Kyoto can be considered the home of the traditional Japanese cuisine, with plenty of eateries where to taste some amazing sushi, tempura, ramen, and many more. But the highlight of the local cuisine are the traditional multi-course meals such as kaiseki ryori, shojinryori, and obanzairyori.
Each one of them is characterized by a different philosophy, using different ingredients, cooking methods, portions, and so on. A trip to Kyoto would be incomplete without at least one of these three amazing meals, that you can enjoy respectively at the ryokans, in Buddhist temples, and in hundreds of restaurants scattered all over the city.
Keep reading to find more about food and drinks in Kyoto!
- A must-try is kaiseki ryori, the beloved aristocrat meal that is the signature dish of Kyoto cuisine.
- Shojinryori is a vegetarian meal, developed through the centuries by Buddhist monks.
- Yudofu is one of the main ingredients of a shojinryori meal: it consists of a vegetarian broth with tofu.
- For a homecooked meal, try obanzairyori, consisting of simple yet amazingly tasteful courses.
- Of course, in Kyoto you will find plenty of venues selling the signature dishes of Japanese cuisine: sushi, ramen, tempura.
Flavors of Kyoto
Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan, and so its rich culinary tradition should not be a surprise. You will find kaiseki ryori, an aristocratic meal that employs many different cooking methods (raw ingredients, boiling, deep-frying, steaming, and so on) and mostly seasonal and local ingredients; or also the vegetarian shojinryori and its signature dish, yudofu.
When dining in Kyoto, you will have the opportunity to taste everything: fish, meat, vegetables, tofu, fruit, miso, rice, and much, much more. Kyoto is also famous for its local, seasonal ingredients. Some of them are best appreciated during fall, for example matsumake mushrooms, rich and elastic; tamba chestnuts, often used in sweets; daikon, the Japanese radish, and so on.
You will also find plenty of fusion restaurants, that try to combine local ingredients and techniques with the cooking styles of the rest of the world.
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Kyoto specialties and popular dishes
Besides the usual signature dishes of Japanese cuisine, there are three kinds of meals that you have to try in Kyoto: 1) Kaiseki ryori, made with seasonal ingredients and using many different cooking methods; 2) shojinryori, a must-try if you love vegetarian food; and 3) obanzairyori, a homecooked meal that will make you feel part of a big, loving family.
Kaiseki ryori originated along with the tradition of the tea ceremony. With time, though, it became the signature meal of the aristocratic elite. The kaiseki ryori in Kyoto is exceptionally sophisticated; you will finda particular emphasis on subtle flavors and seasonal ingredients that can be found only in that area.
The courses that compose a kaiseki meal are served according to their cooking method. For example, the meal usually starts with a selection of appetizers, followed by a second course that sets the seasonal theme (usually a kind of sushi). Then there is a boiled dish, a deep-fried dish, a steamed dish, etc. Right before mizumono, a seasonal dessert, shokuji is served, a set composed of rice, miso soup and pickles.
Many travelers enjoy kaiseki ryori at a ryokan (always included in the stay).Of course it is also possible to enjoy a kaiseki meal in one of the many restaurants in the districts of Pontocho or Gion. Expect to pay something between 6,000 and 30,000 yen per person.
As we said, kaiseki was the meal of the aristocrats – but shojinryori was developed for the strict Buddhist monks and their austere way of life. As Buddhists are prohibited to kill animals, their diet has to be strictly vegetarian. With time, they developed a tasteful and filling kind of meal.
To prepare this meal, the monks follow the rule of five: every meal has five colors and five flavors, a balance that is believed to provide nutritional balance and harmony. Another principle is that of "one soup, three dishes". The soup is the most nutritious part of the meal, while the three dishes are smaller.
You can enjoy this kind of meal at a temple, if you are spending the night there, and in the restaurants inside the districts of Nanzenji and Arashiyama. Such a meal is affordable, with prices ranging from 3,000 to 14,000 yen.
There is nothing better than a home cooked meal. Obanzairyori will satisfy your cravings. The meal is composed of many small courses, quite simple to prepare but extremely tasteful, and always prepared with local and seasonal ingredients. The preparation is easy, but don't let this fool you;a skillful chef is able to extrapolate the best out of the few ingredients they use.
Restaurants that serve obanzairyori are all over Kyoto, and it won't be a problem finding one. They have a homey atmosphere, where you can relax and enjoy your meal. A full meal comes to about 3,000 yen, but the price changes according to the number and the type of dishes you eat.
Tofu and Yudofu
One of the pivotal ingredients for shojinryori is tofu – here also known as tofu ryori. In many restaurants you will find yudofu, soft tofu simmered in a broth with vegetables.
For a yudofu meal, expect to pay between 1500 and 2000 yen. We strongly recommend the districts of Nanzenji and Arashiyama to try this vegetarian delicacy.
For some good sushi in Kyoto, we strongly recommend visiting two places: the first one is Den Shichi, one of the best sushi bars of the city. It serves delicious sushi and it has a classic sushi-bar atmosphere.
The second place is Ganko Sushi, located downtown. Ganko Sushi is one of those places where you will find a huge variety of sushi and at an affordable price.
For some amazing tempura, head to the Gion district, where you will find Kyouboshi, awarded with one Michelin star. You will find any kind of tempura there, from the simplest one to the chef's unique creations. The "minced prawn bread" is a unique specialty that you cannot miss. Remember to reserve a table.
Yoshikawa Tempura is another renowned place for tempura. Set in a beautiful old wooden building, the restaurant is surrounded by a stunning Japanese garden.
Ramen, soba and udon
When locals want to eat ramen, they head to Ippudo Ramen, the favorite ramen joint of the city. Both, the soup and the noodles, are incredibly good, and every bowl of soup is accompanied by delicious crispy dumplings.
Honke Owariya is arguably the best soba restaurant in Kyoto. It is located in an old wooden building, and its soba will blow you away.
And if you like udon, try Omen, just down the hill from Ginkaku-ji Temple. You will have some of the best udon noodles you can find.
To be sure to avoid making a mistake, look around you and watch how Japanese people behave.
Chopsticks are the core of Japanese dining etiquette. When chewing, just rest them on the edge of the dish, and never stick them vertically in a bowl of rice. Never pass food from chopstick to chopstick. To pick up food from a common family-style dish, use the pair of chopsticks that are put in the dish. If you drop the chopsticks, ask for a new pair.
When you have finished eating, lay your chopsticks directly on the tray or wrap them with their paper covers. When leaving the table, don't step on other people's cushions. Never be embarrassed to ask for explanations; especially at famous restaurants the staff is always willing to answer your questions.
Enjoy Kyoto's delicacies with Asia Highlights
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