Kyoto’s culture is unique among all other Japanese cultures. Since 794, when Japan’s capital was moved to Kyoto then known as Heian-kyo, Kyoto flourished as the center of Japanese politics, culture and religion for over 1,000 years until the capital was moved to Tokyo. Because of this history, cultural events and rituals have taken deep roots in Kyoto’s daily life.
Baptized in diverse cultures, Kyoto gradually developed a unique food culture. The roots of Kyoto cuisine are said to have developed into four separate schools. Yusoku is an imperial cuisine with elegant visual presentations. Simple shojin is a cuisine that developed in Kyoto’s temples. Obanzai cuisine stemmed from Kyoto’s townspeople, and kaiseki cuisine was born out of the art of the Japanese tea ceremony.
Kyoto’s cultural background spawned diverse food cultures
Kyoto experiences great temperature fluctuations characteristic of a basin. Blessed with good water and fertile soil, Kyoto’s four seasons are particularly beautiful and have helped to produce a culture that cherishes nature. Because of its deep engagement with Shinto and Buddhism, Kyoto has a food culture that places a strong emphasis on cooking that does not waste ingredients, seasonal presentations and hospitality spirit.
Kaiseki cuisine is part of Japanese cuisine, developed with the art of the tea ceremony. It is said to have originated from the simple meal served before tea was served at the tea ceremony, a custom from the time of Rikyu, who perfected the art of tea. To enhance the tea’s taste, the menu is kept as simple as possible. In kaiseki cuisine, it is customary for guests to appreciate the dinnerware as well as the meal itself.
Kyo kaiseki (Kyoto’s kaiseki cuisine) features Kyoto vegetables from the fertile soil of Kyoto, Kyoto tofu and freshwater fish, gracefully cooked and only lightly flavored with techniques and formats unique to Kyoto. It can be enjoyed at restaurants in Kyoto known as ryotei.
300 years of history: Esteemed Kyoto restaurant Minokichi
Takeshigero, the main branch of esteemed Kyo (Kyoto) kaiseki restaurant Minokichi, is located some distance away from the main tourism area of Kyoto with a concentration of shrines and temples. Just like its name (meaning “a house of many bamboo trees” in Japanese), the quiet building is surrounded by beautiful bamboo forests, with an outpouring of elegance and class.
It has a long history, and is said to have started as a small tea salon from the time of the 8th shogun Yoshimune Tokugawa, which opened by the side of Sanjo Ohashi Bridge, currently part of Nawate Street. The store stayed open through the end of the Edo period (1603–1868) and beginning of the Meiji period (1868–1912), closed temporarily during World War II with Japan’s defeat becoming more imminent, but reopened at the current location after the war. Generation after generation, each successor has taken on the name Minoya Yoshibee. Currently run by the 10th generation Minoya Yoshibee, Minokichi is one of just a handful of most esteemed restaurants in Japan.
As we enter the restaurant, the first thing that catches our attention is the curtain at the entrance, with “fresh freshwater fish” written down the center. Freshwater fish cuisine is said to be the origin of Kyoto cuisine. In the late Edo period, Minokichi was a well-established freshwater fish restaurant and one of the eight freshwater fish restaurants certified by the government of Kyoto at that time. To this day, freshwater fish is one of Minokichi’s famous dishes and is always part of Minokichi’s kaiseki course dinner.
One thing that must not be forgotten is the fact that they always keep looking to new heights while putting a strong emphasis on tradition. At the Milano Expo 2015, Minokichi had a booth in the Japanese pavilion, which brought worldwide attention to dashi (Japanese soup stock). Minokichi has been invited to the Topkapi Palace in Turkey and Versailles in Paris, and has also served Japanese cuisine in banquets held in Beijing and Russia. While preserving tradition and style, it is also taking part in promoting Japanese cuisine worldwide.
Dashi and sesame tofu epitomize restaurant’s attention to detail
As Kyo kaiseki cuisine is all about enjoying the inherent taste of ingredients, making dashi is apparently the most important process. We talked to Yoji Satake, the young successor of Minokichi and the master chef of Takeshigero.
“We are doing the basics. We put kombu seaweed in; when the soup comes out we take the kombu out, and put bonito flakes in. We sift it, add radish and a pinch of salt, that’s it.”
He uses kombu seaweed from Rishiri, Hokkaido, and bonito flakes from Makurazaki, Kagoshima. We asked what he does to create the special “Minokichi” touch.
“Of course, we carefully select kombu seaweed and bonito for our dashi, but there is nothing special about that. However, we are extremely careful about the water and temperature. We use soft water with hardness level of about 60, and temperature of about 60–70 degrees Celsius, and let the dashi come out slowly. We painstakingly stick to this routine,” says Satake.
Apparently, this way of making dashi has been adopted only recently.
“Until now, chefs depended on their experience and intuition for the right timing and temperature for the dashi. But about 15 years ago, the government started supporting research of Japanese food as a national effort. Research by university institutions clarified that the tastiness came from glutamic acid from kombu seaweed, and inosinate from bonito flakes, revealing the best proportion of water and temperatures to optimize the taste of dashi. I think it revolutionized dashi making.”
Continued innovations to preserve tradition
Even after science figured out the process of making dashi, only Junji Imanishi, head chef of Minokichi with 43 years of experience, is the only one who can prepare Minokichi’s dashi.
“Even if you can make dashi efficiently, the final touch is only possible if you have a certain level of experience. All our customers are people who have supported us for decades, because they like tradition. If you have apprenticed for only about 10 years you will not get our taste.” There was pride in his words of an esteemed restaurant.
According to Satake, dashi is everything for Japanese cuisine. When we asked his choice of Minokichi’s countless dishes, he said “sesame tofu”.
“You can tell if a restaurant is good or not, by the dashi and sesame tofu they serve. For sesame tofu, we use arrowroot and bracken flour to make sure it is firm and chewy. It does not get solid immediately. The chef needs to stir the mixture by hand, checking if it is the right firmness. It’s no good if you stir it too much. Only a human hand can sense that subtle balance. So much so that people say they can tell if the restaurant is good when they eat the food they make by hand—food that cannot be prepared by a machine,” continued Satake.
Throughout their long history, they always pursued authenticity, yet never avoided change. The sophisticated light flavor is a sublimation of painstaking efforts by Kyo cuisine chefs.
Assortment of beautiful and delicate Kyo cuisine served with special dashi
This time, E-ZEY JAPAN offers dashi created by the head chef of esteemed Kyo cuisine restaurant Minokichi, using carefully selected kombu seaweed from Hokkaido, bonito flakes, tuna flakes and shiitake mushrooms for a delicate flavor. It is assorted with agar jelly and sesame tofu that can be added to the special dashi as dashi stock ingredients.
Enjoy the taste of authentic Kyo cuisine in the comfort of your own home.
Writer : YUKI MOTOMURA / Photographer : SATOSHI TACHIBANA / Movie : CHIZU TAKAKURA
E-ZEY JAPAN Gift Set of Japanese Broth and Agar Jellies
Kyo Kaiseki Minokichi Honten Takeshigero
|Address||65 Awa Taguchi Torii-cho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto-shi|
Lunch: 11：30 a.m.–2：00 p.m.（Please enter the restaurant by 2：00 p.m.）
Dinner: 5：00 p.m.–10：00 p.m.（Please enter the restaurant by 7：30 p.m.）
※Restaurant open from lunch to dinner on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays, from 11:30 a.m.–10:00 p.m.（Please enter the restaurant by 7:30 p.m.）.
Kyoto Prefecture Tourism Information
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