Life in Kyoto, Japan’s seventh-largest city, is a many-layered affair. Tucked behind a gleaming, modern Starbucks is a Buddhist temple founded in the sixth century. Hidden beneath the street running through the 400-year-old, five-block-long Nishiki Market runs a river that bubbles up through a spring in a scared shrine. And behind most Kyoto recipes lie the exotic dashi, tofu and Kyoto vegetables.
We headed to Japan to explore this trio of Kyoto staples that are little-known stateside. In the process we discovered small family owned shops and restaurants, met with locals and sampled some of the very best foods that Kyoto offers. We even brought home two easy-to-make recipes that have become staples in our recipe repertories.
Dashi is the most essential element in Kyoto cooking. Made from water, kelp that’s been dried in the sun, and bonita that’s been dried and shaved into small slivers, dashi is simmered at a precise temperature for only a few minutes. Mitursi Saiki, master and chef of the seven-seat Saiki restaurant, prepares dashi daily for use in his dishes including grilled Kamu eggplant and mackerel with kelp and pickled turnip.
A second type of dashi, one made with only kelp and water, is used in vegetarian cooking at Ikkyu, a restaurant that serves Shojin Ryori (temple food). Owner and chef Yoshiaki Tsuda explains that the food he prepares is a bit more luxurious that typical temple food—more like the food Buddhist monks would eat on celebration days.
Two basic Buddhist principles guide the menu selection: eating to just satisfy hunger and the prohibition on killing any living thing. But other principles come into play: incorporating the five taste, five cooking methods and five colors, using ingredients from the mountains, the ocean and the city, avoiding even numbers, and avoiding acidity.
Tofu, in all its forms, is not only key to temple food, but also to everyday Kyoto cooking (Kyo Ryori). Fresh, good-tasting water is key to making good tofu, and many in Japan believe that Kyoto’s abundant fresh spring water is what makes the area’s tofu so good.
Takashi Iriyama and his wife, Tomoko, and mother, Takeko, operate a tiny tofu shop, one of the last in Kyoto making tofu in the traditional way. Iriyama soaks the soybeans overnight, then grinds them small. He then boils the ground beans in a cauldron with fresh spring water for two or three minutes.
The liquid is strained through a cloth and the soymilk is poured into a large rectangular metal bin, where coagulants (calcium and magnesium) are added. Iriyama stirs the mixture until it begins to solidify. For firm tofu, he places the mixture in metal cases with holes at the bottom for drainage and applies pressure on top. Iriyama sells tofu in blocks, fresh or grilled; okara, made from the solids lefts after the straining off the soymilk; and fresh yuba (the skin from the tofu blocks).
Exploring Kyoto Vegetables
Both geography and religion played a part in Kyoto vegetables’ rise to prominence. Hemmed in on three sides by mountains and blessed with an abundance of fresh spring water, city residents have relied for centuries on local farmers, rather than sea-faring fishermen, for their food. And with more than 1,600 temples in the city, Buddhism influenced residents to embrace veggie-centric diets.
Kyoto vegetables are grown in or near the Kyoto Prefecture of Japan. Throughout the country, chefs and home cooks alike buy them for their bright color, superior quality and nutritional profile.
At Doraku, established in 1630 as a tea house, chef and master Satoshi Iida serves meals that emphasize fresh fish and seasonal Kyoto vegetables: highly prized Kamo eggplant, Shogoin daikon radish, Shishigatani Kabocha pumpkin and Kyo Takenoko (bamboo shoots). The 14th generation of his family to run the restaurant, Iida not only orchestrates each day’s meals, selecting whatever Kyoto vegetables are in season, he also hand-writes menus for guests and chooses the serving vessels to be used. Slowly, over as many as 14 courses, the ultimate Kyo Ryori experience unfolds—from the scroll, flower arrangement and ornament selected for the dining room, to the colorful variety of serving pieces used, to the meticulously prepared and presented food.
Two recipes from Doraku translate well to American pantries—Chicken Daikon Salad and Apple Tofu Salad. Both use ingredients that are readily available at most supermarkets. And best of all, they’re light and bright and simple.