As the former imperial capital, Kyoto’s cuisine is linked to its regal history and landlocked geography. It’s home to several Michelin-starred restaurants, many of which specialize in multi-course kaiseki meals served to diners seated on tatami mats. That doesn’t mean visitors need to spend a fortune to stay fueled while shrine hopping. Kyoto’s food charms really lie in exploring local delicacies served in basement ramen shops, at street stalls inside Nishiki Market or behind nondescript izakaya doors.
1. Kyoto-style ramen
Tenkaippin (or, as the locals call it, Ten'ichi) is a ramen chain with locations throughout Japan. Founded in Kyoto in 1981, it’s known for a thick and rich kotteri ramen made from boiling chicken bones for 14 hours. The opaque, gravy-like broth is loaded with eggy noodles and garnished with sliced pork, bamboo shoots and green onions. Between slurps, diners adjust the flavor to their preference using condiments like sesame seeds, chili paste and a spicy sesame oil.
Clear water is essential for making tofu, and Kyoto’s abundant and clear groundwater supply has made it renowned for making delicate tofu by hand. Besides new machinery, the traditional tofu-making process hasn’t changed much at Toyoukeya, a shop that has been owned and operated by the Yamamoto family since 1897. At the family’s restaurant, Toyouke Chaya, guests can try dishes using the tofu at lunchtime. If you aren’t normally a tofu fan, try their tofu made with butter, which is made specifically to appeal to Western palates.
These skewers of fried, panko-coated meat and vegetables hail from the Kansai region. Kushinobo, a restaurant inside the Kyoto train station building on the top floor of the Isetan department store, serves a kushikatsu set at lunchtime. The skewers, called konnyaku, are made to order and usually include shishito peppers stuffed with ground chicken and green onion, pork, quail’s egg, squash and a glutinous root vegetable. Served as a single order, tea, rice and miso soup are also included.
4. Chirimen Sansho
At first glance, this condiment looks like dried shallots or perhaps a pickled vegetable—until you notice the little eyes. As a landlocked city, Kyoto is known for preserved fish dishes. These whole, dried whitebaits (tiny fish) are tossed with tingly Japanese sansho pepper and commonly eaten on top of rice. Shoppers at the Nishiki Market are encouraged to sample the dried fish, on display in small bowls, and buy a full envelope to take home.
Wheat gluten mixed with rice flour once provided the Zen monks of Kyoto with a vegetarian source of food. Like tofu, making nama-fu required plenty of clean water. The humble food, usually formed into shapes like maple leaves and cherry blossoms, is now commonly used as an edible garnish in the kaiseki tradition. The chewy substance is flavorless on its own, but combining with herbs or other ingredients adds flavor. At lively Torsei Honten, vegetarian diners can partake in the yakitori experience with black sesame nama-fu instead of chicken or pork.
6. Kyoto-Style Sushi
As a landlocked city, traditional Kyoto sushi is typically made with preserved fish. One of the most popular varieties is sabazushi, made from a large piece of pickled mackerel wrapped around a log of rice and encased in a thin sheet of kombu seaweed. Hakozushi is made from rice and eel or mackerel pressed into a rectangular wooden box and then sliced into bite-size pieces. Izuju in Gion, across the street from the Yasaka Shrine, has been making both varieties for over 100 years.
7. Soy Milk Doughnuts
The Tohnyu Doughnut stand in Nishiki Market is renowned for their freshly made soy milk doughnuts served piping hot in bags of ten. The plain doughnuts are similar in texture and flavor to funnel cakes, and, like most Japanese treats, they’re not cloying. Those with a killer sweet tooth should order them dusted in brown sugar or drizzled in chocolate or caramel.
8. Tsukemono Pickles
Vats filled with daikon, turnips and Chinese cabbage covered in muddy-looking rice bran ferment in the open air inside Kyoto’s Nishiki Market. Shoppers will likely smell these pickles before they even see them. They taste better than they look, of course, and the vendors are happy to let customers sample the many colorful varieties. Visitors can even buy vacuum-sealed bags of pickles to take home as a souvenir.
The city’s shops sell almost every type of traditional Japanese sweet, but yatsuhashi is one of the most famous. It’s triangular shape is said to represent the koto, or traditional Japanese harp. Thin rice flour dough is rolled thin and then wrapped around red bean paste, or is often baked until crisp like a cookie. Yatsuhashi dough is typically flavored with cinnamon, but black sesame and matcha varieties are also common. There are numerous shops around town, but Izutsu Yatsuhashi Honkan in Gion is a solid choice.
These multi-course meals featuring elaborate courses and plating were traditionally served before tea ceremonies. For an approachable kaiseki experience comprised of local specialties, reserve a meal at Shoraian. The menu changes with the seasons, but it always includes tofu and sometimes features nama-fu or chirimen sansho. The location inside Prince Fumimaro Konoe’s former resort home provides an unparalleled view of the Katsura River and surrounding green hills.
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