Kyoto is famous for its historical landmarks with over 2,000 shrines and temples to enjoy and explore. It also has a rich and diverse food culture and culinary history with several well known dining styles, local delicacies and traditional sweets. Here are 10 traditional Kyoto dishes that you must try on any visit to the ancient capital.
Kyo Kaiseki (Kyoto style Kaiseki Ryori)
Not a single dish as such but a collection of dishes and courses designed to appeal to both the taste buds and the eyes. This elaborate dining style developed out of the refined meals served to the aristocracy and imperial court in Kyoto. You can try kaiseki at many places in Kyoto from traditional Japanese restaurants to ryokan inns.
Buddhist Shojin Ryori
The complete opposite to the affluence of kaiseki is the simplicity of Buddhist Shojin Ryori. Strictly vegetarian but not lacking flavour, these dishes were born out of the need of Buddhist monks at the many temples in Kyoto. This traditional vegetarian cuisine features fresh mountain vegetables, natto (fermented soybeans) and tofu, a local specialty. The best place to try Shojin Ryori is at the restaurants found in Buddhist temples in Kyoto.
Obanzai Ryori is simple traditional Kyoto style home cooking, made up of multiple small dishes that are typically served at home. It features fresh local produce and seasonal ingredients to create amazing dishes that bring out the natural flavours of the ingredients. You can find restaurants that serve Obanzai Ryori all over Kyoto.
Yudofu (Simmered Tofu)
Yudofu is a popular local specialty that features soft tofu simmered in a delicious broth with seasonal vegetables. It is a simple dish that highlights the quality of Kyoto tofu and is renowned for its smooth, creamy texture and clean flavor. It is usually served with freshly sliced green onions, ground sesame seeds and a light soy dipping sauce. The Arashiyama and Nanzenji areas of Kyoto are particularly famous for their tofu cuisine.
Yuba (Tofu Skin)
Yuba is a local delicacy with its roots in ancient China. This simple but tasty dish is made by boiling soybean milk and skimming the skin that forms on its surface. It has a soft texture and light soybean flavour which is enhanced with soy sauce, freshly grated wasabi and ponzu (citrus dressing). Kyoto is famous for its high grade soybeans and clear water that produces the best tofu in Japan.
Kyo Tsukemono (Kyoto style pickles)
These Kyoto style pickles simply made with vinegar and salt turn vegetables like daikon radish, turnips and Chinese cabbage into flavour explosions. The best place to find them and even try them is at Nishiki Market, known as Kyoto’s Kitchen in the downtown Gion area.
Senmaizuke is a delicious traditional Kyoto pickle made from a local white turnip root called shogoin. The turnip is thinly sliced and seasoned with sweet vinegar, konbu seaweed and togarashi pepper. Senmaizuke means “thousand layer pickle” and the thin disks of pickle are super crunchy with a sweet and sour taste.
Kyoto style Sushi
Sushi originated in Edo (modern day Tokyo) but there is a unique local Kyoto version that is extremely popular. This local specialty features preserved fish as opposed to fresh fish and extra vinegary rice. Back in the day, as a landlocked city, Kyoto had a tough time acquiring fresh fish, so this dish developed out of necessity. One of the most popular varieties is sabazushi, which is pickled mackerel tightly wrapped around rice and encased in a thin sheet of kombu seaweed.
Namafu is a traditional Kyoto delicacy that uses highly refined wheat gluten and mochi rice flour. It is a popular meat substitute alternative to soybean based food and is typically eaten by the Buddhist monks in Kyoto or those who want a vegetarian meal. It has a chewy, stringy like texture that closely resembles meat. If you close your eyes and try hard enough, it is pretty much like eating a piece of meat but much healthier.
Yatsuhashi is possibly Kyoto’s most famous confectionery and can be found all over the city from souvenir shops to department stores. This sweet cinnamon regional delicacy made from glutinous rice flour can be either eaten raw or baked. The raw form is soft and chewy and is very similar in texture to mochi. The baked form is hard and crunchy, similar to a cookie or cracker. Don’t forget to pick up a box of limited edition Yatsuhashi flavoured Kit Kat, a great souvenir from Kyoto.