Hashimoto Kenichi, writer, thinker and Kyoto-born Michelin 2-star owner-chef at Ryozanpaku, on Food in the Ancient Capital.
When I think of Food, naturally as a Kyoto chef my thoughts turn to the city’s signature Kyo-ryori, literally ‘Kyoto Cuisine.’ Often, customers and people in the media ask me, “What are the origins of Kyo-ryori”? In order to answer that you accurately you need to look back to the great artistic flourishing of Japanese culture that took place during the Heian Period (AD 794 to AD 1185).
The cuisine of that period is termed Daikyo-ryori, the Cuisine of the Nobility. It wasn’t really food for eating though; it was food for looking at. It was intended as a decorative distraction for the ruling military classes, and wasn’t designed with any intention of stimulating the appetite whatsoever.
This however changed with the rise in popularity of certain Zen monks. Believers wanted to feed these venerable patriarchs with healthy, life-prolonging food. Food preparation became an act of veneration, of ‘homage’. Obviously, this fare needed to be not only good for the body, but it had to make the monks want to keep eating it. This was the origin of Shojin-ryori, the vegetarian cuisine of the Buddhist monks.
Thus Kyoto chefs learned that there has to be an element of drama in cuisine. That’s when they came up with dishes like kabura mushi, turnip stuffed with fish. The piping hot vegetable is served in a covered lacquer ware bowl. The diner himself removes the lid, and—Voila!—suddenly a delicious, irresistible aroma fills the air. You know how in traditional French cuisine the waiter lifts the lid of the giant silver platter to impress the diners? It’s like that in microcosm, pure drama but on a personal scale.
After a while the chefs got even craftier, hiding the kabura under a thick layer of kuzu arrowroot starch to prolong the anticipation just a few more seconds. Before long they were planning other surprise elements, even trompe l’oeil.
Beauty, healthiness, a sense of occasion and simple but delicious tastes have been a part of Kyo-ryori, and thus Washoku Japanese cuisine, for nearly a thousand years.
Japanese cuisine is famous worldwide, and anyone can learn its basic techniques, but unless chefs understand the spirit of caring and devotion it contains, they’ll never succeed in creating it properly. And it is the job of chefs to pass on that beautiful element of caring.
Today, as Japan’s population rapidly ages, I am thinking more and more about such matters. The elderly especially need to have healthy food, but they also need to have their appetites stimulated. They don’t give two hoots about philosophy; they want to eat things that taste good! Dishes such as chawanmushi savory custard, gomadofu sesame ‘tofu’, and all the varieties of bean curd, all provide an element of delight, they are easily digestible, and of course they are tasty too.
What is it, this umai?—the colloquial Japanese phrase for ‘tasty’ or ‘delicious’. If you are offered a processed mass-produced pork fillet from the local supermarket that cost ￥350, or the same-sized finest filet from a ryotei that cost ￥5000 I am pretty sure which you’d choose, from the point of view of taste. That’s because cuisine isn’t just a matter of calories, and eating isn’t just for sustenance. When we talk about what it means, we must remember that food is a kind of love—it is nourishment for the heart.
A version of this article first appeared in ‘Beyond the Chopping Board: Master Chefs ponder the Meaning and Value of Food’ by John F. Ashburne in Kyoto Journal #83, 'FOOD!'. It is reproduced with kind permission of the publishers. Kyoto Journal is an award-winning non-profit volunteer-based quarterly magazine established in 1986 offering insights from Kyoto, Japan and all of Asia.Photograph Courtesy of John F. Ashburne.