The Kaiseki Meal
Kaiseki cuisine is characterized by small, distinct courses served at carefully timed intervals. The host must sense the mood of the tea room, and allow just enough time between courses to create an atmosphere of anticipation and satisfaction. A typical menu consists of seven courses that are punctuated with servings of sake.
The first course is served on black lacquer trays. Each tray holds a small open dish containing a salad, perhaps finely sliced jicama and orange, and two matching covered lacquer bowls. The guests open the two lidded bowls at the same time. One contains a perfect line of white rice, and the other a creamy miso soup. The rice and miso complement one another; they are light and refreshing, and stimulate the appetite.
The host appears with an iron sake pot and tiny red lacquer cups. Each guest takes one, and the host pours what seems like a few thimblefulls of warm sake. More rice is served, and the miso bowls are refilled.
The second, or Nimono, course is swiftly brought into the room. This dish, morsels of food in seasoned broth, is the heart of the Kaiseki meal. The guests bring the bowls close and remove the lids. The rising steam carries a delectable fragrance - lemongrass, perhaps. The clear broth might contain steamed fish, shiitake mushrooms, and parboiled spinach leaves, all in perfect harmony with the season.
The host enters again, with more sake, and after serving it to each guest, brings in a large dish of rough pottery that contains the third course. The Yakimono, a grilled food such as halibut or sea bass, is always served alone. It's delicate flavor is savored with a bit of grated citron or sansho leaves sprinkled on top.
The host returns to the kitchen where he has a tidbit himself. Then he serves the fourth course, the Hashiarai, in small, lidded lacquer cups. Each one contains hot water flavored with a tiny sage blossom or a sliver of lemon to refresh the palate.
The fifth, or Hassun, course is the most poetic. A large part of its beauty is the tray. Until now, all the utensils have been ceramic or lacquer. The Hassun tray is almost always made of plain cedar, and its pale, straight grain is dampened just before serving. The tray contains two foods, one loosely classified as from the "mountain" and the other from the "sea", which are arranged in tiny piles to create contrasts of color, shape, texture, and seasoning. This could be asparagus tips paired with smoked salmon, or even melon slices with prosciutto. Although prosciutto is not literally seafood, it creates the desired contrast of light and dark, sweet and salty. Each piece is intended as single bite to accompany sake. The mood of the room is warm and convivial.
A sixth course, consisting of pickles and a last serving of rice, signals the end of the meal. The rice has continued to cook slowly, and by now it's crunchy and browned. The guests experience the passage of time with each serving of rice as its taste and texture changes. Pickles, chosen to reflect the season, cleanse the palate for the seventh and final course of sweets.
A stacked black lacquer box is left with the guests before they adjourn to the garden. Inside are luscious sweets made by the host. Their poetic names reflect the seasons. In October pureed chestnut is molded into shapes of mountain peaks and valleys with the name "Mountain Path". In December when the first snow blankets the landscape sweetened azuki and white beans are made into "Snow on Brushwood".
Copyright Bettina Vitell, 1997