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Journey to Japan: Exploring the Art of Kaiseki Dining

The inspiration for today’s blog post follows a visit to the Savour Food Festival at Royal Hospital Chelsea. Here, I was kindly invited by friend and business associate Jane Moriarty to enjoy an Omakase menu, curated and presented by Joshua Owens-Baigler, Owner of Angelina Restaurant in London.

However, todays blog isn’t centred around the tradition Omakase, instead, we focus on the more lengthened and elaborate dining experience, Kaiseki.

Japan, a land known for its timeless traditions, is a paradise for foodies seeking unique culinary experiences. One such tradition is Kaiseki Ryori, the epitome of Japanese haute cuisine. A form of art in itself, Kaiseki is a meticulously crafted multi-course meal that marries culinary craftsmanship with seasonal ingredients. It embodies the principle of ‘ichi-go ichi-e’ – cherishing the unrepeatable nature of each encounter.

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What is Kaiseki?

Kaiseki, is a traditional form of Japanese dining that consists of multiple courses carefully arranged and beautifully presented.

Originating from the tea ceremony traditions in Japan, Kaiseki cuisine has evolved into an embodiment of culinary arts where dishes are prepared to enhance the flavour of seasonal ingredients. The courses are often prepared in ways that highlight the ingredients’ textures and colours, and the meals are meticulously presented on plates chosen to complement both the food and the season.

A traditional Kaiseki meal typically includes the following courses:

  1. Sakizuke: An appetiser similar to the amuse-bouche of French cuisine.
  2. Hassun: The second course, which sets the seasonal theme and typically includes one kind of sushi and several smaller side dishes.
  3. Mukozuke: A sashimi course.
  4. Takiawase: Vegetables served with meat, fish, or tofu; the ingredients are simmered separately.
  5. Futamono: A “lidded dish”; typically, a soup.
  6. Yakimono: Grilled course.
  7. Su-zakana: A small dish used to clean the palate, such as vegetables in vinegar.
  8. Hiyashi-bachi: Served only in summer; chilled, lightly cooked vegetables.
  9. Naka-choko: Another palate-cleanser; maybe a light, acidic soup.
  10. Shiizakana: A substantial dish, such as a hot pot.
  11. Gohan: A rice dish made with seasonal ingredients.
  12. Ko no mono: Seasonal pickled vegetables.
  13. Tome-wan: A miso-based or vegetable soup served with rice.
  14. Mizumono: A seasonal dessert; may be fruit, confection, ice cream, or cake.

It’s important to note that while there’s a common structure, the Kaiseki meal can be quite flexible and can vary significantly based on the chef’s style, the restaurant, and the season. Each meal intends to be a harmonious experience that brings together a variety of tastes, textures, and appearances.

The Philosophy of Kaiseki

Like many Japanese arts, Kaiseki is grounded in the principles of simplicity, minimalism, and a profound respect for the seasons. This approach reflects deeply ingrained cultural values, including an appreciation for natural beauty and a sense of the passage of time.

Seasonality: At the heart of Kaiseki lies the idea of ‘shun’, which refers to ingredients at their peak of freshness and flavour. Each dish represents the current season, from the ingredients used to the presentation and even the dishware. For instance, a spring Kaiseki meal might showcase cherry blossoms, both in the ingredients and the plate design.

Simplicity and Purity: Kaiseki is underpinned by the principle of ‘kanso’ or simplicity. The focus is on bringing out the pure, natural flavours of the ingredients, rather than masking them with heavy sauces or seasonings. This idea is deeply intertwined with Zen Buddhism’s influence, which values simplicity and mindfulness.

Balance: The Kaiseki meal is carefully balanced in terms of taste, texture, appearance, and even the cooking methods used. There’s also a balance between the food itself and the serving dishes, with the latter often chosen to enhance the visual presentation of the meal.

Ichi-go ichi-e: This concept, which translates to “one time, one meeting,” is central to the philosophy of Kaiseki. It suggests that each dining experience is unique and can never be precisely replicated. This heightens the sense of appreciation for the meal and the moment.

Harmony: Kaiseki cuisine seeks harmony not just within the meal itself, but also with the broader environment. The meal, the serving dishes, the decor of the restaurant, the season – all are part of a harmonious whole designed to engage the diner fully.

Wabi-sabi: This aesthetic concept, meaning the beauty of imperfection and transience, is reflected in Kaiseki. Ingredients are often presented in their natural, almost raw form, and asymmetry and irregularity in presentation are embraced.

In essence, Kaiseki is much more than just a culinary experience. It’s an expression of cultural values and aesthetics, an appreciation of nature’s ephemeral beauty, and an exercise in mindfulness and presence. Each Kaiseki meal is a carefully choreographed blend of flavours, textures, and visual cues that engages the senses and invites the diner to savour the here and now.

Angelina 1

Experiencing Kaiseki in the UK

If your Kaiseki dining experience cannot be had in Kyoto, the cultural heart of Japan, then my recommendation is to head somewhere a touch closer to home and visit Angelina Restaurant in London.

Amidst the vibrant hustle of Dalston, Angelina Restaurant emerges as a beacon of serenity, bringing the grace of Kaiseki, Japan’s intricate and mindful culinary art form, to London’s eclectic dining scene.

Nestled in this lively neighbourhood, Angelina Restaurant offers a unique East-meets-West gastronomic experience. The ambience, a blend of London’s urban charm and Japanese minimalism, sets the stage for a dining experience that is both comforting and exotic.

The star of Angelina’s culinary repertoire is undoubtedly their Kaiseki menu.

The Kaiseki experience at Angelina begins with Sakizuke, an amuse-bouche that introduces diners to the chef’s palate, hinting at the journey to come. It’s followed by a succession of small, exquisitely presented dishes that showcase the finest local and seasonal produce. Each dish is thoughtfully composed, a testament to the meticulous preparation and craftsmanship that defines Kaiseki.

Joshua and his team marry Japanese and Italian cuisines, presenting an innovative fusion Kaiseki menu. They take diners on a journey through land and sea, plate by plate, each with its unique narrative. From the crisp and vibrant Hassun, brimming with seasonal morsels, to the deeply satisfying Shokuji rice dish, every course tells a tale of culinary dedication and creativity.

One of the highlights of the menu is the Yakimono, where the chefs exhibit their flair for marrying flavours, with dishes like charcoal-grilled fish or meat, offering a harmonious blend of smoky, sweet, and umami tastes.

The fluidity between courses, each carefully orchestrated to balance the preceding and following dishes, is a testament to Angelina’s dedication to the philosophy of Kaiseki. Their fusion touch brings an exciting novelty to this traditional form, adding a new dimension to London’s culinary landscape.

Above all, Angelina’s Kaiseki menu is an exploration of harmony between East and West, traditional and modern, taste and aesthetics. It’s a dining experience that encapsulates the essence of ‘Ichi-go ichi-e’ – a concept that highlights the unique, non-repeatable nature of each encounter. In the heart of Dalston, Angelina invites you to embark on this unique gastronomic journey, a testament to the universality of good food and the beauty of shared moments.

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Final Thought: Kaiseki The Culinary Art Form

Beyond the dining experience, Kaiseki is about mindfulness and respect for nature. The intricacy of each dish, the flavours’ subtlety, and the elegance of the presentation are all part of a narrative woven by the chef. It speaks of the transient beauty of nature and the significance of savouring the moment. This is not just a meal; it’s a sensory journey.

Kaiseki’s exquisite nature and philosophical underpinnings make it more than just a culinary tradition; it’s a cultural treasure. Embarking on this journey, you can’t help but admire the art of Kaiseki – a perfect embodiment of Japan’s refined aesthetics, respect for nature, and the pursuit of perfection in even the simplest things. It’s a gastronomic journey that transcends the boundaries of taste and delves into the realm of experiential art.

So, when you next find yourself in Japan (or London), remember to venture beyond the well-trodden paths of sushi and ramen. Embrace the cultural voyage that is Kaiseki, and appreciate the harmonious interplay of seasonality, taste, and aesthetics. And in doing so, you will have tasted not just the food of Japan, but its very soul.

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