Flavors of Kyoto
Geography, history, and culture had a big influence on Kyoto cuisine and its unique selection of ingredients, so very different from Tokyo.
With more three-star Michelin restaurants than in New York and an array of heirloom vegetables you can’t find fresh anywhere else, people seeking their next delicious revelation have plenty to explore here (vegans very much included).
Read on to find your next tasty bite infused with the history of the ancient capital.
The superb green tea grown at Uji, just south of Kyoto, complements any meal. Uji’s hilly tea fields are quite a sight, too!
Fruit of the Land, Not of the Sea
Unlike many big cities of Japan, Kyoto wasn’t built near the sea. Surrounded by big mountains on three sides, the position was shielded from any unwanted visitors – a perfect environment for a long period of peace (heian) and the flourishing of local culture.
The trade-off? The capital was far away from sources of fish in a society that doesn’t really eat meat.
So, Kyotoites got by with what they had – vegetables, pickled and fermented products, and (occasionally) dried or salted fish.
Kyoto cuisine (Kyo-ryori, 京料理) is based on ingredients like rice, soybean products like tofu and miso, and locally cultivated kinds of vegetables (Kyo-yasai, 京野菜).
Kyoto veggies are best eaten fresh and with less spices – they’re known for their unusually rich flavors.
Some examples of Kyoto veggies are Kamo-nasu eggplant, kujo scallion, murasaki zukin soybean, kintoki carrots, and ebiimo taro.
Cooking is an Art
As the local veggies bring an explosion of flavor as-is, Kyoto cuisine was built on these three pillars:
- Don’t overseason: Use the strengths of ingredient combinations to bring flavors to life, not seasoning.
- Don’t overcook: The less processing needed, the better.
- Think seasonal: Choose, prepare, and serve the food in the context of the current season.
In line with this philosophy, flavor-enhancing and milder seasoning techniques were born in Kyoto. The best known today are cooking in dashi soup stock and using the milder-tasting white miso.
The Five Dining Styles Developed in Kyoto (Kyo-ryori, 京料理)
For centuries, Kyoto was a center of ruling power, economy, culture, art, and religion, in the process getting shaped by various influences.
Everyone came with their own customs and, naturally, eating habits. Over time, people started to distinguish five styles of preparing and serving multi-course meals – some of which define traditional Japanese cuisine to this day.
The five types of cuisine you can taste in Kyoto are:
- Shojin cuisine (精進料理) – the vegetarian diet of Zen Buddhist monks flourished in Kyoto and then spread through the country. Protein-rich shojin cuisine staples like tofu, miso, and sesame oil became essential ingredients in cooking. The simplicity of soil-grown and fermented ingredients, and the conservative use of spices are parts of the monks’ ascetic philosophy.
- Yusoku cuisine (有職料理) is quite the opposite – as only the most luxurious meals were served on the dinner tables of the Emperor’s court in the Kyoto Imperial Palace. These high-class dinners included various meat and seafood dishes, rice, and fruit, but few to no vegetables. The elite considered veggies nutritionally poor – how wrong they were!
- Honzen cuisine (本膳料理) was a highly ceremonial presentation of a seven-course meal presented on trays, popular among the samurai class. Today, honzen eating and drinking rituals are sometimes practiced at weddings and funerals. The ritual was usually followed by a Noh theatre play, when the sake drinking begins.
- Kaiseki cuisine (懐石料理), haute cuisine, the pillar of Japanese fine dining. This style of serving multi-course meals developed with the tea ceremony, but later diverged into a form of high-class dining experience.
Anywhere between six and fifteen courses of seasonal dishes meticulously prepared in various ways follow a pre-set formula: a pickled appetizer, then a seasonal specialty, soup, sashimi, then a grilled course, a simmered dish, a bowl of rice and miso soup, and finally sweets or fruits and a cup of tea.
Kaiseki is less formal, so drinking sake became a big part of the experience. Rice is only served around the end, as it doesn’t mix well with sake that accompanies the meal. Thanks to its many springs of crystal-clear water, Kyoto is also a major producer of quality sake.
- Obanzai (お番菜) represents a rustic style of home-served meals in Kyoto, in which many side dishes are presented – almost like the Spanish tapas. Most of the ingredients are seasonal and locally sourced. Multiple small dishes (rice, pickled veggies, tofu, salads, soups, and more) are served together for a burst of flavors and textures. The cooking is simple and minimally processed – to draw the best out of the fresh ingredients.
The intricate setting of kaiseki cuisine
So, what are the best foods to eat in Kyoto restaurants?
Uji Tea (宇治茶)
If you spent some time in Japan, you probably tried a few types of green tea by now.
Well, few tea kinds match up to the long-revered Uji green tea made in the city of Uji, just south of Kyoto. You can find any type of Uji tea (from sencha to the Emperor’s choice – gyokuro), but both the cooking and the ceremonial grade matcha from Uji are truly exceptional.
Drinking from a cup is not the only way to enjoy Uji matcha.
If you get a sweet tooth on a humid Kyoto summer, try a local green tea shaved ice specialty: Uji-kintoki (宇治金時).
It’s wagashi sweetness galore: shaved ice topped with Uji green tea, anko sweet bean paste, mochi, and matcha ice cream.
Yudofu (湯豆腐) – Cooked Tofu
Kyoto summers are extra hot, and the winters in the city surrounded by mountains are extra cold. Of course, the seasons have a big influence on food choices too.
Buddhist monks didn’t eat meat and Kyoto is far from fresh seafood, but their Shojin cuisine has found the perfect belly-warming sustenance:
What better to stave off the cold than warm soup with fat-and-protein-rich tofu, iodine-containing kombu seaweed, and immune-boosting green onions?
Yudofu (literally, warm water tofu) is a briefly cooked soup of fine-textured silken tofu. The meal is served as a hot pot, and often topped with soy sauce, scallions, mitsuba (parsley-like herb), or shichimi togarashi (a chili powder seasoning).
Shibazuke (柴漬け) Pickles
Pickled fruits and veggies are a huge part of Japanese cuisine – they’re eaten as a side dish, as part of meals, and even on their own.
Many of the widely-loved pickling techniques take root in Kyoto, and shibazuke (柴漬け) is the most famous.
Shibazuke has a refreshing and slightly tangy flavor. This bright pink pickled dish is made of veggies like cucumbers and eggplants, and perilla leaves (shiso, which give it the purple-pink color) pickled in a mixture of salt and vinegar.
Kamonasu no Dengaku – Umami Eggplant
Well-prepared eggplant is always delicious – but few match up to the Kamo eggplant baked with miso.
This delectable dish features a Kyoto-local type of eggplant known as kamo-nasu, after Kyoto’s Kamo River. This big, round veggie is firm and fleshy but juicy, and goes through a round of frying.
The juicy veggie is enriched with the umami flavor of miso. Both red and white miso can be used, combined with a bit of mirin.
White miso is the milder sister of the standard red miso. Shiro-miso, as white miso is usually called, has a similar umami flavor but it’s also mellow and delicate. White miso from Kyoto is also known as Saikyo miso.
Both varieties of miso are made of the same basic ingredients, but in different proportions. White miso contains more rice and barley than soybean, less salt is added, and it’s fermented for a shorter time (up to two weeks).
This process gives white miso a softer flavor profile – and the people in ancient Kyoto were the first to figure that out. White miso is used to add flavor to a broad array of foods, from savory goods and soups to sweets.
White Miso Zoni Soup
Zoni is a traditional soup with rice cakes that people eat (and adapt the recipe locally) all over Japan. It’s a popular dish eaten for New Years – so loved and healthful that it’s believed to bring good luck.
Kyoto’s famous zoni recipes contain white miso, round rice cakes, and a variety of veggies like daikon radish and Kyoto’s own kintoki carrot.
Nishin Soba (にしんそば) – Dried Herring Noodles
Soba noodles are delicious, and so is herring. The combination is a hearty stew with sweet-ish, melt-in-your-mouth fish.
Nishin soba noodles is popular both in Hokkaido (where the fish is shipped from) and Kyoto.
Traditionally, only dried fish could reach Kyoto, so nishin soba is one of the resourceful ways chefs in Gion used this precious commodity.
Bamboo Shoots in Kyoto Cuisine
Along with enjoying the spectacular sight of Arashiyama’s bamboo forests, you can enjoy bamboo in an entirely different way in Kyoto: eating young bamboo shoots.
This luxury ingredient is available between March and May, as only the youngest of bamboo shoots are dug up while they’re still underground. They’re a local delicacy thanks to this meticulous selection process.
The youngest bamboo shoots didn’t yet harden or develop acridity – instead, they have a tender texture and a subtle sweetness.
They’re simply cooked, simmered with seaweed or soy sauce, or grilled.
Wakatakeni – bamboo shoots simmered with wakame seaweed
The Sweet Yatsuhashi (八ツ橋)
In Japan, whenever people visit other cities, it’s customary to bring local souvenirs to friends and family – usually it’s some kind of food.
People visiting Kyoto often choose Yatsuhashi, either soft or hard-baked cinnamon-flavored rice cracker, often filled with anko – sweet bean paste.
Gion Festival Sweets – Chigo Mochi (稚児餅)
An ancient legend recounts that once upon a time a child gave people divine chigo mochi – and everyone who ate it stayed healthy for a whole year. Back in the old days, kids used to anticipate the yearly Gion Festival to eat this miso-featuring frosty mochi. Today, this confectionery can be bought all around the year.
This lovely layered sweet is made of super soft rice cake mochi (more specifically, gyuhi), filled with the subtly umami-tasting white miso, and covered in frosty flakes made of frozen mochi.
Rustic and Refined
Just like with everything in Kyoto – you can taste the long, ancient history of the place in its food as well.
With the sheer amount of time and people that passed through Kyoto, it’s not surprising that the city is so rich in dining culture. From humble monks to privileged warlords, you can feel the hundreds of influences and years of refinement in each bite.