Cuisine to Cope: A Guide to Japanese Kaiseki

As the coronavirus pandemic rapidly swept the world and changed the course of modern history in ways the mind of the early 2020s cannot possibly conceive, the enormity of the event became something like the sun. Too massive to ignore but impossible to directly keep one’s eyes on for too long.

A pandemic is ultimately a cruel force of nature and it is these acts that remind us of the enormity of the nature surrounding us, with Mother Earth throwing a glass of water in our faces to sober us up from the absurd delirium of modern life.

It is this force of nature that lies at the heart of much of Japanese culture and, indeed, many cultures that find themselves all too often at the mercy of the whims of the planet. The heavy winds and rains of the typhoon season, stifling summer humidity, alpine snows, and the celebrated blossoms of a Japanese spring in bloom make it hard to ignore the elements at the best of times, not to mention the constant risk of volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and earthquakes.

Many elements of Japanese culture have, unsurprisingly, developed to reflect on the transient nature of life itself, reflected in the seasons and dangers of the land that underline the sheer necessity of living in the here and now. This appreciation is evident in many aspects of Japanese art and culture, from Hokusai’s famous scenes of Mt. Fuji to Bashō’s poetry. It was instrumental in the rise of Zen Buddhist culture, and with kaiseki culture, you can also taste the reflection of life itself.

Associated with the ancient Japanese capital of Kyoto, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the Tokyo metropolis to the east, kaiseki has its origins in the Japanese tea ceremony, with simple meals being served to guests before reflecting on the complexity of ceremonial simplicity.

This tradition changed over the centuries, with skilled chefs cooking specialist and often luxurious meals for the country’s nobility. It features multiple small courses, served with a prescribed selection of dishes, yet allowing for considerable variety for chefs to highlight different themes, from the terroir of the ingredients to the passing of the seasons.

In essence, it resembles a tasting menu with a traditional selection of certain types of dishes to be served, and the haute cuisine tasting menus of the world owe a great deal to kaiseki as inspiration. It allows for an artistic insight into food, encouraging the diner to consider their meal as if they were looking at a work of art and the dishes are often beautifully assembled as such.

Kaiseki typically includes sakizuke (an amuse-bouche served with sake or local alcohol), hassun (a seasonal selection of appetizers), soup, sashimi, a boiled dish, a grilled dish, a steamed dish, a deep-fried dish, a vinegared dish, a set of white rice, miso, and pickles, and finally a dessert. The order in which this is served and the ingredients used vary and are the selection of the chef. There are as many types of kaiseki as there are chefs, from the staunchly traditional to the radically experimental.

Like haute cuisine, kaiseki is more than just a meal; it is an artistic expression and experience. While the ingredients and how they are cooked are immensely important, the Japanese culture of hospitality is vital, as is the concept of setting, with comparisons evident in other Zen traditions like the tea ceremony.

Kaiseki is a shared experience between the diner and the chef and one that provides incomparable insight into traditional Japanese culture. Kaiseki comprises many facets of Japanese culture, including omotenashi (a concept of hospitality that, for you classicists out there, is perhaps comparable to the ancient Greek xenia that the Olympians hated Sisyphus so much for dishonoring), Zen transient observation, and the celebration of the seasons and the now, all mixed together and served in the form of a series of small dishes.

However, you don’t have to be in Japan to make kaiseki and a great part of Japanese culture is its embracing of other traditions and fusing them together, with many kaiseki restaurants outside of Japan highlighting the transient seasons and life and greeting guests with omotenashi, and like any good Italian restaurant outside of Italy, adapting the food to the local and seasonal produce.

Kaiseki also makes for a great idea for a dinner party to celebrate the here and now with food, greet our guests as dear friends, and enjoy a good meal. Just follow the basic outlined types of dishes, focus on local and in-season produce, and perhaps think of a theme you may want to express to your guests.

Writer: Luke Owain Boult
Photography: Courtesy of Adobe Stock

Luke Owain Boult is a Welsh writer, editor, and translator. He studied for a BA in Japanese and Spanish at Cardiff University in Wales and has also studied at Valencia University, Spain, and Chuo University in Tokyo, Japan. After graduating, Luke became the award-winning editor of Buzz Magazine, Wales’ largest arts and culture magazine in 2015. Luke has a passion for the arts, language, writing, food, and travel and left Buzz to become a freelance writer, editor and translator in 2017, following a digital nomad lifestyle with his fiancée. Luke has written two novels and is currently working on his third. Email me: