Have you been to Kyoto, Italy

July 2006

  • Renowned Japanese chef Yasuhiro Sasajima describes his experiences fusing Italian ingredients and techniques with the ingredients and principals of traditional vegetarian shojin cuisine, which has its roots in Kyoto, and was originally consumed by Buddhist monks as a sign of their devotion. You may not be surprised to learn that umami played an important role in his odyssey.

    Encounters with umami

    The first time I came into contact with umami was when I was asked to write a book entitled 'Italian Shojin Recipes' My restaurant, Il Ghiottone, is based in Kyoto, which is generally recognized as the home of archetypal Japanese cuisine, and furthermore both shojin cuisine and its modern day successor kaiseki cuisine can be said to have deep and long held associations with the history of Kyoto.

    Shojin cuisine originated as a food for Buddhist monks. It does not feature meat or fish, but consists mainly of vegetables, and in Kyoto often includes traditional Kyoto vegetables, which are collectively known in Japanese as kyoyasai, and include special varieties of burdock, aubergine and carrot.

    A marriage made in heaven

    When I first heard about the idea of serving shojin cuisine in an Italian style, I must say I was a bit apprehensive. After all, to my mind, Italian cookery included a lot of meat, fresh fish and cheese, all of which is somewhat removed from the ideals of shojin. When I took another look at Italian cuisine from the perspective of the shojin tradition, however, I realized that there is a wide array of delicious vegetarian recipes in Italy, all of which benefit from the country's rich abundance of vegetables and olive oil.

    Kyoto, with its extremes of heat and cold and superb natural surroundings, provides a delicious assortment of kyoyasai, and I began to wonder if I could combine these with olive oil to create tasty Italian cuisine in the shojin tradition.

    The true taste of vegetables

    It was when I was exploring the possibilities of Italian shojin cuisine that I was made aware of just how truly delicious vegetables are, and I realized that the single most important factor in bringing out this deliciousness is umami. For example, I often use kombu (kelp) and kombu dashi (kelp stock) in my cooking, as these play a central role in Kyoto cuisine, or kyoryori as it is known in Japanese, and I discovered that if kombu is added to the water when cooking pasta, the kombu provides umami and saltiness, which gives the pasta a delicious depth of flavour. Moreover, by boiling or steaming vegetables using kombu dashi, it is possible to draw out their full flavour using the umami inherent in the kombu.

    A jellied consomme, served as an
    example of western cuisine using
    Kombu dashi.

    The perfect fusion
    In the springtime, I make pasta with takenoko , or bamboo shoots, which are a seasonal ingredient specific to Japan , and one that is often used in kyoryori . While in Kyoto cuisine the shoots are cooked in a dashi made from kombu and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), I prefer to use stock made from a combination of kombu and cured ham. As a result of my interest in umami, I have participated in an Umami Seminar held in Kyoto in 2004 by the Umami Information Center (see below), and I have also been inspired to create a number of new recipes, including an Italian style bamboo shoot stew, as well as the fusion kombu dashi I mentioned above.

    Umami-rich ingredients such as tomatoes and cheese are frequently used in Italian cuisine, but by using kombu dashi in conjunction with these common Italian dishes on an everyday basis, I feel as though I am able to coax out of the vegetables an inherent deliciousness that I had previously not been aware of. It also made me realize that umami is one Japanese discovery that really does have an impact all over the world.

    About Yasuhiro Sasajima

    Yasuhiro Sasajima is Owner and Chef of Il Ghiottone restaurant in Kyoto, where he specializes in a unique form of Kyoto Italian cuisine. Such is the restaurant's success that in 2005 a sister branch was opened in Marunouchi, Tokyo. He also makes regular contributions to television programmes and publications in Japan.

    Il Ghiottone Restaurant


    Umami Seminar, Kyoto 2004
    This event, which took place in July 2004, was billed as Japan 's first-ever molecular gastronomy master class. It was attended by around sixty food and taste experts from Japan, the US and the UK, who explored the importance of umami in cooking and eating through a range of talks, discussions and practical demonstrations, and boasted a number of high profile speakers from around the world

    (Chair) Kathy Sykes
    Collier Chair, Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Bristol , UK


    Gary K. Beauchamp
    Director of Monell Chemical Sciences Center , Philadelphia , USA

    Heston Blumenthal
    Chef and Owner of The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray , UK

    Nobuyuki Matsuhisa
    Owner, Nobu Restaurant Group


    Yoshihiro Murata
    President and Head Chef of Kikunoi Restaurant, Kyoto , Japan

    Edmund T. Rolls
    Professor of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford , UK

  • Mr.Murata explains how to extract good dashi.

    Heston closely examines a piece of kombu.

  • Mr.Murata explains how to extract good dashi.

    Heston closely examines a piece of kombu.