In this article, we’ll look at the foods that anyone coming to Kyoto must try.
Whenever I ask people from overseas what they look forward to the most about coming to Japan, without a doubt, the most popular answer is “Japanese food.” Among these traveling foodies, I’m sure there’s a significant number who also look forward to trying the culturally significant local foods as well.
And if we’re talking traditional Japanese washoku, then there’s no city more renowned than Kyoto. With the culture of traditional Japanese food still well and truly alive in Kyoto today, there are a ton of absolutely fantastic restaurants that are sure to give you a taste of whatever you’re looking for.
However, as there is such a plethora of choices, it can be hard to decide what to try first.
That’s why we’ve put together this article!
In addition to filling you in on the must-try foods in Kyoto, we’ll also provide in-depth explanations about the food and its significance to Kyoto.
Also, we’ve tagged each part with links to restaurants where you can try the dishes and experience the incredible food culture of Kyoto for yourself!
Ever heard of kyoyasai before? Kyoyasai are a unique subset of Japanese vegetables that are grown through traditional means and have evolved in their own distinct way. A must try when in Kyoto.
Kaiseki ryori courses are Kyoto's most traditional and upper-class form of cuisine. Made with painstaking care and affection, each dish in a kaiseki course is a culinary work of art. Additionally, everything down to the plating of the dishes is done with meaning, creating a mystifying and enchanting experience.
Kaiseki courses are a definite must-try for anyone staying in Kyoto.
Obanzai is Kyoto's version of traditional home cooking. Obanzai are small, yet healthy appetizers that make sure nothing goes to waste. Obanzai is a definite must-try for anyone wanting to try Kyoto soul food.
Yudofu is a Kyoto winter specialty of boiled tofu. Made with the beautiful water that flows through the Kyoto, the tofu in yudofu tastes unlike that of any other region in Japan. This dish deeply connected to Kyoto's unique climate is a must-try for anyone visiting the city in the winter months.
Matcha is powdered Japanese green tea and is now synonymous with Kyoto sweets. Even in Japan, matcha is so synonymous with Kyoto that Kyoto matcha is known as a brand throughout the country. Many of the tea fields of Kyoto produce an incredibly high grade of matcha, so if you're planning on enjoying something sweet in Kyoto, then make sure it's matcha flavored.
Ever heard of Kyoto's kyoyasai vegetables? Nowadays, the name Kyoyasai is associated with any vegetable used in Kyoto food, however, it is also just the name of any vegetable grown in Kyoto through traditional means.
There are various types of Kyoyasai, from green onions, radish and eggplant to red pepper and burdock. Each of them also takes the names of the area they are grown. For example, "Kujo" green onion, "shogoin" radish, "Kamo" eggplant, "Manganji" red pepper and "Horikawa" burdock.
The reason behind kyoyasai's prevalence can be narrowed down to two things; Kyoto's geography and culture.
Kyoto is the perfect environment for growing vegetables, with its abundance of clean water, fertile soil and unique basin-like geography.
Also, as Kyoto sat at the center of Japanese politics and culture for centuries and is home to the ancient imperial court, temples and shrines, there has been a constant demand for high-quality vegetables throughout the cities history. Thanks to these geographical and cultural reasons, knowledge about growing vegetables was passed down through the generations. This, together with constant improvements via breeding, gave rise to the unique evolutionary steps that led to the vegetables we now know as kyoyasai.
A distinctive characteristic of kyoyasai are their robust flavors and strong aromas. The unique shapes and sizes of many of the vegetables make them instantly obvious.
These veggies are such a big part of the food culture in Kyoto that you can't say you've truly had Kyoto cuisine if you haven't tried them.
This is also why we think they are one of the must-try foods in Kyoto.
▼Sharing Kyoto’s recommended kyoyasai restaurants!
Miyako Yasai Kamo - 都野菜 賀茂 –
Kaiseki ryori courses are Kyoto’s most traditional and upper-class form of cuisine. Kaiseki is a Japanese-style course meal that, with its painstakingly made elaborate boiled, grilled and other styled dishes, highlights the essence of Japanese cuisine.
Additionally, kaiseki isn’t simply about taste either. The most important part of kaiseki is actually how well the dishes convey the feeling of the seasons. This idea extends past just the ingredients themselves and encompasses every bowl and plate on the table and ornament and antique in the room. Using the act of eating as the simple axes to express the forever changing seasons through the physical space surrounding the diner is what makes a kaiseki course so spectacular.
There is one main reason why you should have kaiseki in Kyoto specifically. That is, because the traditional dishes in kaiseki were derived from Kyoto's "Cha-no-yu" tea ceremonies.
The meals served before drinking the tea at these ceremonies is where kaiseki came from, and with time, this idea of Japanese omotenashi service that gave birth to the cuisine continued to be passed down and changed until it became that which we know as kaiseki today.
As an aside, nowadays meals served alongside tea in the original style of kaiseki are called "cha-kaiseki."
Another reason to enjoy kaiseki in Kyoto is that the city, which has been at the center of Japanese food culture for centuries, is home to a plethora of incredible restaurants. The exquisite and alluring dishes that will enjoy at these restaurants are made by skilled Japanese chefs who have succeeded the traditions of those who came before them.
If you're looking to experience high class traditional Japanese cuisine, then look no further than a kaiseki dinner in Kyoto.
▼Sharing Kyoto’s recommended kaiseki restaurants.
Enjoy seasonal tastes at Kyoto's kaiseki restaurants
Next is "obanzai," something that you'll be sure to see at any Japanese restaurant in Kyoto. Obanzai refers to the traditional home-cooked dishes eaten in Kyoto that often feature the likes of bonito flake and kelp-based dashi and seasonal vegetables.
Although the seasonings may be simple, obanzai dishes are designed to utilize the natural umami flavors of the dashi and vegetables to provide something that is forever exciting. The pursuit of this has resulted in the vegetables featured in the dishes being packed full of delicious and absolutely irresistible flavors.
Obanzai is generally served as an array of small dishes similar to Spainish tapas.
So how did a food culture such as obanzai come about? This is in large part due to Kyoto's geography.
Because Kyoto City is situated so inland, obtaining fresh seafood was difficult. However, this meant that the city became a hub for food grown in the mountains and in fields, such as seasonal vegetables, vegetables only found in the mountains, tofu and dried foods.
With this and the addition of the Buddhist philosophy of frugality, a culture of using every part of the ingredient and leaving no waste was born, giving rise to what we now know as obanzai.
Even today, dashi packed obanzai dishes are incredibly popular among the people of Kyoto and are enjoyed as both appetizers and snacks had alongside sake.
See here for Sharing Kyoto recommended obanzai restaurants!
Home cooking Kyoto-style! Top 5 obanzai restaurants in Kyoto
Yudofu is a Kyoto winter specialty. Made with the region’s famously clean water, Kyoto’s tofu is known for its creamy texture and strong soy flavor. Using this tofu, the yudofu in Kyoto is especially loved, with people from all of Japan coming to Kyoto simply to get a taste of it.
One of the biggest reasons for Kyoto’s great tasting tofu lies in the water that flows through the prefecture.
As tofu is made by simply hardening soy milk with a kind of salt called bittern, around 80% of it is water. This makes water one of the most important things in making tofu. The reason Kyoto’s water is so good for making tofu is that it’s not only incredibly clean, but it’s also what’s known as soft water, meaning that it contains hardly any minerals. This allows the added bittern to harden the soy milk evenly and give the tofy an incredibly smooth texture and delicious flavor.
As a result of all of this, Kyoto became and has remained the home of some of the best tofu in Japan for centuries.
In addition to the simple fact that Kyoto makes great tofu, another reason for trying yudofu in Kyoto is that it’s also the birthplace of the dish. Yudofu is said to have first been invented a long time ago at Kyoto’s Nanzen-ji Temple. Since then, the culinary traditions of yudofu have continued to be passed down through the generations and the area near Nanzen-ji Temple is home to many restaurants specializing in the boiled tofu dish even today. One of these is “Okutan Nanzenji,” which first opened at the beginning of the Edo period in 1635.
As it’s got such a deep connection to the unique climate and history of Kyoto, yudofu is should not be missed by anyone visiting the ancient city in the chilly winter months.
See here for Sharing Kyoto’s most recommended yudofu restaurants!
The five restaurants with the creamiest, most delicate yudofu!
Matcha, the bitter green powder that’s caught the world by storm. Although initially used to make green tea, matcha has come to be loved by those both inside and outside Japan for its use in desserts.
If you’re a matcha lover, then the first place that pops into your head when you hear the word is likely “Kyoto.”
However, do you know why matcha came to be so synonymous with Kyoto even within Japan?
One reason is the quality of Kyoto matcha. Every year at Japan’s “National Tea Exhibition,” which decides the best teas from around the country, Kyoto consistently comes out on top with its tea that simply proves better than all other regions in the country. Winning a majority of the awards, the area in Kyoto that’s thought to produce the best matcha is Uji City.
Much like everything else in this list, the reason behind Kyoto’s high grade of matcha is tied closely to the history and culture of the ancient capital.
Over 800 years ago, that which would become the tea we know as matcha today and kick start Japan’s matcha culture was brought over to Kyoto from China. The tea plants firmly planted their roots into the soil of Uji City where the climate was thought just right for the cultivation, and thanks to the protection of the tea fields by those in power, tea cultivation in Uji develop and flourished largely unaffected by the surrounding political turmoil. From the 16th century, matcha came to be associated with Zen Buddhism and Japan’s tea ceremonies were born. From here matcha transcended being a simple drink to be something with much more meaning.
The rituals and arts of the Japanese tea ceremony began to develop largely in Kyoto where it spread through the upper classes. With time, the culture of tea ceremonies was passed from ruler to ruler and generation to generation, eventually making its way to the masses and becoming what we know today.
While Uji’s matcha rooted itself deep within the spirituality of both Kyoto and Japan as a whole, it has exceeded the boundaries of the tea ceremony and is now a common “flavor” of drink, cake and dessert.
If you’ve spent any time in Kyoto, then you’ve surely seen your fair share of café and bakeries selling matcha flavored things. If you haven’t already, then take the opportunity to try something matcha flavored in Kyoto and experience what the tea that contributed so much to Japan’s spirituality tastes like in its motherland.
See here for Sharing Kyoto’s recommended matcha dessert restaurants!
Top 20 unforgettable matcha desserts in Kyoto
|Shin[ Sharing Kyoto Staff ]