As the former capital of Japan for over a thousand years, Kyoto’s food culture is rich and diverse. From the elaborate kaiseki ryori dinners of the aristocratic circles to the vegetarian shojin ryori of Buddhist monks, the local food in Kyoto offers memorable culinary experiences.
Kyoto’s cuisine is known for being elegant, both in taste and presentation. Though you can find dishes from all parts of Japan here, there are some local food in Kyoto that are native to the city that you should most definitely try. Here are some of them!
1. Kaiseki ryori
The elegance of Kyoto cuisine is perhaps best captured in kaiseki ryori, a multi-course haute cuisine popular amongst Japan’s upper class of the Edo period. Kyoto-style kaiseki ryori (kyo-kaiseki) is especially refined, with an emphasis on subtle flavours using local and seasonal ingredients.
Today, kaiseki ryori is accessible to us normies. A way to get a taste of it is to book a stay with a local ryokan where a kaiseki dinner is included. Or, make a reservation at one of the high end ryotei in the Gion district. Some chefs may break away from tradition and include fusions of foreign cuisines!
2. Shojin ryori
While kaiseki ryori has its roots within upper class Japan, shojin ryori came from the austerity of Buddhist monks. Although shojin ryori is strictly vegetarian, that doesn’t mean that it can’t be satisfying and filling. A common ingredient you’ll find in shojin ryori is tofu, a local specialty of Kyoto. One popular dish is yudofu, a simple dish of tofu in vegetable broth and eaten with a dipping sauce.
Travellers who spend the night at a temple lodging will be able to enjoy a shojin ryori meal as part of the stay. Or, you can also find shojin ryori restaurants inside temples in Kyoto. That’s what we call killing two birds with one stone – enjoy a lovely meal and visit a temple at the same time!
3. Nishin soba
Kyoto’s location within a basin enfolded by mountains means its water is extremely fresh, ideal for making high quality tofu, sake and soba. And because it is far from the sea, people did not have easy access to fresh seafood. Thus, they would preserve fish to make it last longer. One such preserved fish is the herring, known as nishin.
In 1882, Yosakichi, the chef of Matsuba restaurant invented nishin soba, a hot noodle soup dish made with nishin and soba noodles. Matsuba is still around today in the Gion district, and it is one of Kyoto’s most iconic restaurants.
Nigiri sushi, which is sushi with fresh fish, is common in many parts of Japan. But as we talked about earlier, Kyoto did not come by fresh fish frequently, thus they developed their own unique variation of sushi. One of the most unique local food in Kyoto – kyozushi – is made with fish cured with salt or vinegar.
One popular place to try kyozushi is Izuju in Gion district. It has over 100 years of history, and a must-try is the sabazushi, cured mackerel on rice. The sourness cuts through the fat of the fish, creating a combination that will leave you wanting more.
Through Kyoto, you’ll see lots of shops selling a variety of colourful pickled vegetables. The city’s kyotsukemono – Kyoto pickled vegetables – are some of the best in the whole country. The most popular types are shibazuke, senmaizuke and sugizuke. Shibazuke is a tangy and crunchy mix of chopped cucumbers, eggplants and red shiso, which gives the dish its magenta hue. Senmaizuke are Shogoin turnips pickled with kombu kelp, while sugukizuke uses sugukina, a local turnip grown only in Kamigamo, Kyoto.
If that’s not enough for you, head over to Akoyachaya for their all-you-can-eat pickle buffet! They serve 20 types of pickles that can be enjoyed with rice or porridge.
6. Uji matcha
To the south of Kyoto is Uji, a small city famous for its matcha. You’ll find many matcha dessert shops in Kyoto using Uji matcha for their sweet treats, from soft serve to parfaits, cookies and chocolates. Another great way to enjoy Uji matcha is in a tea ceremony, where you’ll get to take part in a cultural experience and taste some high quality green tea.
The 200-year-old Nakamura Tokichi teahouse gives you the chance to grind your own tea leaves for the ceremony. Afterwards, enjoy both koicha (thick matcha tea) and usucha (thin matcha tea) with matcha jelly in their genroku-style tea ceremony hut.