For the seasoned traveller to Japan, it will come as no surprise that the area in and around Kyoto is thought to have some of the finest produce in the country and I daresay, the finest Washoku cuisine in the land (Washoku means Japanese food or cooking).
The highest expression of Washoku is known as kaiseki – the word kaiseki derives from the Japanese words kai (bosom) and seki (stone), and comes from the habit of trainee monks carrying a heated stone in their robes, whose warmth helped to stave off hunger. Served as part of the tea ceremony since the 16th century, light kaiseki meals were introduced becasue the high caffeine content of powdered green tea was almost too intense to drink on an empty stomach. Today, kaiseki generally refers to a Japanese multi-course haute-cuisine meal at some of the best restaurants in Japan, and particularly in Kyoto.
|Pontocho Street in Kyoto where many kaiseki restaurants can be found|
Kaiseki meals are an exquisite experience on many levels. They are a celebration of the four distinct Japanese seasons and the ingredients each of these can offer, while great attention is also given to aesthetic awareness. This extends not just to the food but also to the finest crockery being selected to present the dishes in a way that tempts both the eye and the appetite. In Japan, kaiseki is considered an art form.
Whenever I visit Kyoto I make sure to try as many kaiseki meals as I can afford. As you can imagine, these meals are not cheap and are a real treat even for affluent Japanese. As we see in many top or Michelin-starred restaurants in London, there are some good deals to be had at lunch time, and I list below via @thelondonfoodie’s Instagram posts some of my personal kaiseki restaurant favourites, but more on that later.
The area in and around Kyoto has its own style of kaiseki, known as Kyo-Kaiseki. As Kyoto is some distance from the sea, the Kyo-cuisine of the area focuses on freshwater fish from nearby Biwa Lake and Kamo River, as well as local vegetables grown in the nutritious clay soil of Kyoto’s outskirts.
Unlike in other parts of Japan, the entire region of Kansai, where Kyoto is situated, tends to favour dishes that are lighter in colour and salt content, so that the natural flavour of ingredients, particularly vegetables, can better be appreciated.
In addition to the fantastic vegetable produce, the Kansai region is also renowned for its wagyu beef (Kobe town is in Kansai) and for its yuba, which is one of Kyoto’s most notable specialties. Yuba (a by-product of tofu making) is soya milk skin, and it should be creamy but feather-light in texture. It is one of my favourite foods, and I always eat copious amounts of it whenever I am in Kyoto. I love eating yuba served ‘teoke‘-style in a wooden vessel with soya milk and an accompanying dipping sauce. There are restaurants which specialize in yuba and other tofu dishes which I really recommend to anyone visiting the region. For my personal recommendations on where to eat yuba in Kyoto, see @thelondonfoodie‘s Instagram post at the end of this feature.
|A Yuba Teoke Set Lunch from a specialist restaurant in Arasiyama in the outskirts of Kyoto|
|Kyoto Wagyu Beef – look at that marbling!|
One of today’s leading authorities on Kyo-Kaiseki is Chef Yoji Satake – he is the 11th generation of the Satake family of chefs, who originally founded the historical 300 year-old Minokichi Restaurant in Kyoto in 1716. Now a group with 16 restaurants spread throughout Japan, the Minokichi Group is run by his father Rikifusa Satake. When Chef Yoji Satake is not travelling the world to lecture on Kyo-kaiseki, he works as the Head Chef of the group’s flagship restaurant Takeshigero (formerly Minokichi Restaurant).
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a magnificent dinner prepared by the man himself at Hampton Court Palace recently, with distinguished guests and speakers including the Japanese Ambassador to the UK Koji Tsuruoka.
|The Japanese ambassador to the UK Koji Tsuruoka|
The dinner was a collaboration of the the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the JA Group (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives) and the JA Group Kyoto which brought Chef Yoji Satake to London for his first time to prepare the dinner. It focussed on the agricultural produce of Kyoto (vegetables and wagyu beef) flown in especially for the occasion, many of which are rare even in Japan.
The meal was structured in four courses, with the first being a platter containing nine bite-sized morsels made from Kyoto’s seasonal ingredients. Highlights for me were the unctuously creamy Yamashina aubergine, the refreshing Kyo–mizuna greens with Manganji green pepper in dashi, and the Kyoto wagyu beef and burdock kimpira (a lightly spiced Japanese stir-fry dish).
Equally delicious was the kombu (kelp) marinated turbot served with ponzu jelly (a Japanese citrus and soy based dressing). This is an ancient Japanese technique known as Kobujime, a method of preserving fish by curing it between layers of kombu, infusing it with umami flavour.
Our second course was Yuan-grilled salmon served on aromatic cedar wood plates. Yuan refers to a marinade created by a tea-ceremony master called Yuan Kitamura in the Edo Period – there are many variations on Yuan marinade but it consists mainly of equal parts of soy sauce, sake and mirin (sweetened sake) with the more recent addition of yuzu or other Japanese citrus fruit. The fish is lightly marinated in this mixture and then grilled. Chef Yoji Satake’s Yuan-yaki salmon was a fine example of this dish served with some local Kyoto vegetables – Kamo aubergines, Fushimi green pepper and Kujo spring onions.
For main course, we had another major product of the region – Kyoto wagyu beef! This was roasted and served with mustard leaves and a delectable sesame dressing. The meat was perfectly cooked, served medium rare and had the wonderful creaminess and mouth-feel only authentic wagyu beef can offer. I have written in The London Foodie about wagyu beef, demystifying it and suggesting places where you can find the real thing right here in UK, you can see this feature here.
For dessert, a fondue of matcha from Uji was served with a selection of goodies – a mochi (glutinous rice dumpling) flavoured with cherry flowers and filled with Dainagon beans (the finest red beans used for anko red bean paste, a primary ingredient in many Japanese confections), and also black-bean cake and seasonal fruits.
Needless to say, the finest sake from Kyoto was served and matched with every course, this was a memorable meal giving just a glimpse of the endless potential of the agricultural produce of Kyoto.
If you are a foodie (and I assume you are if you are reading this) and plan to travel to Japan, Kyoto should definitely be on your list of places to visit – if not for the amazing culture, temples and natural beauty then without doubt for the wonderful food. Below I mention some recommendations of places to visit in Kyoto – this is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it includes a few personal favourites.
Yuba is one of the most famous foods of Kyoto and I highly recommend a visit to a Yuba/Tofu specialist restaurant while in town: We had a fantastic 8-course kaiseki lunch at Gion Karyo for YEN 5,000 or about £35! This is my best-value recommendation for Kaiseki in Kyoto!
|The gorgeous Bamboo Forest in Arasiyama just a few minutes from Otsuka|
Pontocho is a narrow street in Kyoto with many bars and kaiseki restaurants, it is also a great place for strolling and idling away the hours, but most importantly for geisha spotting!
For more Kyoto must-visits, you can read my earlier post on the city, with other kaiseki restaurant recommendations including Giro-Giro and Manzara-tei in the Pontocho area:
I would like to thank the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, the JA Group (Japan Agricultural Cooperatives), the JA Group Kyoto and Chef Yoji Satake for inviting me to this event showcasing the agricultural produce of Kyoto. It has made me realize how much I miss the city and its incredible food, but I am already plotting my return!