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.
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.
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.
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
is kaiseki ryori?
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
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.
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
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
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.”
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
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
They made me realise that
every element of every dish is equally important”.
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
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.
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
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
“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
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
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.
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
“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 -
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
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
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
See also the
following websites: www.tazakifoods.com
If you want to travel to Japan, it is worth consulting JNTO
– Japan National Tourism Organisation, see: www.seejapan.co.uk
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
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: