Sunday, May 01, 2005

Hyotei: the spirit of kaiseki dining - Part I

The biggest reason for my wanting to go visit Kyoto was not the famous Golden Pavillion or the Zen garden at Ryoanji. It was to visit Hyotei, a 350 yr old eatery in Kyoto, regarded by many to be the epicenter of Kyoto cuisine, known as Kyo-kaiseki.


Kaiseki meals are multicourse affairs, where the diner is presented with seasonal dishes cooked with utmost attention to detail. Everything is orchestrated to provide the diner with the best possible experience, starting with the first cup of tea brewed to be at the perfect temperature to the dishware used to serve each course. Often, dishes are served in bowls with the chef's intentions closed tightly inside under a lid - diners get the full effect upon lifting the lid and being greeted by wonderful aromas wafting up with the steam. Kaiseki cuisine is true evidence that Japanese food is so much more than raw fish and sushi. Although sashimi often plays a part in the kaiseki course, it is a small component of the wonderful ensemble.

Hyotei started out as a tea stop for the pilgrims visiting the near-by Nanzenji temple and became an eatery in August, 1837. A meal at Hyotei is like traveling back in time and enjoying a serene meal in an environment away from all the hustle and bustle. It is nourishing, warm, and rejuvenating - all aspects of what a warm 'motenashi' or 'welcoming' should feel like.

There are only five dining rooms associated with the main Hyotei building, and each party occupies one room. Each of these rooms used to be tea rooms with traditional tea ceremony service back in the day when Hyotei was a tea house. We were led to a cozy, comfortable space for our meal.

As with many traditional Japanese eateries, we sat on tatami floors with individual 'tables' as you see here. The table/trays are works of lacquer art, and they give a smooth, seductive feel as they reflect off the gorgeous outside green onto its deep black surface. A point on Japanese manners: once you use your chopsticks, the proper way to rest them on these trays is to put the side your mouth touches off the edge...


The first set of dishes from this meal was a trio of snapper sashimi, snapper shirako (epididymus - warning: click only if you really want to know!!), and lightly fried soramame beans. My Mama and I were both taken back by how smooth the snapper sashimi was. You could almost taste the sharpness of the knife used here, and the sweetness of the meat was accentuated by the flawless clean cut. This plate of sashimi reminded me that preparing sashimi requires culinary mastery and that sashimi, despite its unheated state, is actually 'cooked' food after all.

The snapper shirako was lightly grilled and topped with grated daikon and ponzu. The almost liquid shirako melted in my mouth as I tried to enjoy the flavors without thinking about what I was eating. Shirako is a revered delicacy in Japan that I just can't grow to appreciate. I've been trying to block out my prejudices and really taste them for what they are, but knowing what it is makes me cringe everytime... This dish was visually attractive - the delicate white of the shirako, the bright red lacquer of the bowl, and the stark contrasting black lacquer tray was breath-taking.

Next up was a simply stunning soup. It was a white miso soup with the most nourishing, motherly warmth. This was simply divine. All three of us inhaled the aroma and stopped talking. For a moment, we all sat in a total state of relaxation, as the warm, sweetness of the miso traveled our bodies. White miso is a Kyoto specialty, and a properly preapred white miso soup is nothing like the miso soups we get here in the US. This soup had an almost milky richness to it with a subtle sweetness. Inside was a mountain plant, the harbringer of Spring that I discussed in an earlier post. It is very rare that I become speechless about food, but this bowl of soup was so wonderful, I was left in speechless awe. I was so overwhelmed by this miso soup that I begged them for their white miso distributor and brought some back with me... (And yes, if you are nice to me, I will try to make you my version of this wonderful soup...) The presentation was equally stunning, and the soup was served in a black lacqur bowl with a lid that opened up to show the gorgeous golden artwork with the Japanese character for 'snow', pictured here.

The next dish was an ensemble of various bites. These were all wonderful, but the highlight of this plate was the boiled egg. Known as the Hyotei Tamago (Egg), it is a perfectly boiled egg with a rich, luscious near-liquid center, surrounded by solid egg white. This egg has been served here since the time when most people were still eating raw eggs as the height of culinary sophistication, which is still evident as the spirit Hyotei continues to live by today. What mystifies me is how they are able to slice this near-liquid center in half without tainting the white part with the egg yolk.


We were then presented with a fun diversion of unwrapping our sasa-zushi (bamboo sushi). Carefully wrapped in bamboo leaves, these rolls gave off a very pleasant green bamboo leaf scent, refreshing us at the mid-way point of our meal.

Inside was a plump and youthful shrimp sushi or a mature and elegant sophisticated snapper sushi. Both offered totally different textures and flavors, and the combination was just as fun as the process of unwrapping the bamboo packages.

That's going to be the end of my posts today, since I have five more courses to describe to you, as well as stories about our wonderful server who told me the miso distributor and the markets I can go find it, along with a sneak peak at Hyotei's oldest dining room! Click here for more Hyotei debaucherizing!


Anonymous said...

Alice your pictures always come out so outstanding. What are you doing to the camera? The colors and the clarity even in what appears to be low light is amazing. Please do teach the secret. I can only achieve that with minimally even after photoshop manipulation.

Looking forward to glutony.


Uchipu said...

I'm jealous.

I want oishi's too...

Alice said...


Thanks! Maybe if you're lucky, I'll show you my secret one of these days...

Unchi pu,

We should make a trip for Canadian Oishii's soon!


Shirako is creamy and almost liquid with slight saltiness that turns into sweetness in your mouth. I think it's totally acceptable to not finish this, since it's too advanced even for me. This time, though, the serving size was bite size, so I ate it all, but usually I sneak it over to my Mama's plate...


This is the SPIRIT that I am trying to cook with... Don't be disappointed with the Alicified Kyoto cuisine!!

Anonymous said...

Good Job! :)