Food Etiquette: The Dos and Don'ts of Japanese Fine Dining
A time-honored tradition, kaiseki dining is widely considered as one of the pinnacles of the Japanese culinary experience. A traditional kaiseki consists of several courses meant to highlight seasonal ingredients as well as different cooking techniques. Dishes range from grilled fish to simmered meats, all served in a specific order designed by the chef so as to create harmony between all the flavors.
Because crafting a kaiseki is such an intricate art, it’s only proper that certain rules of etiquette are followed when enjoying one. This not only shows respect for the food, but also appreciation for all the work that the chef and servers have put into creating the experience.
A few things to remember before starting the meal:
1. It is customary to start the meal by saying, “Itadakimasu!” It's the Japanese equivalent of "bon appétit" or "let's eat," although a more direct translation would be "I humbly receive." It traces its roots from Buddhism, which teaches gratitude to everything that made the meal possible—from the plants and the animals to the fishermen, market vendors, and the chef.
End the meal by saying “Gochisousama-deshita,” which means “It was a feast." Like "Itadakimasu," this expression acknowledges the great amount of work that went into the preparation of the meal.
2. The chef takes great care to serve each dish at its ideal temperature. Eating food immediately after it is served is a sign of respect for all his efforts.
4. An oshibori (hand towel) should only be used to wipe your hands. It should never be used to wipe other parts of your body or the table. When you’ve wiped your hands, fold it so the used part is hidden inside then put it back where it was originally placed.
Here are a few tips to follow for each course of the kaiseki ryouri, or banquet-style kaiseki:
In general, every item in this appetizer course should be eaten in a single bite so you can enjoy the harmony of flavors. There are, of course, exceptions: Items served in bowls may be sipped as desired, while grilled dishes should be removed, piece by piece, from the skewer. Cleared skewers should be placed on the far side of the plate so that they don't accidentally touch the other food, thereby reducing the risk of their flavors being contaminated by traces left on the skewers.
Bowls vary with the season, but it is common practice to use lidded bowls during this course. It’s customary to wait for the host or guest of honor to remove the lids on their bowls before removing yours. While soup spoons may be provided, the broth is traditionally sipped from the bowl itself. The bowl must be carried with both hands, supported at the base with your fingers. When you’re done with the course, place the lid back on the bowl.
Mukozuke (Seasonal Sashimi)
Dishes for this course are typically meant to be eaten in a certain order, as they’re designed with a specific flavor journey in mind. The chef usually arranges the sashimi servings from light to fat. Following this order is encouraged but not forced.
Soy sauce and wasabi may be served alongside the sashimi to accentuate the taste. However, avoid mixing the wasabi into the soy sauce as you’re meant to enjoy them as distinct flavors on your palate.
Yakimono (Grilled Dishes)
The most common dishes in a yakimono course consist of grilled seafood, often whole fish. When eating fish, start with the meat closest to the head and work your way towards the tail, eating only one side of the fish at a time. Once a side is fully consumed and the spine is visible, pin down the remaining meat with your chopsticks and lift the fish by the head. This will allow you to cleanly remove the head and spine. Set them on the far side of your plate and continue eating the rest of the fish.
Nimono (Simmered Dishes)
While this course is normally served as part of a cha kaiseki (tea ceremony meal), some kaiseki ryouri versions have evolved to include it. Dishes in this course are often served in bowls, and the proper manner in eating them depends on the size of the container. Small bowls may be carried with one hand, with chopsticks in the other, while larger bowls should be left on the table.
Agemono (Deep-Fried Dishes)
Some of the fried dishes come with special blends of flavored salt that are carefully selected to complement the ingredients. For this reason, avoid double-dipping dishes in the sauces provided as this compromises the textures the chef has carefully crafted. While it isn’t a strict rule, it is recommended that you eat the items closest to you going outwards, so as to maintain an aesthetically pleasing appearance.
Mushimono (Steamed dishes)
The most common type of mushimono consists of a steamed egg custard dish served in a lidded bowl. Lift the lid off the bowl and allow all of the steam to escape before eating. Using the spoon provided, start by eating from the side closest to you going outwards. This allows the juices to collect in each bite.
Oshokuji (Rice Dishes)
You may lift the rice bowl to ease your consumption. No need to put it too close to your face as Japanese rice is stickier and less likely to spill—unless you're served an ochazuke (rice dish with soup and sauce). Avoid placing your chopsticks on the bowl when you’re not eating; instead, use the chopstick rest provided. Additionally, it is customary to stop drinking sake at this point of the kaiseki. The rice is treated as sacred food which the Japanese use as offering to the gods of Shintoism.
Many establishments serve fruit, confection, and tea for dessert. Start with the fruit to liven up your taste buds before eating the confection. The tea is meant to be consumed last so that it helps settle the stomach after a heavy meal.
While kaiseki isn’t widely available in the Philippines at the moment, you’ll soon be able to practice proper etiquette when Yamazato at Hotel Okura Manila opens this November. As part of Hotel Okura Manila’s luxury offerings, the elite dining establishment promises to bring the kaiseki ryouri experience to Metro Manila. It will also offer authentic Japanese a la carte meals, a sushi counter, two teppanyaki counters, and private dining rooms that can accommodate as many as 18 people. Yamazato will be accepting reservations starting November 23, 2019, so if you want to be the first to enjoy its five-star kaiseki ryouri, mark the date on your calendar now.