Turning Japanese

Shortlisted for the Kate Whiteman Award on Food and Travel, Guild of Food Writers, 2011

Opposite: Half way through an exquisite kaiseki meal at Kikunoi in Kyoto.  Note the exquisite ceramics.

Where do you find inspiration for your menus? It’s likely you’ll be thinking along the following lines: good produce, changing seasons, cook books and memories.   This is naturally leavened with eating out and colleagues coming into the kitchen with fresh ideas.   Of course, creativity is also defined by the need to make a profit and the limitations imposed by staffing, both in the kitchen and front of house.

There is, however, a new culinary influence that is slowly filtering through into our kitchens that may change our perception of how to approach food, and that is Japanese cooking, in particular, kaiseki ryori.

Although few Britons have heard of this form of Japanese haute cuisine, the Americans have already recognized its influence. They believe that Japanese cooking is reshaping American taste, and as a result, the highly influential Culinary Institute of America will be focusing America’s largest professional culinary conference on Japanese food with its Annual Worlds of Flavor Conference (www.ciaprochef.com/WOF2010), held in November.

So what is kaiseki ryori?   Technically, it is a multi-course set dinner that has its roots in the 16th century when it was created as a frugal meal to assuage the hunger pains of those attending the tea ceremony.   Its philosophy is still rooted in the Buddhist idea of simplicity. It has developed into an exquisite set meal with a succession of small dishes made of seasonal produce where every element is balanced to ensure that the taste, texture, appearance, smell and colour of the food captures a sense of the moment within a season.              

In kaiseki there is a defined set of aesthetics and principles that everyone adheres to. These rules help define the preparation, order of dishes and serving, including the type and look of a utensil used for service.   These principles have evolved over the centuries to maximize the sensory experience.

The restaurant environment in Japan is also very different. The majority of kaiseki restaurants offer private rooms for their guests to entertain and the décor is always very simple, whether it is a shared room or private.   Often the only decoration will be one art work, underneath which will sit a beautiful flower arrangement – both chosen to capture the mood of the season and the food. The diner is there to focus on the food and savour the moment, rather than to watch or be watched by others.  

Every dish that is brought to the table looks incredible.   Each piece of porcelain, lacquerware or glass has been chosen to enhance that particular dish and the season.   Traditionally, dark colours are used in winter and glass in summer. In May, for example, at the three Michelin-starred Kikunoi in Kyoto, a diner can open a purple lacquered bowl, with yellow butterflies on its lid to discover a delicate tasting, tea-steamed Wakasa tilefish and egg floating in a nest of pale green tea soba noodles in clear broth. The play between the bowl and the food instantly conveys a sense of early summer.

Kyle Connaughton, who headed up the Fat Duck test kitchen and now works on a freelance basis for Heston Blumenthal, while planning to set up his own restaurant in the USA, spent many years working in Japan.   There are three main things that Western chefs can get from understanding kaiseki” he says. “One, observing nature and the seasons, and being able to reflect that in their cooking; two, a reverence for their ingredients and for the nature that is around them.   It allows you to focus on what defines your area and means that you have little need for imported foods; and three, its simple elegance and refinement, negates the need for opulence.”

Sat Bains and Claude Bosi have both found that the philosophy behind kaiseki has changed their approach to cooking. In November 2008, they were invited as part of a small group of chefs to visit Kyoto by The Japan Culinary Academy and the Umami Information Centre.   For ten days they were given an extraordinary insider’s guide to Japanese haut cuisine. They are unanimous in the fact that it has changed how they looked at ingredients.

 “For me it was really a revelation to see the way the Japanese worked, the way they respected their produce, the quality of their ingredients and the simplicity of their approach,” Bosi explains. Bains concurs: “In my restaurant we are always trying to get the best local produce, but the Japanese take it to another level, so that the quality of even a turnip or a carrot is seen to be as important as everything else.   They made me realise that every element of every dish is equally important”.

Both felt that they would continue to draw on their experiences and intepret them in their own style because it fundamentally altered how they perceived food.   Bains, for example, has developed his ideas on how to maximize umami in his cooking. Umami is the savoury taste that is omnipresent in Japanese cooking through their widespread use of dashi, a stock made from kombu (dried kelp) and bonito flakes. It enhances both sweetness and saltiness in a dish.    He tries to use it in a British way, so he slowly sous vides belly of pork with kombu, then chills and slices it before brushing it with a hint of marmite butter (an extra umami hit) and pan roasting it.   This is served with a langoustine tartar.

Bosi meanwhile has taken the radical step of using mineral water in his cooking, when he realized how much water flavours food.   “In Japan, water is key to everything they cook and every kaiseki restaurant has its own source of fresh, soft water,” he says. He has also reduced the amount of dairy fat he uses.                   

One of the weird aspects of eating in Japan is the lack of creamy fat-based textures; the Japanese use jellified textures in their place. Kuzu (known as kudzu in the USA), for example, is a starch made from the root of a Japanese vine that is added to produce a sparkling, translucent sauces and glossy soups. “We now use kuzu in place of butter to add a little richness to a dish” says Bosi.

But, as Kyle Connaughton explains, there is much, much more to kaiseki cooking.  

“When I started working at the Fat Duck after Japan, I suddenly realised that the Japanese cook by subtraction and Western chefs cook by addition. The Japanese will try to pull an ingredient back to its purest taste, whereas traditionally, we will add more to create a taste. We blanch vegetables to capture their flavour, they blanch them to draw out bitterness or other impurities.”  

He cites Heston Blumenthal’s The Sound of the Sea as a good example of fusing these two attitudes together, with its pure ozone flavours of seaweed, sweet raw fish the more complex flavouring of the “sand” and the savoury sea foam with its hint of white port and Noilly Prat. 

Another difference between the two cultures is our attitude to work.   “In Japan, how you get there is as important as the end result.   A single movement is made with a purpose,” Connaughton adds. Thus, if you have to clean three boxes of baby artichokes as a garnish, you use the task to hone your knife skills at cleaning each artichoke with one knife movement to create a beautiful, natural-looking artichoke, rather than hating the task and resenting the kitchen in general. Every job is regarded as equally important.

The methods of Seiji Yamamoto, head chef at two Michelin-starred Ryugin in Tokyo, are typical of the extremes Japanese kaiseki chefs will go to perfect their art.   He examined a hamo (pike conger) - which is traditionally served in the summer months – in a CT scanner to further understand its complicated internal bone structure.

It is a slender fish with many tiny bones and therefore culinary rules dictate that its flesh needs to be cut more than 20 times, despite being only 3cm in diameter. The results are delicious as the fish dissolves in the mouth, succulent with the delicate notes of its hamo bone and kombu dashi.

Ichiro Kubota has just returned to Japan having set up the Michelin-starred Umu in London.   There he served Kyoto-style kaiseki - although he thought he was crazy to do so, as he believes kaiseki is something that can only be really expressed within its home country.   However, that is not to say Western chefs can’t apply some of the philosophy or techniques to their own style of cooking.  

Kubota’s explanation of the Japanese approach to seasonality encapsulates the difficulty of pinning down what kaiseki means.   “In spring we must capture the bitter taste of young buds and leaves.   In summer we must convey a sense of coolness, then in autumn we try to portray its scent. In winter we try to allude to warmth, even if it is by association.”   Each season is sub-divided into smaller sections: the year has 72 sections, broken into five day periods, so that the chef can ensure that he serves each ingredient at it is at its seasonal best.              

As Connaughton explains: “there are three components in a kaiseki meal: anticipation, peak or ‘shun’ - when something is at its best - and melancholy.   The anticipatory element is usually just a sliver of something soon to be at its peak or some allusion to it by the style of dish; the ‘shun’ element highlights whatever is at its best; and the melancholy element is very cultural: a food such as bamboo shoots hints at the diner’s mortality, as eating them when they’re in season also reminds the Japanese that time is slipping by.”

There is much that Western chefs can gain from deepening their understanding of kaiseki cuisine, without even creating Japanese dishes.   Their techniques and philosophy can be employed to explore our attitudes towards our own food and culinary culture. It allows us to look afresh at everything from how we prepare ingredients to the experience we give the diner.   Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in fashions, when there is so much more to learn from the past.

Useful information: from restaurants to books

Seiji Yamamoto, Ryugin in Roppongi, Tokyo, 2 Michelin Stars and just entered San Pelegrino, World’s 50 Best as number 48.   Opened in 2003. www.nihonryori-ryugin.com


Chef owner,Yoshihiro Murata, Kikunoi Honten, Kyoto, 3 michelin stars www.kinunoi.jp/honten.htm   

Sourcing Japanese foods: go to http://trade.eat-japan.com for the Eat-Japan Trade Directory for sourcing suppliers.   It is an annual publication, due out in September 2010.    See also the following websites: www.tazakifoods.com and www.jfc.eu


For information about sake, see: http://onlineship.eat-japan.com/prices-drop.php


If you want to travel to Japan, it is worth consulting JNTO – Japan National Tourism Organisation, see: www.seejapan.co.uk


Reading list

Japanese Cooking A Simple Art by Shizuo Tsuji (Kodansha International) is one of the best introductions to Japanese cooking, covering ingredients, theory and technique with excellent recipes.

Kaiseki The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant by Yoshihiro Murata (Kodansha International) allows you to glimpse into the kaiseki world but doesn’t explain all the theory.

The Fine Art of Japanese Food Arrangement by Yoshio Tsuchiya and Masura Yamamoto, (Kodansha International) explores another important dimension of Japanese cookery that is often overlooked by Western chefs.

Dashi and Umami, the Heart of Japanese Cuisine (Eat-Japan/Cross Media Ltd) this includes much of theory of umami with dashi recipes and some seasonal kaiseki recipes.

This article first appeared in the Caterer & Hotelkeeper on 13 August 2010.  It can also be viewed on:




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