who feel strongly about food often does that to me. But beyond that, kaiseki's underlying structure is part of what makes it so rich and satisfying to compose, prepare, and consume.

Meals in almost all culinary traditions are conversations chefs have with history and their customers, but the structure of kaiseki offers, under the right conditions, an unusually full vocabulary. Trouble is, most diners at kaiseki restaurants--even Japanese diners--sit down to eat without knowing the language.

The non-Japanese-speaking traveler lucky enough to wind up in a really good kaiseki restaurant thus faces a twofold problem: not only does he lack the words to understand what the food is, he lacks the words to understand what the food means. This was my predicament when I arrived at Hon-kogetsu. I left mostly still dazed and confused, but learning even the little bit of the language of kaiseki I've described here made eating there a rich experience. Worth a thought, next time you're out to dinner.


Hon-kogetsu was an overload situation for me not just in terms of Japanese culinary history but also on a whole other level. The range of ingredients and textures (the majority hitherto unknown to me)--all, I was told, seasonally- and/or culturally-appropriate--that had been presented in the course of a five-hour dinner blew me away. Scanning the menu above gives you, I think, some sense of how I felt: What is ayu? Is tade animal, vegetable, or mineral? Who (or where, or perhaps what) is Arai? Why is tokoroten an appropriate sunomono? And so forth. As I later discovered, even the usually strong emphasis on kaiseki's attention to seasonality understates the microfine granularity with which really great kaiseki chefs (and really well-informed kaiseki diners) understand seasonality and appropriateness in the context of composing and preparing a kaiseki meal.