“The Japanese live in harmony with nature, and desire to become one with it,” goes a sentence in Shinsogo Zusetsu Kokugo, a Japanese high-school textbook. It may not be the graceful prose of classical literature nor the words of an award-winning novelist, but it’s a sentence read by every Japanese when they were growing up.
This philosophy is seen in every detail of Japanese culture: from the kigo (or words that refer to the season) found in every haiku to hanami, the traditional custom of enjoying the fleeting beauty of seasonal flowers like sakura on picnics.
“It is eating the seasons.”
Chef Yoshihiro Murata, Kaiseki
Nowhere is the desire to become one with nature stronger than in kaiseki ryori – elaborate Japanese fine-dining meals characterised by delicately plated small dishes. What started off as a Zen Buddhist experience of mindfulness while having a light meal for a tea ceremony has become a full culinary culture where the temporal character of nature is observed and respected.
“It is eating the seasons,” explains three-Michelin-star chef Yoshihiro Murata of Kyoto’s Kikunoi in his book Kaiseki. This is expressed in two precepts: shun, the use of seasonal ingredients, and moritsuke, the art of plating food beautifully while referencing seasons and ensuring ease for a guest in picking an ingredient.
The Zen mindfulness lives on in these two precepts as they serve as a reminder that nature is fleeting. Here are some examples of how that is expressed in food.
A MEAL FOR ALL SEASONS
Every part of a kaiseki dish is designed with seasons in mind, as these creations show.
01. GRILLED TILE FISH WITH MISO ON JAPANESE MAGNOLIA LEAF
Hot dishes like hot pot and grilled items warm the body in the depths of Japan’s winters. Here, tile fish which reaches its peak in taste and fattiness during winter is marinated with miso and grilled on Japanese magnolia leaf. The egg white that blankets the fish represents snow.
02. SNOW CRAB EGG YOLK TEMPURA WITH SIMMERED DAIKON
The snow crab is caught only in winter off the Sea of Japan. Here, it is presented horizontally for guests to easily pick it up with their chopsticks. At its base is the daikon, which tastes its sweetest when harvested in winter.
03. ASSORTED SASHIMI OF TUNA, AMBERJACK, SOLE FISH AND SWEET SHRIMP
While ubiquitous to Japanese cuisine, its presentation follows a long tradition of specifi c rules for moritsuke. It is served only in odd numbers for good luck and presented in a slanting manner for the guest’s ease in picking up the slices. The use of seasonal seafood, like these four, is without question.
04. BLOWFISH BROTH WITH ABALONE, MILT AND MATSUTAKE MUSHROOM IN A COCONUT SHELL
Blowfish, or fugu, is a winter delicacy and chef Moon Kyung Soo of Mikuni insists on adapting such time-honoured dishes for the Singapore culture (see sidebar), especially in terms of moritsuke. In this case, a coconut shell is used in place of a bowl and encased in a wooden box with stones and fir sprigs as a reminder of winter.
05. OSECHI RYORI
Adapting kaiseki courses for local diners also means introducing them to facets of Japanese culture, in this case, osechi-ryori, or Japanese New Year dishes. Twelve ingredients from anchovies to black beans are used in this bento box, each representing auspiciousness in fortune and romance. The ingredients are arranged from the tallest to the shortest so none is covered or overshadowed.
06. SHISO SORBET WITH RED BEAN
The most modern course at Mikuni happens to be its dessert. The tanginess of shiso (perilla leaves) sorbet is offset by a mild red-bean paste. Its seasonal reference is the imprint of a fork created in powdered-sugar dust, which represents footprints left in snow.
In Due Course
Kaiseki courses range from as few as six to as many as 15. Here are the main ones.
SAKIZUKE The first dish functions the same way as the amuse-bouche at Western fine-dining restaurants. It gives a preview of the chef’s artistry and functions as a palate cleanser.
YAKIMONO Fish and sometimes vegetables like bamboo shoots are grilled over charcoal for this course, depending on what tastes at its peak at the time it is served. It is served simply with minimal garnish, save for a pickled ginger shoot or bamboo leaves.
HASSUN This course highlights the seasonal theme through its presentation and often sports flowers as garnish. For example, cherry blossoms for spring or hagi – a Japanese bush clover – in autumn. It can make its appearance in the middle of the meal, though the traditional serving is as the second course.
MIZUMONO Like in other dining traditions, the sweet course is the last. Desserts come in the form of wagashi, traditional confectionery which, like the kaiseki meal itself, is made from seasonal ingredients and take its cue from seasonal aesthetics.
THE IMPORTANCE OF GOING LOCAL
Chef Moon Kyung Soo of Mikuni, who has more than two decades of experience in kaiseki cuisine, makes it a point to fuse traditional kaiseki meals with facets of local culture despite breaking tradition. He tells us why.
HOW DID YOU REALISE THAT YOU HAVE TO INCORPORATE ELEMENTS OF LOCAL CULTURE?
I had a restaurant in Dubai where I imported the best ingredients from Japan and served everything traditionally. It failed in one year. I realised that I need to respect local culture to survive.
BUT SINGAPORE IS MUCH CLOSER TO JAPAN AND WE’RE VERY FAMILIAR WITH JAPANESE CULTURE.
The Singapore palate is still different and there’s only one season here: hot. Recipes change with the seasons, even in Japan – for example, the basic ponzu sauce of soya and citrus is less sour in summer than in winter – so I have to adapt.
HOW DID YOU IMMERSE YOURSELF IN LOCAL CULTURE?
I don’t know the Singaporean palate so I went to hawker centres, tried the food and observed people. That’s how I came up with my fugu soup in a coconut shell – I saw people drinking coconut water. When I first served it, I was nervous but, when the guest was done eating, I realised even the coconut flesh was eaten.