Book Review: Kaiseki by Yoshihiro Murata

Kei has been teaching kaiskei cooking in Sydney for 30 years, so it’s encouraging to witness the rising popularity of the English version of Kaiseki, The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant by Yoshihiro Murata.

Kaiseki is certainly a cuisine that stimulates the mind, not just (all) the senses. Embedded in each kaiseki course is history, philosophy, a narrative that gives the kaiseki meal the kind of depth that is not always evident in other Japanese cuisines. Kaiseki is not just  degustation. The order and the meaning of each of the dishes is significant, so read carefully Murata’s introduction on p.8 in the 2006 hardcover version (or What is Kaiseki?) before partaking in the culinary experience. Unlike the cooking of idolised celebrity chefs, kaiseki is not about breaking new ground (like Ferran Adria’s molecular gastronomy or Nobu Matsuhisa’s Asian fusion), but about sticking to the rules–tradition and the reinvention of tradition.

Indeed, kaiskei is not kaiseki if you break the cardinal rule of offering what’s in season. Seasonality is about the celebration of the senses, so not only produce, but the serving dishes, teacups, the colour of the kimono and the obi patterns of the waitstaff, the flower arrangement and scroll that might hang in the tokonoma must reflect the season. And it’s not just the four seasons, but micro-seasons–so what is in season that month, that week in the local area is featured in kaiseki. Bream in April is sakura dai 桜鯛 (“cherry blossom” bream–cherry blossom being most prevalent in April) and in May it is satsuki dai 五月鯛 (May bream). And the cuisine values ostentatious celebration of seasons–presentation (very, very important in kaiseki, which we can’t stress enough to our cooking class students) can often feature daikon shaped into cherry blossoms in Spring (p. 19), grated daikon frothed up in a hot pot to look like snow in Winter (p. 156).

While presentation can make each dish look unique, some of dishes feature in every kaiseki menu–the Wakame and Bamboo Shoots (p.41) is a Spring staple, as the Dobinmushi (p.102) is quintessentially Autumnal, and Kei has included these in her kaiseki classes many times, as regular students would recall. In fact, the wakame/bamboo shoot (wakatake) combo reappears in many forms in Spring–as soup, in rice or in combinations with other seasonal ingredients like fuki or fish roe. So despite its seeming elaborateness, kaiseki is essentially simple and its cooking techniques are too–grilling, braising, frying, simmering. What makes kaiskei exquisite, is attention to detail.

And this book is immaculate for just that. (Both Kei and I have a copy, Kei’s is in Japanese and mine is in English and the translation is pretty spot on.) But this is not a book just to peruse, but to study for its hints and allusions to the splendour of kaiseki. Yes, beautiful pics, but look at the ark shells on p. 26 and 27. The pattern of the braided mat on p.26 hints at the significance of the scoring pattern on the ark shells on p.27, and indeed, it is the scoring of the shell flesh that makes the shell more tender, and this dish more delicious. It is this fine attention to detail that makes kaiseki and this book, so sublime.

Similarlly, the Smoked Cherry Salmon pictured on p.31 is served as if each piece is riding a wave. This is intentional, and is achieved by skewering the fish while grilling (technique is called Unerigushi or Namigushi-“wave skewering”), and such is the hidden beauty of kaiseki.

The recipes provided in the back of the book may disappoint because as most of the ingredients are not available in Australia. And this has been a common lament of many of our kaiseki students–the Japanese vegetables we get from our growers are hard to come by. But we stress that the exoticness of the ingredients is part of the kaiseki experience, and while some ingredients can be substituted, not all can, making kaiseki uniquely Japanese. A 2007 Time magazine article about Murata’s restaurant concludes that kaiseki, unlike sushi, is not exportable. Undoubtedly, foodies will debate this to death, but most attempts at kaiseki dining in Sydney have been unspectacular.

But Murata’s real aim in publishing this book in English is tied up with his chairmanship of the Japanese Culinary Academy, a kind of Kyoto fine food mafia that aims to educate the world on the beauty of Japanese food. So that’s why he often goes on (and on, as does Kei) about the importance of being earnest about dashi, the essential ingredient in Japanese food and the source of umami. Dashi is the first thing Kei teaches in all our classes.

by Masako Fukui, Copyright Kei’s Kitchen

Kaiseki by Yoshihiro Murata, originally published in English in 2006