Kaiseki is about expressing a time and place in nature through the flavor and visual presentation of a multi-course meal. Executed at its highest level, it’s the epitome of fine dining and the backbone of a lot of great tasting menu experiences in not just Japanese cooking, but beyond.
“The philosophical idea of kaiseki is you have to be representative of the area that surrounds you. You have to talk about nature,” says Niki Nakayama, the chef behind Michelin two-star n/naka in Los Angeles. “You need to take all the great ingredients of that moment and find the best technique to present them. So it’s always constantly recalibrating on understanding the ingredient and finding the best method to highlight it. Today’s carrot might be really good if you ate it as a sashimi, but maybe tomorrow’s carrot is going to be more delicious if you braised it. Or, you know, maybe that same carrot, bringing out that flavor means you should fry it.”
Executing kaiseki at Nakayama’s level requires you to be in tune with your ingredients and then have the grasp of technique that allows you to coax the best out of them. Though home cooks don’t need that level of finesse and precision, learning kaiseki will undoubtedly make you better in the kitchen. And that’s why Nakayama and her wife Carole Iida-Nakayama have launched a new MasterClass to teach you the techniques behind the courses of n/naka’s “California Kaiseki,” like mushimono (steamed dish), otsukuri (traditional sashimi) or agemono (fried fish or vegetable course).
MasterClass has shared an exclusive clip from her new class to help you master agemono by explaining the basics of tempura.
Nakayama and Iida-Nakayama begin by making a tempura batter. You can mix the dry ingredients yourself, but they recommend buying a premade flour that already has add-ins like dried egg whites and baking soda in the right proportion. Miyako and Shiragiku are two brands they recommend. To start, mix with water in a bowl set a bed of ice to make sure your batter stays very cold. Take care to not overmix the flour and develop too much gluten and know that small lumps are fine as long as the batter is mixed enough that it coats the back of a spoon.
Toss your vegetables in potato starch before dunking in the batter as that will draw out any remaining moisture and help the tempura adhere to the ingredient. Get your oil to 350 degrees Fahrenheit—they recommend using rice bran oil, but you mainly want a neutral oil that won’t denature at high heat. Before frying, add a few drops of the batter to the oil and if the oil bubbles and the batter floats, it’s a good sign your oil is hot enough. Better yet, get a digital probe thermometer to check.
When you start frying your vegetables, don’t overcrowd the pan, as that may drop the temperature of the oil and inhibit the crispiness you want. Gently move the ingredients around the pan to ensure they fry evenly and don’t stick. As you go, skim loose bits of crispy batter out of the oil, because they can also drop its temperature. You’ll know your tempura is ready when it’s a nice golden brown and not a dark brown. To get the full 25-minute lesson on tempura along with all of Nakayama’s lessons, her MasterClass is now available to buy.
Of course, if you live in LA and want to leave this work to the professionals, n/naka has been serving highly coveted bento boxes that sell out almost immediately each week. Niki and Carole are also launching a new restaurant this week, n/soto.
The new restaurant is an outgrowth of the ekiben bento boxes the restaurant has done in partnership with restaurants like LA’s Porridge and Puffs. Those boxes differed from n/naka’s other bentos by serving Japanese cooking that’s influenced by outside cultures. In the first box n/soto will offer, dishes will include baked miso lobster tail, salmon teriyaki, shrimp egg foo young, spam musubi and more. This menu will last four to six weeks before rolling out a new one. And once indoor dining is safe, n/soto will transition to an izakaya.