Once the capital of Japan, Kyoto has a long history as the “emperor’s kitchen” and is said to be the spiritual home of Japanese cuisine. Developed over 1200 years from several styles of ceremonial cuisines, Kyoto cuisine ( Kyo-ryori ) is an experience which engages all of the senses and, at heart, remains a profound contemplation of the aesthetic, mystical and poetic relationship to food, far beyond simple nourishment or gustatory enjoyment of a meal.
Kyoto: The Emperor's Kitchen
Kyo-ryori is influenced by four styles: kaiseki-ryori which has its origins in the tea ceremony chakaiseki ; vegetarian temple cuisine shojin-ryori eaten by Buddhist monks; the highly ritualised court cuisine yusoku-ryori of the emperor and the honzen-ryori of nobility; and obanzai home cooking.
The origins of kaiseki-ryori comes from the tea ceremony where delicate portions of food are served—usually consisting of rice, a bowl of soup and three okazu side dishes. Although earlier incarnations of cha-kaiseki were simple and austere, modern kaiseki has elaborated into fourteen or more small courses served successively in a deliberate manner. Each dish is presented with great artistry; the flavours, ingredients, and colours are carefully selected to create an impression of the seasons or a meditation on a theme.
The taste of Kyo-ryori tends to be light. This restraint on flavour is sometimes misunderstood as blandness. However, one of the most important concepts of Kyo-ryori is to draw out the exquisite subtleties of an ingredient while careful to avoid overpowering its natural flavour with superfluous heat, seasoning or manipulation. The natural salt and umami of sea kelp kombu form the basis of the cuisine, used by chefs over straight salt or oils.
Cookery and knife skills are prized and, at times, elevated to a form of ritual. An ancient knife ceremony, shiki-bocho , is still performed today at the Ikama school in Kyoto where fish, usually carp, is ritually filleted and arranged for artistic display, often in reference to poetry, historical events or the changing of seasons.
Deep respect is paid to the seasonality and the natural beauty of the presentation, with special attention paid to the intimate connection between ingredients and place. There is a heavy reliance on traditionally local vegetables such as the Kamo nasu eggplant , Sohoin-daikon radish or the Kujo-negi green onion. The 47 varieties of heirloom vegetables grown solely in the area are considered a key part of Kyoto’s cultural legacy.
Kyo-ryori evolved historically in the absence of certain fresh ingredients, particularly fresh seafood. Before the advent of refrigeration, transporting fresh fish to the inland city of Kyoto required some ingenuity. One of the methods of preserving fish was to first ferment or pickle the fish, press it with salt, vinegar and rice, and then wrap it with kelp or bamboo leaves. The result is an old style of sushi unlike the well known Edo style nigiri. Some examples of signature Kyoto-style sushi are the mackerel sabazushi , the leafed-wrapped sea-bream sasamaki , box-pressed sushi hakozuzhi , or the steamed mushizushi .
Bean curd is an important fixture in Kyo-ryori, especially as part of temple cuisine as wall as traditional home cooking. Restaurants near temples typically offer snacks of boiled tofu yudofu served simply with green scallions and soya sauce. Soy milk skin yuba is also a quintessential Kyoto specialty where the film one the surface of boiled soy milk are skimmed, collected and dried into sheets.
While dining culture in Kyoto is rooted in tradition and deeply connected to the seasons and the landscape, the cuisine is fluid in subtle ways. One example is the development of French kaiseki , where French cuisine is interpreted with a kaiseki sensibility. This is not considered a type of fusion cuisine but serves as a good example of how Kyo-ryori is actually a dynamic style that is not necessarily fixed upon set of signature dishes but guided by a set of overarching concepts.