[also see this article]
so, here is the stake in the ground, the brief explanation of kaiseki that rejects as fundamentally flawed the idea that kaiseki is primarily a culinary tradition emphasizing presentation. kaiseki is one of these mythical ideas in japanese cooking -- little understood except by culinary history wonks, so no one seems to be able to agree about the early history of kaiseki. i suppose this is my contribution to misinformation.
there is an ideal type for kaiseki which is now more honoured in the breach than the observance. these days, it is best known as sumptuous dining -- expensive, rarefied, exclusive, something like the japanese version of going to the french laundry. it is more accurate, though, to think of kaiseki as an approach to cooking and consumption which finds expression in two broad types of dining.
the kanji for kaiseki can be written in two ways -- the first, 会席, stands (approximately) for "formal occasion," the second, 懐石, (again approximately) for "stone in the robe." most of what is today called kaiseki is of the formal occasion variety and descends from japanese court cuisine. because this was, broadly speaking, food for the nobility, price was usually irrelevant to preparation. kaiseki meals are some of the most expensive dining experiences you can have. the stone in the robe form of kaiseki is much rarer, especially outside japan. this lineage of kaiseki derives from the tea ceremony (cha-no-yu) and from the cooking traditions of zen monasteries (shojin ryori). this lineage of kaiseki emphasises economy and wise use of materials rather than waste: the story (which i find singularly unconvincing) is that monks in temples used to warm stones and keep them in their robes next to their stomachs to ward off hunger pangs -- hence the name. i am told that an extremely minimalist version of shojin ryori may be found in california at the tassajara zen monastery. though different in ancestry, both lineages of kaiseki emphasize mindful eating and, over time, have developed into quite highly formalized culinary systems.
the original kaiseki (stone in the robe variety) was of the form ichi-ju issai (or ni-sai, or san-sai) -- meaning one soup and a prepared dish or two or three (rice always being a given). kaiseki of both lineages have elaborated the form, but always the basic structure remains: there is the soup, and then there is an array of prepared dishes. kaiseki menus are thus variations on a theme -- chefs use ingredients in season and cook them within the kaiseki framework and the broader wa-shoku framework (wa-shoku translates as japanese cooking, and it has its own set of principles for success -- seven methods of cooking, five flavours, five colours, etc etc). the kaiseki format (which is almost infinitely extensible, as you'll see) offers some boundary conditions within which the kaiseki chef's duty is to optimize. i like to think of it as a multivariate optimization exercise, like many crafts.
for most formal occasion variety kaiseki, the standard format and one interpretation of an approximate order is given below:
startersshiizakana/sakizuki: appetizers (the former accompanying sake)zensai: vegetable appetizers (yet more appetizers, but these are more substantial)suimono: the soup courseseasonalstsukuri/mukuzuki: sashimihassun: a platter (the name derives from the platter's edge-length, which is 8 inches or hassun) of complementary foods from either the seas and the mountains or the fields and the streams. a hassun for the early spring might be tai (sea bream) and a mountain herb like fukinoto (butterbur buds); one for the midsummer might be freshwater eel (unagi) and new potatoes (imo).ways of cookingyakimono: grilled courseaemono: dressed course (dressed with some kind of sauce -- this course is usually dropped in smaller kaiseki, as far as i know)nimono: simmered coursemushimono: steamed coursesunomono: vinegared course (quick-pickled is the best analogue)riceshokuji: course eaten with ricethen dessert is usually fresh fruit of some sort, plus matcha and a wagashi (if in kyoto, or in a really fancy restaurant, the wagashi will be made of wasanbon, a hand-refined sugar from shikoku). the rice course is specially set apart because, really, no meal is complete without rice (even if it is only a token amount of rice). this is true in japan as it is in china and many other parts of east asia.
in kaiseki, chefs are at liberty to take out anything (almost) except the suimono and shokuji courses. they will frequently replace courses with analogues or referential courses -- for example, in place of nimono (the traditional simmered course), an innovative chef might serve a braised dish or a rustic claypot dish. the starters are also relatively easily interchanged or omitted. in short kaiseki, many chefs seem to eliminate the aemono course and one other dependent on season: in the winter, the nimono is a staple but mushimono and yakimono might go away; in the summer, nimono probably goes away and yakimono sticks around. everyone loves the grill in the heat, even in japan.
gesshinkyo (a temple vegetarian restaurant in tokyo, off omotesando, now closed. see here) is an interesting combination of the two lineages of kaiseki. since tanahashi's training is in shojin ryori (temple cooking, usually associated with the stone in the robe line) but his restaurant is decidedly upscale (formal dining, expensive, elaborate), dinner with him combines the vegetarian/non-alcoholic/introspective and the lavish/expensive. it also forces a reinterpretation of many of the courses because meat and alcohol are prohibited in shojin. you will not get the tsukuri and shiizakana courses, but tropes like the hassun will likely be interpreted in a quite refreshing way. i am told that he once served junsai (water shield shoots) and myoga (japanese ginger shoots) for a hassun -- a quite innovative way to combine foods from streams/fields without resorting to serving meat. as with almost all shojin, there will be no attempt to disguise vegetables/tofu as meat -- you'll get many dishes and more different types of vegetables than you're likely to have seen before in one sitting.
as a cooking tradition, shojin also appears to have a more granular awareness of shun (seasonality) than the rest of japanese cooking in general. shun is best translated as "season," though no really adequate english word exists for it. shun makes reference to a time of year (recurrent and thus seasonal), a food, and an application -- thus, there is a shun for bamboo shoots (it lasts about 10-12 days in early spring), recognizing that during this window of time bamboo shoots are tender enough to be eaten as a root vegetable without the leaching and processing necessary later in the season. some foods have multiple shun. for example, tai (sea bream) has something like 3 separate shun. one is in early spring, when the fish are lean and clean-tasting after the winter and best suited for some kinds of sashimi; another is in the midsummer when glycogen levels in the flesh are moderately high and thus suitable for some other variety of sashimi; and the third is just before spawning when the flesh is suitable for char grilling. or something. you have to be a japanese chef to keep up with these things. because the shun for foods overlaps with the seasons, foods become markers of seasons as well as marked by seasons -- hence the idea of shun no mono (seasonal foods) and menus that closely reflect seasonality. good japanese chefs are particularly intimately aware of the foods that are at the peak of their season at any given point and adjust their menus accordingly -- these are now rare and you only get to see this quality of cooking if you hang out with professors at cooking schools and the like. good japanese chefs are also frequently versed in the art, culture, and history of japan -- lots of little in-jokes get folded into the composition and presentation of japanese dishes. going into more detail about this would be really tiresome -- as sociologists like to say, the practice exists in an impenetrable hermeneutic circle. in any case, high-quality kaiseki is characterised by this kind of dual richness in the food: strong awareness of seasonality and multiple layers of cultural meaning. if you are particularly attuned to shun and japanese culture, eating at a really fancy kaiseki place is a bit like having a private conversation with the chef through the medium of the dishes he sends out. this is akin to how thomas keller sends out things like oysters and pearls (savory pearl tapioca custard with oyster and caviar) at the french laundry, except the conversation in a kaiseki setting runs along the lines of "i have put a sansho leaf on this humble piece of sesame tofu. [meaningful look]" "ah, a sansho leaf. it must be midsummer. i hope there will be some tai sashimi later on, perhaps in an ice-bowl, as is appropriate to this midsummer heat. this sesame tofu is quite delicate and, even though it looks like nothing very complicated, i am refined and cultured enough to see that someone has spent hours grinding the seeds to produce this smooth and silky gel designed to appear humble and unassuming. bravo to the chef." and so on.