The Fascination of Kyoto Cuisine
Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine) is not one unified style of regional Japanese cuisine but is actually comprised of several different types, each with its own unique history and traditions. Deceptively simple on the surface, the traditional fare of the country’s old capital incorporates hundreds of years of technique and a multitude of flavors and ingredients that help cement Kyoto as the traditional culinary center of Japan. We spoke with Mr. Hitoshi Naito, executive chef of Kyo-ryori Isobe restaurant in Kyoto, about what makes this cuisine so uniquely fascinating.
What is so fascinating about Kyoto?
“There are many old Buddhist temples, and once you venture into the back streets, you find a world of tradition that is rich in history and replete with invaluable cultural assets. The fusion of such antiquity and the modern cityscape is a defining feature of Kyoto. If you come back to Kyoto, you will once again feel the beauty of the city’s streets. There is a long-standing custom in Kyoto of keeping one’s surroundings clean and tidy, which as a result makes the city’s cleanliness one of the its most important characteristics,” says Mr. Naito.
Kyo-ryori: various ingredients that come together in the old capital and ingenuity amid an unfavorable environment
Located in a basin located far away from the sea, Kyoto’s unique food culture was formed over a span of more than 1200 years of history and tradition since the Heian period. “Historically, the capital was in Kyoto, so its cuisine was originally created to be served to the Imperial court using ingredients gathered from many other prefectures in Japan,” says Mr. Naito. Thus, efforts were made to beautifully and gracefully bring out the best of these ingredients.
I have always tried hard to look at the essence of and bring out the absolute best in the ingredients.
In other words, “the richness and variety of ingredients differed from that of other areas in Japan, not only in terms of those that originate in Kyoto, but also in terms of the ones that were gathered from other regions.”
However, the quality of ingredients delivered to Kyoto from other prefectures varied considerably, with some being in such bad condition as to be unusable. Neither located near the sea nor the mountains, people in Kyoto had to improvise and elaborate their technique in order to prepare high quality cuisine for the court. This also meant that such an unfavorable environment required the cooks to have a discerning eye that was able to judge ‘high quality’ ingredients.
“I have always tried hard to look at the essence of and bring out the absolute best in the ingredients. As a cook, I feel the profoundness and ingenuity of having to consider these things as well as the greatness of my predecessors,” says the executive chef Mr. Naito.
There is no ocean in Kyoto. “In the regions near the sea, the fish are fresh so they are good enough to be served raw without the need for further preparation. But Kyoto is different. In terms of ingredients, Kyoto is located in an unfavorable area. Sometimes the ingredients were delivered in poor condition, so cooks had no choice but to figure out ways to work around this issue–how ingredients could be organized, preserved, prevented from spoiling, and kept in a sanitary state were the most important concerns of the cooks in Kyoto.”
For example, because it was difficult to get fresh seafood, people in Kyoto utilized dried and pickled fish such as shio-saba (salted mackerel), shio-iwashi (salted sardines) and hoshi-nishin (dried herring). Furthermore, dishes featuring hamo (pike conger), which are generally known as a difficult fish to eat because of their bones, were born out of the wisdom of Kyoto’s chefs. In Kyoto, people realized that hamo hardly spoil because of their strong vitality, so they decided to utilize them by carefully crushing the bones. Today, dishes featuring hamo are one of the mainstays of Kyoto cuisine.
In addition, Kyoto’s food culture developed out of a close relationship with water. Because the course of rivers in Kyoto has changed over the years, there is still an abundant amount of groundwater flowing, including the city’s famous Kamo River. In addition, much of the river water that flowed into the Kyoto basin is stored underground.
Kyoto’s groundwater contains a low proportion of iron and is softer compared to other soft water. This is why Kyoto’s groundwater has a mild and delicate taste and in turn gave birth to the healthy and mild taste of Kyoto cuisine that brings out the flavor of the raw ingredients. The flavor of ingredients such as tofu and kyo-yasai largely depends on the quality of water used. These ingredients taste mild because the groundwater can bring out the natural flavor of these foodstuffs; thus, abundant groundwater was a necessary factor for the development of Kyoto cuisine, including tofu, miso and yuba.
How is culinary craftsmanship Inherited and how can It be perpetuated?
How do culinary craftsmen in Kyoto inherit techniques developed over a long period of time and the frame of mind to support them, and how do they transmit and perpetuate Kyoto cuisine?
Mr. Naito speaks about his own experience thus: “It’s all about repeating things over and over every day. In the beginning, I didn’t know what to do and I was yelled at constantly. That’s what training is all about. I came here to train myself, not to be taught. It takes about ten years to become an independent chef. Every day, even unconsciously, I learn lessons from my predecessors without knowing it. You realize this for the first time when you look back and reflect upon it.
Once you can realize this by yourself, you are acknowledged as being a professional.” Of course, it is not easy because the master doesn’t directly “teach”; however, there are similarities to the concept of tutorship in the U.K. and pupils attain professionalism by cultivating their techniques earnestly every single day.
What is the attraction of Japanese cuisine compared to other cuisines?
“I have never trained overseas, but compared to French cuisine, for example, Japanese cuisine is more careful in preserving the original form of the ingredients and bringing out their flavor. For instance, we sometimes use ice blocks or some other method for ikejime (killing live fish immediately after being caught in order to keep them fresh).
There are many different ways of preserving and handling ingredients. There are also different ways of eating fish, such as cooking the remaining parts right after you eat the fish raw. In any case, I believe that the pursuit of these kinds of diverse methods comes from an awareness of enjoying everything, as well as greediness,” says Mr. Naito.
How would you like overseas visitors to enjoy
Kyo-ryori and what should they expect?
“I am not very sure about what kind of eating habits people from overseas have, but I want them to explore the flavor when enjoying Japanese cuisine by trying many different dishes. They often come with garnish, so if you mix them together I think it is more enjoyable to eat. There is a word–deaimono–in kyo-ryori, which refers to ingredients that are harvested during the same season and are a good match together when cooking. Typical examples are takenoko (bamboo shoots)–classified as satonomono, or ‘ingredients from the village’–and wakame (seaweed)–known as uminomono, or ‘ingredients of the sea’-which I hope visitors will enjoy together.”
How can Japanese cuisine be accepted and eaten by people from all over the world?
“The water has to be clean and tasty, even when you wash the dishes. That has to be taken into consideration. When you cook fish, you should sprinkle salt and pour Japanese sake on it. You may also steam the fish in wine, but using salt and sake brings out the flavor of the fish and tastes more like Japanese cuisine. I would recommend dry sake since ia slight sweetness remains after the alcohol is burned off. In order to make Japanese cuisine familiar and for it to become accepted worldwide, it is necessary for it to incorporate regional dishes and ingredients that can only be gathered in that particular region.”
Maruyama Koennai, Higashi Yama-ku, Kyoto-shi 605-0071
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