Konichiwa, au­then­tic Ja­pa­nese cui­sine

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Escape - - DESTINATION KYOTO - JANE LAW­SON

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.


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).


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.

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