Names in this site follow the Japanese custom of family name first.

April 28, 2011

Kyoto Files: Kyo-yasai or Kyoto Vegetables

Kyo-yasai are vegetables cultivated in Kyoto since the Edo period or earlier. Most of these came originally from China or Korea (Japan has very few indigenous vegetables, mainly mioga (a sort of ginger) and seri (dropworth). The rest was introduced from the Asian mainland between the fifth and twelfth centuries and afterward “domesticated” in Japan. These vegetables are distinct from the “Western vegetables” as lettuce, broccoli etc., introduced since the late 19th century.

Kyo no dento yasai
A list of 41 vegetables established by Kyoto Prefecture in 1987 to “brand” traditional Kyoto vegetables and stimulate their production (which had decreased because of urbanization). Compared with other vegetables, kyo-yasai are a bit sweeter and have attractive colors and often interesting shapes.

Vegetables in the Kyoto cuisine
Kyoto is located in a mountain basin, so the cuisine was centered on vegetables rather than seafood (fresh seafood was not a all available, fish was eaten only in preserved form, salted or dried). Kyoto was also a center of Buddhism, which ideologically stimulated the development of a vegetarian cuisine. Water was abundant in the Kyoto basin, from the Kamo, Katsura and Takano rivers, and the earth was fertile thanks to the nutrients these same rivers carried along. Kyoto has a good climate for growing vegetables, with ample rain fall and generally mild temperatures - the cold winters help enhance the sweetness of vegetables and are ideal for growing field vegetables as leeks. As the national capital and home to an exquisite court culture, there also existed a strong stimulus to develop these vegetables into tasty and colorful varieties.

Place in Japanese cuisine
Japanese cuisine is historically divided into four types: Daikyo Ryori (banquet cuisine of the Heian nobility), Honzen Ryori (food of the samurai class), Shojin Ryori (vegetarian cuisine of Buddhist temples) and Kaiseiki Ryori (the meal taken during the tea ceremony). Except for the second one, all of these are intimately connected with Kyoto and the third one is wholly vegetarian (the last one nearly so). Kaiseiki Ryori has become the basis for modern Japanese cuisine as served in expensive ryotei, in Kyoto and elsewhere.

Pickles (tsukemono)
There are many varieties of Kyoto-style pickled vegetables, such as senmai-zuke (thin slices from the large, round Shogoin turnip), shiba-zuke (from Kamo eggplant) and suguki-zuke (from sugukina turnips).

The name for the simple but tasty vegetable dishes used in Kyoto home cooking – these are also often based on Kyoto vegetables bought in the local market.

The still existing habit of farmers from near Kyoto to sell that morning's harvest directly to customers in the city by making regular rounds of neighborhoods with carts or light trucks.

Kyo-yasai fact sheet on this blog.