Kyo-Ryori: A Cuisine With Umami At Its Heart

March 2007

Maiko admire the dishes on display

  • REPORT: The 101st Kyoto Cuisine Grand Exhibition, Kyoto 13-14 Dec. 2006

    One of the most eagerly awaited events in the Japanese food lover's calendar is the annual celebration of Kyoto cuisine held in Japan's ancient capital city. The indigenous cuisine of Kyoto, known in Japanese as kyo-ryori, is a uniquely intricate and fascinating style of cooking, with a heritage stretching back centuries, and the umami taste lies at its heart.

    Cuisine with a long history

    Kyoto cuisine is a term used to describe any of a number of formal styles of cooking that date back to the time when Kyoto was still the capital city of Japan, from 790-1185. All of them are characterised by featuring a large number of small dishes, which are exquisitely presented for maximum aesthetic pleasure. They are generally highly seasonal, with ingredients, presentation methods and even serving dishes chosen to carefully reflect the time of year. As well as the main type of formal cuisine, known as kaiseki, there is also a variant that is served as an accompaniment to the tea ceremony, known as cha-kaiseki, and also shojin cuisine, which is inspired by the Buddhist faith, and is therefore completely vegetarian. What all of these types of cuisine have in common is that they have been created with an innate appreciation of the umami taste.

    The importance of dashi

    This manifests itself in numerous ways, but none more so than in dashi, the traditional Japanese stock that is the essential basis of many Kyoto dishes. In mainstream kaiseki cuisine, this is often the classic ichiban dashi, made using kombu kelp, the foodstuff with the highest naturally occurring levels of glutamate, and katsuobushi dried bonito flakes, which are high in the nucleotide inosinate. This combination of umami substances results in an enhanced flavour, proving that hundreds of years before it was scientifically proven, the Japanese were taking advantage of the so-called synergistic effect of umami. The vegetarian shojin cuisine, on the other hand, uses dashi made either from kombu on its own or shiitake mushrooms, which when dried and reconstituted in water create a stock that is high in guanylate.

    A feast for the senses

    The essential role played by umami in the various types of Kyoto cuisine means that it was only fitting that for the second year running the Umami Information Center took a stand at the Kyoto Cuisine Grand Exhibition. The exhibition itself, organised as usual by the Kyo-Ryori Association, is truly a sight - and taste, and smell - to behold, with around 80 of the longest established and best known ryotei, or traditional Japanese restaurants, in Kyoto displaying their wares. This year's event took place on 13 and 14 December, in the city's International Exhibition Hall, and as usual was timed to coincide with preparations for the Japanese New Year celebrations, which always include the serving of the kaiseki style New Year food, known as osechi ryori. This, like much of the Kyoto cuisine on display at the event, is presented in beautiful, tiered Japanese lacquer ware boxes, known as jubako.

    A celebration of Japanese culture

    The 7,000 visitors who attended the event over the course of the two days were able to experience for themselves all the sights and tastes that Kyoto cuisine has to offer, not to mention other displays of Japanese culture such as dancing by traditionally attired maiko, or trainee geisha. Other attractions included sushi making demonstrations, and advice on how to correctly fillet tuna. Mr. Eiichi Takashi, who as well as being President of the Kyo-Ryori Association is proprietor of the prestigious Kyoto ryotei called Hyotei, said of the event that, "we really want people who come here to enjoy the array of signature dishes created and displayed by the various ryotei."

    The Umami Information Center's booth provided information on umami in general, and in particular the dashi stock that is so essential to authentic Kyoto cuisine. One of the most popular attractions was the opportunity to sample dashi stock made using Rishiri-kombu, the high quality kelp gathered off the island of Rishiri in Hokkaido. Over 800 people took the chance to sample the umami rich broth for themselves, and overall the stand attracted the interest of many of the chefs, other food professionals and food fans in attendance.

    Kyo-Ryori Association: (Japanese only)

  • Maiko admire the dishes on display

    Display of traditional knife skills

    Around 7,000 people attended the event

    Mr Eiichi Takahashi, President of the Kyo-Ryori Association

    Umami Information Center's booth

  • Display of traditional knife skills

    Around 7,000 people attended the event

    Mr Eiichi Takahashi, President of the Kyo-Ryori Association

    Umami Information Center's booth