In the West, kaiseki is variously translated as ‘Japanese haute cuisine’ or (worse still) ‘fine dining’. You can understand the need for food writers to try and codify types of cooking, but by trying to find an equivalent in a food culture which has for centuries followed a French template, the essence of kaiseki is, inevitably, lost or misunderstood. By being reduced to the idea of a ‘banquet’ where 14 or more courses are presented to the diner over an evening, the impression is of a culinary blow-out, an orgy of tastes and dishes which end up with the diner feeling gorged. Of course, this is precisely the opposite of the intention of the kaiseke chef.
Sitting cross-legged on tatami as the gentle procession of small dishes pass before you, is to experience food not as the taking on of protein and carbohydrate but as meditation.
A dream-like quality begins to overwhelm the diner as jewel like arrangements are laid down, removed, replaced. The slow, steady rhythm (and only after experiencing kaiseki at its finest do you realise how timing is vital to the creation of this effect) makes this less a meal and more a sensory feast.
Western diners are brought up on the idea of flavours being given impact often by being placed in opposition to each other, whereas in kaiseki the aim is to create harmony with aromas, tastes and textures working together. It’s not right and wrong, but simply different ways of achieving complexity and just as the western chef needs to be careful not to lose the balance between contrasting flavours, so his or her equivalent in Japan has to avoid making ingredients so harmonious that they become one-dimensional. It’s the job of the kaiseki chef to think of combinations and ways to enhance the central ingredient, a piece of salmon for example, to make it more ‘salmon-like’ than it is on its own.
There is also an underlying theme to the meal which is tied inextricably to the seasons, the locality and maybe even the history of the family. At Hiiragiya the meal is based around fish so as to offer an echo of the family’s original home by the Sea of Japan. By coincidence, it had echoes of mine as well. A dish of sea bass took me back to Scotland: the fish curled its dish looking like a pebble of banded Lewisian gneiss, draped with sea wrack. It tasted, like fresh fish should, of nothing but the sea, a fresh whisper of flavour. It was here that I perhaps finally grasped the deeper intent behind.
It came close to the end of a meal in which some ingredients, tofu, pike eel, sea bream, miso, sweet fish, echoed alongside a myriad of other flavours: one of the three dishes in the Sakizuke course had tofu pudding with adzuki beans, echoing the texture of the sea urchin, with a pea sauce and wasabi enhancing its intensity.
This is a cuisine where you look to the supporting cast – the pickling melon, ume plum and yuzu which brought out the essence of a pike eel in clear soup cleverly followed in the next course with a lightly grilled sliver of the same fish, but this time paired with taro, perilla, ginger and wasabi.
And so it progressed through the Hassun course of salmon in saikyo-miso, sea urchin (now board-shaped), the sea bream (now bound with egg), through the grilled Yakizakana course where ginger and water pepper vinegar acted as an enhancement to the sweet fish.
It was pretty clear, as sake was sipped and the soup, rice (with sweet fish) pickles and dessert arrived that this isn’t whisky food. It is both too delicate and indeed too traditionally Japanese. Sake is the right liquid to go with this subtle cuisine.
And yet, is this not also a philosophy which has a parallel in Japanese whisky?This heightened sense of aroma, the intent to let the distillery speak using oak as a flavour enhancer not a dominant force?
On my return to Scotland I headed north to Skye and, as chance would have it, ended up eating at The Three Chimneys on its far north west coast. Here’s a restaurant which uses exclusively local ingredients, is in tune with the seasons and whose dishes as a result encapsulate the landscape. It’s rightly heralded as being a place which has helped to usher in a new pride in authentically Scottish cuisine. We cook what is around us, this food is who we are. The echoes are there. The West is learning.
Eating with the seasons makes perfect sense and Dave’s trip to Kyoto happily coincided with the opening of the Iwagaki oyster season which runs from May until August. These are the behemoths of the oyster world, so cast aside any images of bivalves which you can cup in your hand. These need to be tackled with a knife and fork. A speciality of Maizuru the shells are deeply pock-marked and are flat on one side.
Their flavour is less the lightly bracing a ripple of the sea in your mouth that you normally encounter and more of a tsunami. Eating one is like falling off your surfboard and swallowing half of the ocean. A massive briny, overwhelming blast they bellow for whisky to accompany them. In the interests of science, Dave lined up a trio of peaty malts to try. Talisker 10 was appropriate as there are oyster beds in the loch outside the distillery. With the Iwagaki the whisky’s inherent salty tang was enhanced as well as its fruity depths.
Ardbeg 10 seemed to be blown away to begin with but it was saving itself for the finish where a remarkable samphire note lifted clear as the whisky came up for air and bobbed on top of the oyster’s briny depth.
Longrow 10 was last. Here the oyster seemed to enhance the smokiness and rather than making it sea-like (as with the island malts) the meatiness of the oyster flash was matched by the muscularity of the whisky. Also a long powerful finish. Three very different effects. Now.. make a note in the diary to get down to Maizuru for next year’s season.