MORE THAN MISO
Konichiwa, authentic Japanese cuisine
Heading to Japan’s traditional heart in search of more than sushi, ramen or tempura? You’ve had a gutful of okonomiyaki, gyoza and Kewpie mayonnaise? Travel with this guide to find Kyoto’s best, most authentic eats.
KYO-YASAI, YOU’RE SO FINE
This collective of more than 40 locally grown Kyoto vegetables is highly sought after by chefs and culinary enthusiasts nationally. Setting kyoyasai apart from your average Japanese supermarket veg is impeccable flavour, texture, unique shapes and colour variation. Head to central Nishiki market or the depachika (underground food halls) of Daimaru or Takashimaya department stores and keep eyes peeled for large red carrots, plump round Kamo eggplant, super-sweet tender leeks known as Kujo Negi and winter’s Shogoin daikon – a spherical unit the size of a baby’s head. Enjoy them at their most exquisite at restaurants serving kaiseki or shojin ryori (Buddhist vegan cuisine).
WHAT THE … KAISEKI?
This most formal and poetic of Japanese cuisine styles is executed in hushed and focused atmospheres at traditional fine dining establishments known as ryotei. Kyoto is home to the country’s largest quota of kaiseki-proud venues, but it can be difficult to nab a spot so book well ahead via your hotel concierge or a Japanese-fluent friend.
Request counter seats for premium viewing. No need to decipher menus as a course – around 12 small, intricate dishes served on sublime tableware – is predetermined. Simply turn up on the dot, not a minute either side, stay quiet and polite, eat everything (or surreptitiously slip it onto a friend’s plate) and observe the master. Err … it’s more fun than it sounds. With roots in tea ceremony, kaiseki is a feast for the aesthetically inclined diner and a humbling lesson in culture. Try Gion Karyo, Tankuma Kitamise or Tategami for less intimidating, more affordable options. If your concierge scores you a spot at Tempura Matsu – grab it and thank the seven lucky gods.
Mottainai, a “waste nothing” philosophy, is observed throughout Japan’s culture, and preserved foods, particularly tsukemono (pickles), are one excellent example. An ingenious and enduring leftover from pretransport times when it was crucial for foodstuffs to last the long, deep winters in a city landlocked by inaccessible mountain ranges,
pickling has become a Kyoto art form. Signalling the completion of a traditional Japanese meal, a trifecta of soup, rice and pickles (a more-ish digestive aid) is dispensed. Every Kyoto trip promises to shower you in enough pickle juice for a light drenching but head to Nishiki market or historic Higashiyama area for full immersion. Sample, using the mini tongs provided, and souvenir umami-packed pencil-thin gobo (burdock root) pickle. Just don’t pack it in your carry-on – liquid alert!
HOLY SHOJIN, MAT-MAN!
Ajiro restaurant, outside Myoshinji temple complex, is highly celebrated for its shojin ryori or “enlightened person’s cuisine”. Originally a bland form of vegan sustenance for Buddhist monks, shojin ryori evolved with enough creative dedication to prove popular with the fancy folks of this Zen-centric town.
Even committed carnivores are mystified by the sway of the veggie voodoo. Intensely good stock – a potent mix of dried land and sea vegetables – forms the foundation for dishes such as rich gomadofu (savoury sesame “tofu”), dipping sauce for vegetable bud tempura and simmered, freeze-dried tofu (which could pass for slow-cooked pork). Although diners traditionally eat from raised trays while parked on tatami flooring, you can request table-seating at Ajiro.
Mirroring life itself, this restaurant genre can be hit and miss so you’d be wise to pay your respects to a recommended gastro temple.
Favoured by nobility in a time when sugar equalled currency, Kyoto’s saikyo miso remains the sweetest of them all. Paler and more creamy than regular white miso, the delicacy features in local renditions of typical Japanese dishes, especially in winter and new year celebrations.
While certain confectionary contains the silky-smooth soybean paste, chances are you’ll experience it via savoury dishes such as soups, hotpots (nabe) and sauces. Saikyo-yaki, fish fillets marinated in saikyo miso then grilled, is popular. Shop for miso at Kantoya. Tip: Check-in luggage only.
TONYU WANT ME?
Miso’s main squeeze is also the hero of soy milk (tonyu), yuba (soy milk skin) and tofu (set soy milk) and Kyoto is the place to taste it fresh. Enjoy all three soybean-based beauties, and cook your own yuba, at Gion Okuoka.
SOBA GOOD FOR YOU
Sure, you can find great udon (Omen) and ramen (Kyoto station’s Ramen Koji) in Ktown but nutritious, nutty flavoured soba noodles are favoured by locals. Enjoy slightly chewy, buckwheatdense strands cold with dipping sauce in summer or hot in a broth in cool weather. Watch at Ukiya as the chef rolls, folds and cuts.
The artful “Way of Tea” grew popular during the days of samurai who fancied the tea ceremony as a post-battle salve. Frothy, verdant matcha’s calmative properties aided the cause while caffeine levels boosted energy. Like most high arts, the trickle-down facilitated wider appeal. Today the ritual is widely practised in professional establishments and in the home by cultural hobbyists on special occasions. Enjoy the experience with experts at Camellia Tea Ceremony.
EAT SWEETS, OR NO TEA
Wagashi, traditional tea ceremony sweets made from starchy ingredients such as glutinous rice, beans or chestnuts, are ideally consumed before drinking the slightly bitter matcha.
Playing a part in the beauty of the ceremony alongside arranged flowers, scrolls and the colour or pattern of the server’s silk kimono, wagashi are symbolically shaped and tinted in ode to a particular season or occasion.
A leisurely ceremony is a meditative affair, but if you don’t have time for the full monty, visit the modern tea shop of famous Toraya. They have been crafting wagashi since the 16th century – but won’t scold you if you nibble out of order.
Fish stores sell varieties of fish cooked different ways; a tea ceremony includes wagashi, symbolically shaped sweets; fresh market food is full of flavour, and feast on kaiseki, a traditional multi-course dinner.