By Upali Dasgupta
My upcoming trip to Kyoto had a huge gaping hole in its itinerary and I didn’t even know it. It didn’t include a Kaiseki meal. I was introduced to the concept while speaking to an uncle who’s spent the last thirty years in Japan.
Some Kaiseki meals depict the passing of seasons through the choice of ingredients and intricately patterned serving dishes.
Kaiseki Ryori is an extremely elaborate fusion of traditional Japanese cuisines served in multiple small courses. It is designed to appeal to all the senses and delicately uses every element of taste ranging from bitter to sweet. It originated centuries ago as part of the Japanese tea ceremony and employs age old culinary techniques and locally procured ingredients. Some Kaiseki meals depict the passing of seasons through the choice of ingredients and intricately patterned serving dishes.
Priced at anywhere above 15000 Yen (approximately $150) per person, an authentic Kaiseki dinner can burn a hole in your pocket. Which is why we chose a lunch sampler, a shorter (if 12 courses can be called that!) more affordable option.
Kichisen, our restaurant of choice, is said to be one of the best Kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto. Its chef, Yoshimi Tanigawa is famous for winning the ‘Iron Chef’ cook off against a former executive chef at Nobu. A good indicator of how our meal was going to turn out.
Austere in its décor, the Kai-no-ma room had counter seating with personalised service. The sous chef, one of the few people at the restaurant who could speak a bit of English, waited on us throughout the meal and helpfully attempted to translate the names of the ingredients being served.
The meal started with a sweet bean and rice ball covered in a slightly bitter, green tea powder. It was accompanied by a tiny cube of ginger jelly packed with so much of flavour that we needed a moment to recover. Next followed frothy matcha, a traditional Japanese green tea. Our tingling taste buds were now ready for the Suimono, a clear broth garnished with vegetables, tofu and baby octopus. Despite being seafood lovers, the baby octopus was a bit hard to swallow.
A savoury egg custard with green okra was served next. It had a beautiful, smooth texture and had to be eaten with a small lacquer spoon. It tasted much like how I imagine silk would taste.
The sashimi came with two dipping sauces and to our delight the iron chef made an appearance bringing out the dish. Conversation was difficult because of the language barrier and we resorted to sign language. We intrigued him enough to have him stay for the rest of the meal where he all but fed us the food!
Egg rice and vegetable sushi was followed by Nimono, a boiled dish made from bamboo shoots, seaweed and a local herb called Sancho that numbed our tongues. The meal was interspersed with exclamations of ‘Indo!’ from the chef, who from appearances was excited at having a couple of Indian folks dine at his restaurant.
A spoon of the concoction made something explode in my head and I was in orange heaven.
What feels like ten dishes later, consisting of an array of tempura, rice, boiled and pickled vegetables, came the piece de resistance of the meal – Japanese orange jelly. The desert was served in the scooped out shell of an orange with a side of orange liqueur. The chef instructed us to taste the jelly and then proceeded to squeeze the top half of the orange, still intact with pulpy segments, into the jelly and poured a few drops of the orange liqueur into the mix. A spoon of the concoction made something explode in my head and I was in orange heaven.
Just when we thought the surprises were over, Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa brought out his iPad and proudly showed us a picture of him posing in front of the Taj Mahal.
Like they say, there’s nothing like food to bring two cultures together!
Upali Dasgupta is an impromptu traveler, driving enthusiast, local cuisine explorer and lover of good B&Bs. For a little vicarious road-tripping, you can read about her travels over at www.hornpleaseok.net