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Kaiseki is a traditional Japanese meal that developed from the traditions of 16th century Zen monks. Historians believe that these monks stowed warmed stones in their robes during prayers to help them ignore their hunger, hence the meaning of kaiseki, or stone in stomach. Over time, this action evolved into a light, primarily vegetarian meal served during Japanese tea ceremonies. Today, these meals usually consist of many courses of food, served in a particular order. The food is usually of the highest gourmet quality.
Zen monks lived very simple, uncomplicated lives. Their focus was on thought, inner balance, and peace rather than the concerns of the world. They slept to rejuvenate their bodies and ate to nourish themselves, never over-indulging in any one pleasure. Every action had a lesson in it, a principle that generally bled over into the lives of everyday Japanese natives.
The original kaiseki consisted only of light soups and several small vegetarian dishes meant to complement traditional Japanese teas. The focus at these ceremonies was not the meal itself. The food was meant only to complement the flavors of the tea and to calm hunger so the tea could be enjoyed fully. These humble kaiseki were very simple and inexpensive to prepare.
As the tea ceremony became more popular amongst Japanese royalty, so did kaiseki. Monarchs could not dine on the same simple food of the lower castes, so royal chefs began adding expensive and exotic ingredients to these simple meals. Focus slowly bent away from the tea and began to center on the food. In order to please their monarchs, chefs added more courses to the meal, some of which included meat and fish.
Modern kaiseki practices involve at least five courses of food, prepared in special ways with rare and gourmet ingredients. Often served at Japanese guest houses and high-end restaurants, the meals are meant to be communal, to honor guests, and show off the wealth of the host. In other words, the reasoning is the more elaborate the food, the wealthier the person sponsoring it.
Most modern kaiseki include raw, pickled, steamed, and fried dishes. Some also feature a soup course, sashimi-style sushi, and something simmered. Depending on how many courses in a particular meal, it may also include some kind of fruit dessert.
Ingredients are almost always seasonal, with the restaurant menus changing every few months. Visual aesthetic is as important as taste, and Japanese chefs often arrange edible flowers, leaves, and whole, small animals on the plates to create a pleasing scene. Today’s kaiseki are as much works of art as they are delights to the palate.