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Kaiseki-Zui-un at Restaurant Unkai

January 1st, 2013

Kaiseki-Zui-un at Restaurant Unkai

In the sixteenth century, it was common practice among Zen monks in Japan to put warm stones in the folds of their kimonos in phases of intensive meditation. The heat from the rocks was soothing to the stomach and effectively staved off hunger pangs. What little food the monks consumed was considered highly valuable and was prepared with mindfulness and reverence for nature. This background information explains the less-than-obvious connection between Kaiseki cuisine, one of the highest forms of the Japanese art of cookery, and the seemingly austere spiritual practice of Zen meditation.

Kai means kimono pocket and seki means stone. Sounds logical enough. When combined, the two words have come to refer to a sequence of Japanese dishes distinguished by exquisite quality and highest perfection, both in culinary and visual terms. In its early days, Kaiseki cuisine was a light meal served to accompany the Japanese tea ceremony. Prepared in accordance with Buddhist principles, it was originally purely vegetarian and was made exclusively with seasonal ingredients. Over the centuries, it evolved into a multicourse repertoire with a precisely defined sequence of dishes based on four fundamental factors: Seasonality, highest quality ingredients, preparation in harmony with nature, and utmost attention to aesthetics.

Nature and aesthetics in Japanese cuisine

Nature and cuisine form an inseparable unit in Japan. The seasons, even the individual months of the year, are reflected in what comes to the table and how it is served. The yearly cycle of the Kaiseki menu traditionally starts in November, since this is when the first tea is harvested - a fact that echoes the historic connection between this cuisine and the tea ceremony. November, then, stands for new beginnings, with all of the other months following themes that are appropriate for the respective times of year. Each individual element of a course is coordinated to the particular season - from the ingredients to the color of the plates and tableware, the method of cooking, and the form of presentation. A dish featuring spring vegetables, for instance, might be served on a plate in spring-like colors decorated with cherry blossoms.

December: Cold & fresh
January: Hope, new life
February: Expansion
March: Orderliness (moon of femininity)
April: Spring, cherry blossoms
May: Courage (moon of masculinity)
June: Peace & harmony
July: Heat & restlessness
August: Repentance, regret
September: Reverence, mystery
October: Nostalgia, impermanence, reflection

As many as fourteen different courses are served as part of a Kaiseki menu. Each individual course is an artwork unto itself. No shortcuts are tolerated when it comes to the freshness of the products. In the course of the centuries, techniques of preparation have evolved that are meant to emphasize the essential nature of the ingredients. While Western cuisine attempts to bring out central ingredients by adding certain elements, Japanese cooking liberates them from everything remotely extraneous.

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