Trends in Japan > J-food > Kyoto, Spiritual Home of Japanese Cuisine
Ancient Capital Offers a Mouthwatering Taste of Tradition
(October 3, 2007)

Kaiseki-ryori (© Kyo-Ryori Association)

For more than 1,000 years, beginning in 794, the ancient city of Kyoto was the capital of Japan. Lying in the middle of the Japanese archipelago in a basin-shaped valley and surrounded by mountains on three sides, Kyoto’s distinctive surroundings change with each season. Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine) is the model for Japanese culinary culture, which places great importance on the use of seasonal ingredients.

A Fusion of Cooking Styles
Today Kyoto has a population of around 1.46 million people. It is home to the former palace of the emperor, as well as many temples and shrines, including a number of World Heritage Sites. Kyoto cuisine developed amid the complementary influences of four styles of cooking: yusoku-ryori, or dishes prepared for the Emperor’s Court; shojin-ryori, which consists of vegetarian dishes developed by Buddhist monks; kaiseki-ryori, which has its roots in the tea ceremony; and honzen-ryori, the highly formalized style of dining favored for special events by samurai families.


Enkoji Temple (© Kyoto Tourism Council)


Hassun (© Kyo-Ryori Association)

Located close to the Sea of Japan and Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake, Kyoto enjoyed a well-developed water transportation system that enabled delivery of the highest quality foodstuffs from around the country. The city was also a magnet for chefs who wanted to hone their culinary skills.

Inspired by the Tea Ceremony
Kaiseki cuisine, which has had a significant influence on the development of Japanese culinary culture, is a light meal taken to curb an empty stomach before having tea. It is based on an idea of central importance in the tea ceremony: ichigo-ichie, which means treasuring every encounter in life since it will never recur. The term also conveys the idea of offering hospitality to guests with heartfelt sincerity. One does this by making sure that hot dishes are served hot, that cold dishes are well chilled, and that food is served as soon as it is prepared and in the right order. Another important factor is for the guest to enjoy a sense of the season through the aromas and tastes of seasonal ingredients.


Part of an ichiju-sansai meal (© Kyo-Ryori Association)


A nimono dish (© Kyo-Ryori Association)


Kamo-nasu (© Kyoto Produce Price and Distribution Stability Association)


A dish made with yuba

The basis of kaiseki-ryori is ichiju-sansai (“one soup, three sides”), consisting of a bowl of miso soup and three okazu (side dishes) along with a bowl of rice. Different cooking techniques are applied to each of the three okazu. One of the side dishes, called mukozuke, may feature sashimi. Another, called nimono, is made by simmering fish or vegetables in a unique Japanese stock made with dried bonito fish flakes and konbu (dried kelp). Nimono is carefully arranged and served in a bowl with a generous portion of soup stock. The third side dish, called yakimono, usually consists of fish, such as ayu (sweetfish), that has been salted and grilled. To cleanse the palate after eating ichiju-sansai, a plain, lightly salted broth called hashiarai is served. Topping off the meal is a dish called hassun, which contains a mixture of ingredients from the sea and mountains, such as seaweed and yam.

Delicately prepared with carefully selected ingredients using sophisticated techniques, all of these dishes are served one at a time in small amounts. Careful attention is paid to how food is arranged and presented, following the wabi-sabi concept of beauty emphasized in the tea ceremony, which focuses on simplicity and understated elegance. There are many restaurants in Kyoto with menus based on kaiseki-ryori that offer a greater number of side dishes served in larger portions with more colorful garnishes using seasonal flowers and leaves. Sampling the cuisine of the city is a chance to experience the “spirit of hospitality” and the “spirit of tea.”

Unique Ingredients
Kyoto cuisine boasts a vast array of distinctive, healthy ingredients. Among these are Kyo-yasai, unique vegetables grown in the Kyoto region. Many of the vegetables have names that incorporate the names of places in Kyoto, such as Kamo-nasu, a plump, round eggplant about 15 cm in diameter that is grown in the Kamo area to the north, and Kujo-negi, a fluffy green onion with a slightly sweet taste that is grown in the Kujo area in the middle of Kyoto, south of Kyoto station. Recently Kyo-yasai have also become popular ingredients at Italian and French restaurants in Kyoto.


Toji Temple (© Kyoto Tourism Council)

No visitor to Kyoto should go home without sampling dishes made with yuba, which was developed along with shojin-ryori. Yuba is made from soybeans that have been stone ground and boiled in a cauldron. The soy milk is then boiled in an open shallow pan, forming a film or skin on the liquid surface. This is yuba, which is collected and dried into yellowish sheets. There are a number of ways to eat yuba, such as wrapping it around vegetables before simmering them or deep frying it to make it crispy. Yuba has become quite popular with Western chefs since it is high in protein and low in fat. Easy to carry and pack, yuba is an excellent choice for a souvenir.

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