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Cooking kaiseki and ‘eating the seasons’

by Mariko Kato

KAISEKI: The Exquisite Cuisine of Kyoto’s Kikunoi Restaurant, by Yoshihiro Murata. Kodansha International Ltd., 2006, 191 pp., 5,500 yen (cloth)

Chef Yoshihiro Murata, the third-generation owner-chef of Kikunoi, the celebrated kaiseki (a light “tasting-menu” meal) restaurant, presents a vivid journey of kaiseki through spring, summer, fall and winter. The book both describes and illustrates the innovative and imaginative ideas behind Murata’s seasonal cuisine.

Unlike his more traditional ancestors, Murata traveled around Europe, observing and mastering cuisine from all over the world. As a result, Murata says in his personal introduction, he “began to better appreciate Japanese food, and to understand that our cuisine is a product of our own DNA.”

Indeed, the book itself is an intricately detailed “diary” that shares Murata’s technical expertise, thoughts and methods. As an added rare treat, at the end of the journey, Murata gives us step-by-step directions of his very own kaiseki recipes, complete with instructions on how to make dashi, the soup broth so fundamental to Japanese cuisine.

While the culinary details are consistent and precise, this book is also an anecdotal narrative of Murata’s kaiseki experiences. When he talks of the bamboo shoots he uses in his spring dishes, he tells us about “Mr. Murakami,” who lives in a nearby farmhouse and grows the fragrant shoots from the fertile earth. In the winter pages, Murata describes passionately how sea eel, in his opinion, has the savory-meaty flavor of a “fifth taste,” known in Japan as umami.

The description of each dish is a personal record of how Chef Murata makes them unique to his restaurant. This is not simply a kaiseki fact book, but a subjective account of Murata’s reminiscences.

The English translation is loyal to Murata’s concept of this work as an artistic journey. It is poetic not pedantic, and at once colloquial and precise. Its greatest achievement is weaving the Japanese technical terms, all explained in English, into prose with ease.

When asked to explain kaiseki ryo-ri, Murata simply replies that it is “eating the seasons.” The fall of the blossom petal, the chorus of the cicadas, the velvet of the red leaves, the soft glow of snow: These are intrinsic composites of the Japanese mind that, in turn, so crucially inspires the kaiseki cuisine.

Capturing this exquisitely are the beautiful photographs by Masashi Kuma: closeup shots bursting with fresh color, scenic shots in atmospheric black and white. Thanks to Kuma, the book comes as close as it can to giving you a literal taste of Chef Murata’s cuisine.

Yet the winning attraction of this book is not its immaculate capture of Murata’s expertise — although that in itself is most pleasingly striking. While familiar by name, kaiseki, particularly of Kikunoi’s caliber, is a specialist cuisine that takes exquisite skill to make and loose purse strings to enjoy. So, for many, it is not necessarily a familiar experience. But the journey through this book makes kaiseki seem very close, comfortable and familiar.

For Murata, “kaiseki is all about enjoyment.” It is an entire experience of space, time and all the senses. He strives for the exclamation of “wow, that’s beautiful” from his customers as the food is displayed before them. The book, too, is first and foremost about luxurious entertainment. Its appeal is artistic and sensual as well as technical and practical. It is an indulgent experience that can be enjoyed simply aesthetically by those for whom kaiseki has a high-brow impression: Browse through, note a few precious cooking tips and lick your lips.