Kaiseki is a visually arresting tour of Kyoto’s ultra-refined cuisine, by a well-known exponent of the art. Chef Murata has made a mission of bringing kaiseki to audiences outside Kyoto: a Tokyo branch restaurant, regular appearances on NHK television, numerous books (none translated, unfortunately), and now this beautiful cookbook.
How to assess Kaiseki? There are two crucial problems. First, almost nobody, even in Japan, knows what kaiseki is — a difficulty somewhat alleviated by this cookbook. Second, the ingredients include lots of things unavailable outside Japan, in some cases tricky outside the Kyoto region. During a year in Kyoto, I tried some of the seemingly esoteric recipes, and also ate at kaiseki restaurants, including Murata’s.
Let’s start with the cuisine. A kaiseki meal is not a “tasting menu,” but an elaborately-structured system of nine to sixteen courses, subject to complex rules, dependent on hyperactive seasonality. Examples: with certain exceptions, no two courses may depend principally on the same preparation technique. Thus one only serves sashimi once (preparation: cutting). One clear soup, one simmered dish, one grilled, fried, etc., in a fairly strict order. The last major dish must consist of rice, pickles, and some kind of miso soup, although Murata is among those “moderns” who often replace miso soup with a vegetable potage. The fish are so ultra-seasonal that many change names with age, many vegetables so localized as to be unknown in most of Japan. Then there’s the service: unless dining in a large group, you’re served at a bar or small table by the chef or a sous-chef. More old-fashioned chefs than Murata close if they’re out of town: if chef cannot serve personally, the restaurant cannot open.
Kaiseki (the book) is structured around the seasons, providing examples of courses for each quarter. Every dish receives a stunning photograph. Presentations are precisely as Murata serves them: the considerable photographic artistry lies in composition, lighting, and the like, not in dressing up the food. The photos accompany descriptive remarks, comments on the seasons, anecdotes, Murata’s ideas developing the dish. Recipes themselves appear, in irritatingly small type, in the back of the book.
Could one could prepare a kaiseki meal — admittedly a derivative one — by following along? In April, do all the April dishes, plate as he does, serve in order? Good luck.
One difficulty is that the dishes don’t appear in quite the right order, and there aren’t representatives of every course in every season. Filling in will be tricky.
The main problem, though, is ingredients. The makings of very fine dashi are hard to find in the US, yet possible. But where will you get sweetfish (ayu)? Instead of Tanaka chile peppers or live grass shrimp you can substitute more pedestrian (or anyway local) varieties, but how will you replace sea bream milt, or that emblematic Kyoto fish, pike conger eel (hamo)?
Ingredients aside, putting most of the dishes together is not impossible. A staff would help, but few kaiseki dishes are served really hot, and those generally pre-prepared and fired a la minute. Given a dedicated small restaurant, or even a family that likes to cook together, you can indeed produce something resembling these meals.
Unfortunately, it won’t be kaiseki. Kyoto in April is not the same as Seattle or Boston in April. The weather is different, the feel is different, the cherry blossoms aren’t the same. And in kaiseki, these things matter hugely. Kaiseki is about the seasons, about what’s growing and blooming in Kyoto. To transpose that directly, aping Murata’s moves, produces a sort of fraud, at best a bittersweet memory of the real thing, more likely affectation and disappointment.
Making one dish is possible. The instructions are clear enough, if you have experience in a kitchen, and good home skills will do if time is not a factor. Few things here are technically punishing, unless of course you’re seeking the kind of perfection necessary in kaiseki. Anyone can slice a turnip, but what if you need to produce a translucent, perfectly even sheet some six inches in diameter? If you haven’t got a huge mandoline, you’ll need impressive knife skills. Forget about the hamo dishes: even assuming you can get this eel, do you have the skills and tools to shear through all its thousands of tiny bones so the flesh can be eaten with them in?
Some dishes do translate well, such as the hollowed-out persimmon filled with pickled persimmon, carrot, and daikon slices. Perfectly grilled fish is challenging, but with great ingredients and garnishes you can certainly get good results. Anyone can use Murata’s excellent recipe for dashi and produce a much better product than with traditional methods, so most soups and simmered dishes are possible. If you have beautiful fish, you can slice sashimi.
It won’t be kaiseki, but you can use the book this way. I wonder if that’s what Murata intends, or if he just hopes to inspire Western chefs. And chefs can draw inspirations. You could even reproduce a few dishes, so long as you don’t pretend you’re doing kaiseki, but if you insist on high enough standards that these dishes match your hopes, they will cost more than customers want to pay. Let’s face it: most are vegetable dishes with a little seafood, but food and labor cost to produce perfection will be exorbitant. Can you get away with charging your customers $25 for a small bowl of simple soup with tofu?
Then there’s the taste. Bluntly, kaiseki is not for everyone. Many Japanese dislike it. Spring kaiseki includes a lot of squodgy green stuff that looks like and basically is pond scum and ground-up tree buds. Crispy or even seriously chewy textures are rare: squishy and slimy are where it’s at. Flavors are never pronounced. It’s pretty, yes, but you may hate this. Don’t blame the cookbook: it might be your technique or ingredients, but it might be that you hate this food.
For me, having lived and eaten in Kyoto, I question the whole project of cooking these dishes elsewhere. Kaiseki should be an inspiration, not a knockoff. So inspired, we should try to develop cuisines that speak of the places and times where we actually live. I muse on New England autumn: smoke, late vegetables and waning sunlight, pork and fowl, early game, hints of a cold, dark winter of root vegetables. Turning the pages of Kaiseki, I wonder what could stand in for dashi, that ubiquitous key signature of kaiseki, and remember that Kyoto dashi is unlike Tokyo’s: stronger, smokier, intense, memorable.
As these memories flicker, I wonder if I love or hate Kaiseki.
Note: This is a November suzakana, a vinegared palate-cleanser sort of dish. Such dishes are normally about course #5, and come after a relatively rich grilled dish (yakimono). The recipe is given precisely as in Kaiseki, apart from editorial remarks in square braces.
Kaki Namasu: Japanese Persimmon Namasu
5 whole firm persimmons + 3 1/3 oz (100g) peeled persimmon
14 oz (400g) daikon
2 oz (60g) carrots
½ bunch mitsuba trefoil [substitute something like flat leaf parsley or watercress]
Julienned yuzu skin as needed [maybe try yellow grapefruit?]
2/3 oz (20g) toasted and ground sesame seeds
½ cup (130ml) Tosa-zu [see below]
½ teaspoon light soy sauce
½ teaspoon mirin
½ teaspoon sudachi juice [maybe 50/50 lime and grapefruit?]
(For the Tosa-zu: [this basic recipe appears at the beginning of the book’s recipe section]
1 cup (225ml) dashi [fresh, please, not from a packet or powder]
5 Tablespoons [rice] vinegar
1 Tablespoon light soy sauce
½ teaspoon sugar
1/3 oz (10g) dried bonito flakes
Heat dashi, vinegar, light soy sauce and sugar in a pan. Just before it boils, add dried bonito flakes and turn off heat. Let cool, strain.)
1. Cut the daikon and carrots into regular slices. Soak the daikon in 2% salt water and the carrots in 3% salt water. [Note: the vegetables must be peeled first, and should then be blocked and cut into even, fairly thin rectangles, perhaps 2mm thick.]
2. Remove the leaves from the mitsuba (the leaves won’t be used), blanch the stems in boiling salted water, then cut into 1.5cm lengths.
3. Cut the 100g persimmon into rectangular slices like the daikon and carrots from step one.
4. Mix the sesame seeds, Tosa-zu, light soy sauce, mirin and sudachi juice.
5. Drain the daikon and carrots well and combine with the persimmon and mitsuba with the sauce from step 4.
6. Hollow out 5 persimmons to make cups and place the ingredients from step 5, top with julienned yuzu skin.
Recipe courtesy “Kaiseki: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant,” written by Yoshirhiro Murata, published by Kodansha, 2006