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Thursday 27 July 2017

Washoku Cuisine, Kyo-Kaiseki and My Favourite Kyoto Foods and Restaurant Recommendations

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:

If you love #tofu (and I certainly do), you may like to know that the areas in and around #Kyoto are renowned for their excellent tofu. There are a number of restaurants specialising and serving soybean curd in every shape, colour and size at every course in a meal. At Kyoto JR Station on the 11th floor, we had a magnificent tofu lunch at Shozankaku Matsuyama, the 'Yuba-Oke Bento Set' cost a very reasonable ¥3,780 (£22). #Yuba is soya milk skin and it should be creamy but featherlight in texture. It is one of my favourite foods, and I always eat copious amounts of the stuff whenever I am in Kyoto. I love eating yuba served 'teoke'-style in a wooden vessel with soya milk and accompanying dipping sauce as in this set lunch. In addition to the yuba-teoke, my bento also had sashimi, tempura, grilled salmon, sushi, tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette), rice and red miso soup among other things. #Japan #JapaneseFood #JapaneseCuisine #LoveJapan #food #foodporn #instafood #instatravel #Kyoto #LoveKyoto
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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!

One of the best #Kaiseki restaurants in #Kyoto both in quality and in value (hands down) was #GionKaryo where we enjoyed a fantastic 8-course #kaiseki lunch for ¥5,000 or £30. We sat at the counter (always do if you can), the chefs were very friendly and completely unphased by all the food related questions I was asking them, in fact they were genuinely pleased to see that we were SO interested in their food. This is the only non-Michelin #kaiseki we visited on this trip, and possibly one of the best. Pictured is octopus with broad bean, yolk & vinegar sauce and bamboo shoots in kinomi dressing (in the closed shell) which was part of our lunch. Highly recommended - Gion Karyo, 570-23 Gion-machi Minami-Gawa, Higashiyama-Ku, tel. 532-0025 #Japan #JapaneseFood #JapaneseCuisine #Kaiseki #LoveKyoto #LoveJapan #food #foodporn #yum #instafood #instatravel #lovetravel #KaisekiRyōri
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Kyoto has some of the best kaiseki restaurants in Japan, with prices to match. If you fancy trying kaiseki without breaking the bank, I recommend Koryu in Osaka (only 45 minutes from Kyoto by train). Perhaps because it is not in Kyoto but in Osaka, Koryu was much better value, and it is a 3-Michelin starred restaurant.

From #Kyoto we travelled to #Osaka (a 45-min train ride) to visit the 3-Michelin restaurant Koryu - this was by far the best #Kaiseki restaurant we experienced on this trip in all regards - flavour, technique, presentation and value for money - the difference between a 3 Michelin starred restaurant and other establishments in Japan is very apparent here - a 10-course #Kaiseki dinner at Koryu costs ¥12,000 plus 10% service (about £75 per person), which is great value for a restaurant of this calibre. Pictured is Head Chef Shintaro Matsuo's stunning sashimi platter, a real feast for the eye and palate, I didn't know where to start! The tuna with soy marinated yolk was particular amazing. Service was impeccable and again we were lucky enough to be seated at the Chef Matsuo san's counter which made for a very interesting experience. Highly recommended - Koryu, 1-5-1 Dojima, Kita-Ku, Osaka, tel. 066 347 5660 #Japan #JapaneseFood #JapaneseCuisine #Kaiseki #LoveOsaka #LoveJapan #food #foodporn #yum #instafood #instatravel #lovetravel #KaisekiRyōri
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Ruon Kikunoi was another great 2-Michelin starred kaiseki restaurant we visited in Kyoto, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Roan Kikunoi is a 2-Michelin star restaurant in #Gion, #Kyoto. The 9-course #Kaiseki dinner at this restaurant costs ¥13,000 plus 10% service (about £82 per person). We loved our dinner here, the food was exquisite in both quality and presentation. I would however struggle to tell you the difference between this and other Kaiseki restaurants we visited on this trip with fewer or no Michelin stars (see earlier posts). But this is no criticism of #RoanKikunoi - just a reflection of the very high standard of cooking in #Kaiseki restaurants in #Kyoto. One of the star courses at #RoanKikunoi was the sashimi of red sea bream and Spanish mackerel which had been cured in kelp seaweed for a few hours (a popular technique known as konbu-jime where raw fish is sandwiched between sheets of konbu and marinated) before being served with ponzu jelly (citrus dressing). Highly recommended - Roan Kikunoi, 118 Saito-Cho, Shijo-Sagaru, Kiyamachi-Dori, Shimogyo-Ku, Kyoto, tel. 075 361 5580 #Japan #JapaneseFood #JapaneseCuisine #Kaiseki #LoveKyoto #LoveJapan #food #foodporn #yum #instafood #instatravel #lovetravel #KaisekiRyōri
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Otsuka resonates to me in a big way - this Japanese gentleman turned his home garage into a small restaurant that sits up to 30 guests and serves wagyu beef sets at very affordable prices. Otsuka is very near the Bamboo Forest in Kyoto's Arasiyama District (a major tourist attraction), I highly recommend a visit to this restaurant and the Bamboo Forest!

Another very important reason to visit #Arashiyama is #Otsuka, a restaurant run by Chef Yoichi Otsuka and his wife just around the corner from the #BambooForest. The restaurant is tiny, converted from Chef Otsuka's own garage below the family home and specialises in #KobeBeef and it is only opened for lunch from 11:00 to 3pm. I had a magnificent set lunch of #wagyu graded A5 sirloin steak ¥4,800 (about £27) with salad and rice. The meat was meltingly tender with an intense, rich flavour and fantastic marbling, possibly the best #wagyubeef I have ever tried. We also had another set of A4 wagyu sirloin, a lower grade for ¥3,800 (about £22) which was a tad less tender, with more texture but equally delicious. A wagyu set lunch in central #Kyoto would cost twice as much and dearer still in #Tokyo. Highly recommended.  #Japan #JapaneseFood #JapaneseCuisine #LoveJapan #food #foodporn #yum #instafood #instatravel #lovetravel #ficaadica
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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:


If you are not going to Kyoto just yet, but would like to experience kaiseki right here in London, 1-Michelin starred UMU serves great kaiseki-style dishes by Chef Yoshinori Ishii, you can read about my latest visit here. 

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!

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