Kaiseki is Japanese haute cuisine and with all haute cuisines, there is an order, a pattern if you will, of dishes that are served. First course is zensai, a small bite of seasonal foods, usually vegetable based. Second course is usually a fish, most of the time sashimi of a white fish, followed by a broth or soup of some kind.
In the spring and fall, ayu makes an appearance during the second course. Usually lightly salted and grilled.
The ideal size of an ayu is 6 inches, or 15cm which makes it edible in three bites.
According to Chef Kanda of Nihonryori Kanda, the proper way to eat ayu is:
First bite = from the head to right above the stomach
Second bite = the stomach
Third bite = the crispy tail
*sip beer and feel sad the ayu is gone*
Ayu is a very particular fish.
Its characteristics are a sweet fish with a bit of bitterness in its fins and head. When eaten with beer, it draws out the sweetness and balances the bitter.
Ayu also needs to be cooked while still alive. Otherwise, the muscles tighten and the meat wraps around the bone. When that happens, it is likely the bones prick the customer’s mouths so it’s best prepared while alive. Another reason it needs to be cooked while living is the meat flattens and it doesn’t end up deliciously plump on the plate. When grilled fresh, ayu’s fins firm to allow the fish to stand on its own fins.
I’m not really a stickler on etiquette but because I learned such incredible facts on ayu, I thought I would share.
Most of this knowledge I obtained from Chef Kanda.
Kanda-san’s Kanda has been awarded three Michelin stars for seven consecutive years (in case your food barometer is solely based on ratings).
I wouldn’t recommend Kanda to first time kaiseki eaters. His food is subtle and unless one really knows Japanese food, it might be challenging to appreciate — some may even feel ripped off. For what it’s worth though, Kanda is easily in my top ten meals of all time.
Nihonryori no Kanda
*bookings should be made at least three months in advance
PS: The above photo is not mine. I do not take photos at Kanda, as Kanda-san is extremely particular with his food and has a deep thought process that surrounds all aspects of the foods he serves. Kanda, is built around optimal servings of ingredients ex: he only seats 16-18 people a day because that is the best portion of meats and fish, for example. His kitchen is tiny on purpose, because Japanese food is extremely reliant on timing, even adding a bit of soy sauce a millisecond too early or too late can throw the entire dish off. Knowing what I know about his ethos, I do not want to disrespect his food and the experience fiddling with my phone taking photos.