Food & Travel

Kichisen: A Traditional Kaiseki Experience

By Anonymous Paul on 2 August, 2013

Kyoto is ground zero for many outstanding establishments featuring kaiseki ryori. Kaiseki, in simplified description, is not just a multi-course meal, but a real art form perfected over centuries. Many chefs nowadays do their own modern twists and interpretations of the style but Yoshimi Tanigawa’s Kichisen, a revered Kyoto institution, focuses on serving kaiseki in its most traditional form. Which is what drew us for a visit.

An aperitif of cold umeshu (plum wine) was served followed by sake poured by Tanigawa San himself to welcome us. Kaiseki emphasizes hospitality just as much as seasonality of ingredients, and so throughout the meal Chef Tanigawa would personally show us how to go through most courses despite the language barrier; speaking in short English phrases.

Accompanying the sake was the sakizuke, or light appetizer. In the middle of a leaf wrapped sculpture were thin sheets of fried eggplants. And underneath the crisps were some soy braised fish called nishi and what seemed to be cured fish roe. Of which surprisingly had some crunchy quality; a textural treat.

Our sake cups had run dry at this point so we had ordered a bottle of Kikuhime, as suggested by one of the servers. I do not have sake too often but I could tell this was exceptional. Clean, full bodied, with some salinity and possessing umami. It would prove to pair well with the successive dishes.

A bowl of chilled, fresh usui peas followed. Immersed in a slightly sweetened broth proved to be so refreshing.

A clear soup course called o-wan followed and signalled the start of the meal proper. Hamo, or pike eel was poached in a delicate dashi-like stock with ume (plum) and what seemed like a jasmine bud. Chef Tanigawa instructed us to take a sip of the broth without, then with, the flower bud in the broth and there really was remarkable difference. The hamo was so delicate and flaked beautifully. The ume provided an apricot like aroma and a slight acidity to balance everything out. Pike eel is a very seasonal summer fish common in the Kansai (southern region) and requires skill to prepare because of its bony nature. It was also the theme ingredient of the Iron Chef episode in which Tamagawa San handed Masaharu Morimoto a rare defeat.

A quite ornate boat garnished with maple and ginkgo leaves was presented next. Upon removing the cover revealed an assortment of fish, squid, shrimp and squid tentacles in a dark miso paste. The flowers and herbs were not merely for decoration as we were guided to eat them with the sashimi. A spicy raddish dipping sauce was served along with soy as well as a cube of herb jelly and fresh wasabi. Needless to say the freshness of the seafood was superb; unbelievably sweet.

Fine slices of exquisite otoro, the tuna’s most prized part, with gratings of fresh wasabi followed next. Beautifully marbled with fat and dissolved on the tongue like a pat of butter.

By this time we had ordered a second bottle of sake, a Bisuikosen. A little lighter in body, had hints of tropical fruit and very smooth.

The interesting sasamaki was served next. This type of sushi is quite rare outside of Japan; with this version featuring sea bream over vinegared rice and wrapped in bamboo leaf. (The bamboo leaf not only imparts aroma but has antibacterial properties. And in historic times, soldiers of warring lords carried these sushi packets as ration.) Instead of a dab of wasabi, fresh sansho leaves were tucked under the fish and provided an intense, citrusy, mouth tingling sensation. A sweet seaweed and ginger relish was served on the side.

Hone senbei, fish bone crackers, were then served as palate cleansers. Deep fried and salty. Crunchy. Very familiar to the Filipino palate.

Nimono, the boiled course, was composed of bonito and bamboo shoots in a light seaweed broth and topped with yuzu rind shavings. The bonito had a dense texture, almost meaty, slightly smoky quality and the shoots were deliciously tender. The yuzu just gave everything a citrusy lift.

The yakimono, or grilled dish, came next. As the server lifted a veil of parchment it revealed morsels of steaming cod atop a slice of pineapple on top of a hot rock heated by coals. Quite elaborate.

The final part of the main meal usually consists of rice and pickles. And we were presented with a huge clay pot; the contents of which our server simply described as “baby fish rice”. What resembled silver fish mounded atop a cross between a congee and risotto. The fish had the melt-in-the-mouth quality of angulas. The consistency of the rice, cooked in broth, was loose and spoonable yet each grain was distinctly whole. A truly comforting dish.

Winding down, we concluded with three desserts. A summer orange (naturally sweet and pleasantly bitter like a blood orange) jelly splashed with Cointreau, fresh fruits over shaved ice and a dense, chewy mochi with azuki filling served with ginger sugar jelly.

The whole meal was a glimpse of how differently the Japanese approach food and cooking. With an almost hyper-sensitivity to seasonal ingredients, and a clear emphasis on balance and subtlety. (Dishes presented were representative of summer and therefore light. Heavier dishes would normally be served during autumn/winter.) Not a course passed that I even thought about the level of seasoning as all I picked up were the pure flavors of the ingredients themselves. Amplifying umami without reliance on the addition of cream, or butter or fat is indeed an art mastered. Texture is also given much importance. The precision and skill to create such deceptively simple dishes is just on another level. One must take into mind the techniques used to prepare all the courses remain traditional and developed over centuries. No circulation pumps or nitrogen tubs or newfangled gadgets; it’s all mind blowing. Yet in the midst of all the precisely prepared food, one never feels any air of snobbery or pretentiousness. The general feeling was relaxed; more like elevated home cooking.

In fact Chef Tanigawa casually chatted with us, with one of his apprentices interpreting, after our meal as we had frothy matcha and smoked oolong tea. Genuinely still making sure we were enjoying ourselves and asking us about our journey in Kyoto thus far. He then handed me a DVD of his Iron Chef appearance and a beautifully wrapped handkerchief as a parting present.

On the way out, I asked one of the apprentices if Chef Tanigawa was strict in the kitchen. His eyes widened and in a hushed tone he said “Very. It’s quite known that he’s the strictest in Kyoto. And I guess he has to be if he wants to remain on top. He is the best.”

His words, not mine. But quite easy to believe.


5 Tadasu-no-mori,
Shimogamo, Sakyo-ku,
Kyoto, Japan

Kichisen Website

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  • AUGUST 2, 2013 11:16 AM

    sanju said...

    AP, Well written post as always. I am curious to know, does Kichisen offer various types of kaiseki or just one?

  • AUGUST 2, 2013 12:26 PM

    Anonymous Paul said...

    They offer several price ranges. They don't have a menu as the dishes can literally change everyday. The difference mostly being the type of ingredients used. So everything is up to the chef. This meal was somewhere in between that range upon suggestion of our host; with meals just varying to to some degree like having an extra course. But as one can see, it's a tremendous amount of food already.