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October 20, 2011

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The art of Zen heats up the kitchen

IN Japan, there is a cuisine called kaiseki, which has evolved from Buddhist monks and is a part of Zen philosophy.

The cuisine features light food that is in season. A proper kaiseki meal involves many dishes with small portions.

Japanese chefs consider the cuisine as a food language, especially respect for nature and discovering inner peace.

Masami Honda, Japanese executive chef at Nadaman restaurant at Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai, says kaiseki cuisine involves natural flavors and can be an emotional experience for diners.

"From the well-selected ingredients, aesthetic and poetic presentation and natural flavor transition from dish to dish, diners experience a chef's utmost effort to create something memorable," Honda says. "This is the role kaiseki plays, bringing diners an emotional experience that allows them to understand something profound."

Kaiseki in Japanese literally means "stone in the bosom." It is said that monks in ancient Japan, who usually ate little, put warm stones in the front of their robes to ward off hunger. Later, the idea of kaiseki evolved into a meal featuring small, light dishes, sharing some similarities to food eaten by monks.

The cuisine's respect for nature can be seen in everything from the selection of ingredients to the recipes and even the tableware.

Hoshina Masanobu, executive Japanese chef at The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai, says it's difficult to keep a kaiseki menu for very long. "It's impossible to settle a menu since seasonal ingredients change monthly, sometimes even weekly," he says.

Despite the frequent menu changes some basic rules exist. For example, chefs will increase the portion of cold dishes in the summer set menu. In the winter, more hot dishes such as hot pot and broiled fish will be included.

Quiet ambience

Tableware also changes seasonally. According to Honda, glass bowls and plates are used in summer to stimulate a diner's appetite. In winter, pottery is used to keep the food warm for a longer period. Chinaware is mainly used in spring and autumn, but the patterns change according to flowers in season.

Restaurants serving kaiseki cuisine usually feature soft lighting and a quiet ambience. Before eating, it's necessary for diners to wash their hands, mouth and face to show respect to the chef.

A kaiseki dinner usually consists of 10 to 13 dishes including an appetizer, sushi, sashimi, vegetables, grilled fish, soup, broiled fish and dessert. The dishes are served in order from cold to hot with light foods served before the rich dishes.

A typical meal will take about two hours. Both Honda and Masanobu recommend that this tradition is followed as it allows diners to better understand the philosophy behind the food.

Nadaman at Pudong Shangri-La offers a KIRI Traditional Kaiseki Set (680 yuan/US$106.25). The set includes all the representative Japanese dishes such as a steamed egg, pickled vegetables and grilled fish.

Honda, with 43 years cooking experience in Japan, whose food is recognized by Chinese President Hu Jintao tried to present locals the authentic high-end Japanese cuisine.

"What kind of vegetables and fish being used is changeable since we should use the freshest seasonal ingredients," he says.

Honda honors the kaiseki notion of balance and he applies this to the taste, texture and color of the food.

Meanwhile, Hanagatami at The Portman Ritz-Carlton is one of the few Japanese restaurants in Shanghai providing customized service.

"People have their own preferences. It's a good way to enhance their dining experience," Masanobu says.

Diners at Hanagatami need to order the kaiseki set two days in advance so the chef has enough time to prepare.

Nadaman, Pudong Shangri-La Shanghai

Tel: 5888-3768

Address: 33 Fucheng Rd, Pudong

Hanagatami, The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai

Tel: 6279-8888

Address: 1376 Nanjing Rd W.


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