Kyoto in particular is known for this type of meal, which consists of several tiny and artful dishes offered as a set. The origin of kaiseki (meaning “hot stone in a kimono fold”) lies with Zen Buddhist monks, who carried hot stones inside the folds of their robes, close to their stomach, to ward off hunger (sounds horrible!). Originally, kaiseki was a simple meal served during tea ceremonies, but over the years, the dishes have grown more elaborate. Nowadays, kaiseki dinners are typically served in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn; indeed, this is where I first tried this type of multi-course meal, and immediately fell in love with it.
You can occasionally find a kaiseki-style meal outside a ryokan, and this photo was taken at one such restaurant. We stumbled upon this place while walking back through the shop-lined streets from Kiyomizu-dera temple. This meal set cost 3000 yen, and came with an individual soba-noodle hotpot, several tofu dishes prepared in different ways, sashimi, assorted pickles, a small plate of grilled salmon, and a few other dishes I cannot name.
Why do I love these little dishes so much? For one thing, it’s always been a dream of mine to try uncommon Japanese food served in small dishes, ever since I was a teenager watching episodes of Iron Chef late at night.
For the uninitiated, Iron Chef is a Japanese reality show with a cult following that pre-dates the “food battle” shows that are so prevalent on American TV these days. It pitted two chefs against each other (an Iron Chef and a Challenger), had a theme-ingredient for every battle, and declared a winner at the end of a nail-biting timed cook-off. I used to watch this Japanese reality show, look at all the delicate, strange dishes the chefs prepared, and wish for the opportunity to someday taste this type of mysterious and strange-looking food. Now that I have travelled to Japan and eaten kaiseki dishes, I feel a little like I have been on the tasting panel of Iron Chef.
The other, very Japanese element of kaiseki that I love, is the attention to detail in each tiny dish. There is an intentional balance of colours, textures and tastes, an aesthetic consideration to the composition of each plate. I still remember the meal I ate in the ryokan nearly a decade ago – it was like eating tiny works of art.
On the other hand, I do appreciate how a less adventurous eater than myself might be put off by some of the unfamiliar flavours in a set meal, and would prefer to simply choose a dish that they know they will like. Needless to say, we did not order the kids a set meal, but instead got them tempura noodle soups which they happily ate while eyeing my assortment of tofu with ill-contained disgust.