An Introduction to Japanese Food – Nishiki Market, Kyoto

nishikiflagI love a market. Especially a food market. When visiting another country, it’s a great way to get a handle on the local cuisine; visiting the place where everyone buys their everyday foods. Chatting to the stall holders, checking out the purchasers. Sometimes though, when on holiday, it can be a slight source of disappointment if with a particularly good market, you can’t try much, having no facilities to cook the lovely stuff you see.

Nishiki Market gets around this by selling cooked food as well as raw, and by being terribly generous with it’s free samples. Many stalls had sampler dishes to try before you buy. And some mixed cafe with retail, or offered takeaway food alongside foods for home prep. This, for example, was the best steamed bun I’ve ever had:???????????????????????????????

Light and fluffy, very slightly sweetened dough (but not so sweet as the Chinese version), wonderful savoury beef and burdock filling, both tender and unctuous – as unlike my expectation of burdock as stringy and vaguely unpleasant as it’s possible to be. I dream of that bun.

Pleasingly, I didn’t feel pressured to buy from every stall. There doesn’t appear to be any expectation of purchase amongst the stall holders of their gawking audiences. Whether this is because they’re used to tourists or whether it’s a cultural thing, I’m not sure. My Japanese is not good enough for me to be able to adequately enquire. I know that the market is in the Lonely Planet guide as a must see, and we were visiting in peak Cherry Blossom season, and on a rainy day to boot – I was expecting wall to wall tourists, but saw only a few Caucasians. (Though while I was eating that bun, a Chinese guy piped up in broad Australian, saying that it looked good. He was from Melbourne. Small world.)

I visited twice – once on a weekend when it was rammed with people – mostly locals, from the look of it – and again on a weekday just as the stalls were opening. That was much quieter – but on both occasions all the stall holders were happy to assist with queries, requests to try or for information, even in my bad Japanese, and when they were super busy. I was impressed.nishiki2This is a linear market – one long line of stalls and shops to either side. It intersects with several streets along the way, so it’s possible to join partway along as well as either end. It makes for an impressive vista if you enter from the end – people, food and stalls as far as you can see. It’s also covered, so it’s an ideal choice for a rainy day. The range of goods runs from fish, rice, cakes, with green grocers, stalls selling chopsticks, platters, knives (see The Knives page) – if it’s kitchen orientated, the chances are they sell it here.

Of the sweet options, we noticed several places selling the more gift orientated tiny tea ceremony type sweets, as well as range of pressed brandy snap like snacks – this one being made on the spot with a variant on the waffle iron theme, and filled with roasted broad beans or peanuts – it became a favourite!

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Cute jellies

I didn’t try this but noticed similar being sold in the food halls of Japanese department stores – a giant sponge cake made from many thin layers, looking for all the world like a massive pallid hotdog or wurst:

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We also found a stall selling a mochi type bun (rice flour based) flavoured with mugwort – sounds very traditional, so had to be tried:

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These were charcoal grilled while you wait and were way more delicious than they look – faintly sweet, with a slightly grassy though not unpleasant flavour that’s difficult to describe. I love the doughy, sticky mochi texture so I would happily eat this again.

I’d love to know what these are, if anyone can help me out:

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They were thin sheets, stacked together, and from the presentation (and the rest of the shop) intended as gifts. The shop sold both pickles and sweet things – but were one of the few not offering tasters that I could see.

Of course there was also tea in abundance, and a matcha grinder:

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As well as the mass of green teas we noticed a stall selling soy bean tea – not sure that isn’t ‘coffee’ now I think of it – but sadly no taster on this stall so I couldn’t tell what it was like.???????????????????????????????

Obviously, there was a shop selling only rice; I honestly hadn’t realised there were so many grades:???????????????????????????????

We even had our lunch at a very popular kaiseki style vegetarian restaurant we discovered by accident, upstairs in a green grocers. ???????????????????????????????We only realised it was there when we saw a shoe rack at the back of the shop (no shoes allowed on the mats upstairs, common in fancy restaurants) and a regular stream of people disappearing up the back steps. It was one of those happy accidents and well worth the 40 minute wait – they took our names & let us come back so we would carry on shopping, too.

Some things I’d never seen before, anywhere in the world, including wood fungus being sold straight off the stick:

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It should go without saying that a feature of markets is the sale of seasonal produce – sadly, I’m not sure this is so much the case in European markets now, as there is a worrying tendency towards selling stock imported from overseas, so that shoppers never have to do without. In Japan, thankfully, seasonal is still prized. ???????????????????????????????

Absolutely giant chestnuts

Judging by the amount for sale, bamboo shoots were in season:??????????????????????????????? ???????????????????????????????

An entire stall devoted to bamboo shoots. Panda heaven?

I’ve never been a fan of them up until now. Those unpleasantly woody, musty tasting rectangles from my youth, filling cheap Chinese takeaways. These were a world apart – nutty, tender & delicious. Sold in roadside stalls, charcoal grilled on a stick.

Another feature of Japanese shopping is the obsession with wrapping. Not just gift wrapping, but cellophane protection of just about any food stuff. Where in the West we’re moving away from resource hungry excessive packaging, Japan is still wildly in it’s grip.This store had signs politely requesting no photography, but – whatever:???????????????????????????????

Individually wrapped carrots

Just about everything was individually wrapped. Garlic bulbs, onions, carrots….absolutely beats me why, as it was a greengrocers – you’d assume that items intended as gifts would be wrapped, but not every day foods. Like these fish:

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Who knows – perhaps they were very special fish.

Of course there was plenty more fascinating stuff to see at Nishiki, and I’ll look at some more next time.

 

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