Beside all the much beloved Matcha treats you can find in Kyoto en masse, there is one other culinary favorite of mine Kyoto is famous for. I am talking about the most wonderful, utterly fresh, highest quality Tofu ever.
You definitly do not have to be a sworn in vegetarian to love these perfect white cubes and all the great things made out of it, you just have to have an understanding for the goodness of real pure taste: unspoiled, clean, refreshing and fantastic to relax our overstrained senses. Don't get me wrong: I love spicy food, chili, garlic, herbs and spices, a fair amount of sesame or olive oil, all those wonderful things. However, from time to time nothing is better than the unaltered, straight taste of simple things - nothing can be more sophisticated than that. The preparation of the simplest things is the highest art of cooking in my opinion and deserves a lot of respect. Only ingredients of the highest quality are to be used and everything must be well thought out. Just like a typical Kyoto-style Tofu Ryori Set.
I have to admit that at first I was a little reluctant to go to a Tofu restaurant, because the prices are quite high and there is so much nice and inexpensive food around, so that you start asking yourself: can this Tofu meal really be worth more than threetimes as much as a Soba/Udon/whatever set somewhere else? The answer is yes! And I am very grateful that my friend Angie told me so and made me have a perfectly marvelous Tofu Ryori at a Restaurant specialized on Yudofu called Junsei. It was one of the most delightful food experiences I ever had!
The restaurant itself is a grand old building, a former medical school, established in 1839 and remodeled to a restaurant after WW2. It is located just a few meters from the entrance gate to the Nanzen-ji, a famous Zen Buddhist temple. This area is famous for its Yudofu meals and you will find quite a few restaurants there dedicated to these Tofu dishes, but Junsei is not only one of the more famous ones, but also the only one with a completely vegetarian set.
Because the day of my visit there was rather hot and I was eager for something refreshing I decided to order the cold version of Yudofu: Hiyashitofu, that is plain
Tofu blocks floating in spring water accompanied by some icecubes and maple leaves. This is also the option for everyone who wants to be on the safe vegetarian side, because the broth used for boiling the Tofu in a Yudofu set might be made with Katsuobushi.
The sight of the white cubes, the icewater and the lush green leaves alone is a benefaction and naturally eating it is even more one.
But as a matter of course I didn't get the cold Tofu alone, it was just the core of an array of treasurelike little dishes my set meal consisted of.
There was beautifully crisp vegetable Tempura - although a deep-fried dish light and with the flavour of the veggies absolutly ostensible, not at all spoiled with the taste of oil and other things fried in it before.
In my little Tempura basket I found a slice of Japanese sweet potato, eggplant, kabocha (a Japanese squash), green beans and myoga (if I remember correctly) all with the characteristic fluffy, crisp crust.
Then I came upon a little plate with slightly sweet, stewed cold vegetables (celery, bambooshoots and something undefined) and a shiitake hat, presented with a pretty maple shaped and coloured piece of wheat gluten.
On yet another plate a small cube of a firm and intense sesame-tofu, with a little Wasabi on top swimming in its own special dipping sauce waited to be enjoyed by me. Of course I didn't let it wait too long..
Last but not least I savoured the Tofudengaku, two blocks of firm Tofu glazed with a special Miso-sauce and grilled on sticks and served on a wooden tray.
All this came alongside a bowl of rice and there was a plate with savory things to be eaten with the Tofu: chopped springonions, freshly grated ginger and thin stripes of dry seaweed (Nori I guess) as well as some tiny dried fish which I happily relinquished to my non-vegetarian friends who enjoyed this fantastic feast with me.
As you might be able to imagine after reading this and having a look at the pictures that this was a meal that just makes happy, satisfied, with the warm feeling of having experienced something very special, maybe a once-in-a-lifetime thing. It is clearly not an everyday dish, even if I had the possibility and could afford it: it is nothing to be eaten on a daily basis - this is supposed to be something extraordinary. And that it definitly was! Well worth the 3000 Yen it costed.
If you ever have the chance to have a something as amazing as that - don't hesitate!
Sakyo-ku, Kyoto [click for map]