The history of Kaiseki

‘Kaiseki’ is not just high-end Japanese cuisine.

Originally, kaiseki based on 5 types of the cuisine. One of the major influences is ‘wabi’ tea ceremony established by Rikyu Sen in 16th century. The tea used for the tea ceremony was very thick and strong, so he started serving simple snacks before serving the tea to protect the stomach of the guests. Actually, the word ‘kaiseki’ means “stone on the belly’, in the past, during the Zen meditation, monks warmed up their bellies to fend off the hunger. Zen culture influenced Rikyu very much, the interior was minimal and humble based on that. The esthetics of wabi tea culture is, ‘the beauty of imperfect’, same as the nature as it is. Also, finding the beauty in the space using the imagination. So the plating was not symmetry and always have the space. This sense of beauty is succeeded by the modern kaiseki cuisine too, and make the difference between traditional western cuisine culture. 

The other is Honzen cuisine, feast for the generals and military family. Many trays were served per person, and some trays were actually not for the guests at the feast, these dishes were wrapped and taken away for the families of the guests.

The others 3 cuisines are, Daikyo cuisine, ceremonial cuisine by royal court, Shojin(vegetarian) cuisine by monks in temples, Obanzai, daily home cooked meal among the common people.

These cuisines gradually mix together and formed kaiseki cuisine nowadays.

In Japanese culinary culture, ‘cut’ has been most important skill for the chefs. At counter style restaurants, sometimes grilling and braising area might be hidden behind the wall, but the master chef would show their knife skills in front of the guests. Since in 9th century, ‘cutting skill’ had been considered as liberal arts among the male aristocracies. When they invited the guests, the host wore formal wares and cut the fishes or birds in elegant manner in front of the guests as a part of the hospitality.

Until the Meiji Restoration in mid 19th century, Japanese people didn’t eat meat much, especially beef. Because of the Buddhism and Shintoism, eating meat is inhibited, and the farmers in the village raised cows and worked with them in their farm. The cows were almost family members. So the main protein source had been wild birds and fishes. Different from Edo shogunate which closed the country for 200 years, new Meiji government would like to introduce western culture, so in 1868, the government established the company where the people could buy meat, milk, and daily products. Aside from western cuisine, ‘gyu-nabe’, beef braised with soy sauce or miso dish was getting popular, so more and more people got familiar with the flavor of the beef. 

After that, western cuisine influenced the food for common people, such as ‘curry rice’ or ‘Tonkatsu’ (pork cutlet).

As the people’s palate started familiar with these western flavors, with consequence, little by little, even traditional kaiseki restaurants started using western ingredients, such as cream and meat. 

In Japanese food culture, most important factor is ‘dashi’, normally, the mixture of the stocks extracted from bonito flakes and kelp. It contains ‘umami’ 5th flavor of the gastronomy. The study about ‘umami’ has been progressed, even Hyotei, the traditional kaiseki restaurant which has more than 450 years history is using modern umami, like tomatoes for Glutamic Acid.