Saturday, June 16, 2012

Kyoto's Nishiki Market (錦市場)

We can all wax poetic about the progress made in the USA regarding fresh food markets and farmers markets. But there's a year round market in Kyoto called Nishiki Market. Spanning for blocks in a covered environment, it's almost like your ultimate food mall, with fresh produce, fish, tea, sake, stewed this and that, and other Japanese specialities. I can and have spent hours there, tasting as I walk, and generally having the time of my life.
Having rented a house with a kitchen in Kyoto, as opposed to spending money on a hotel room without facilities, I was truly able to enjoy the wares of this market, bringing home a variety of items to cook for breakfast. Now, while I say that I really enjoy this market, I'm not going to lie and say that I know what everything was. The key is to look all around you and ask questions. Many of the stalls have helpful staff that will let you taste and try to explain what the more exotic items are. So here's my little food tour of items to look out for.
Many of the stalls offer a variety of dried fish to use for stocks, or to simmer and rehydrate in different rice topping dishes. One of the stalls had some lovely pink dried shrimps.
Dried shrimp (sakura ebi)
There are also a number of shops that sell fresh seafood, of a quality that you can only really get in venturing to your own single fish monger back in the States. But in Kyoto, having a single location with multiple fresh fish shops really increases the variety of fish you can purchase, along with introducing competition for the quality of seafood offered.
Just one of the fresh seafood shops at Nishiki
The same shop also offered a bunch of different bento items, from grilled fish over rice to some lovely unagi that one could pack in ones picnic lunch to enjoy at one of Kyoto's beautiful parks later in the day.
Unagi and other bento items you can purchase
The stands selling teas are unbelievable. They have different ocha (お茶) that you simply won't find in the states. From exquisite and toasty genmaicha (玄米茶) to the fancier, ceremonial powder matcha (抹茶), and then other exotic offerings featuring chestnuts or even mushrooms, the tea varieties here are beyond what you could ever expect. Many of these shops also sell tea ceremony tools, tea storage vessels and tea pots that you can purchase to enjoy.
One of the shops featuring some fine tea
While there are not as many meat shops as there are fish stalls, you can also find a good amount of butchers at Nishiki.
One of Nishiki's butcher shops
Then the shops get even more specialized. There are those that only sell stewed fishes and seafood. We found one that sold these little smelt type fishes, stewed in soy sauce and sugar, and largely meant as a topping for rice.
Small, sardine-type fishes that have been marinated
The same shop also had marinated clams, which I salivated over for a while before being dragged away by the bigger half.
Marinated clams for purchase
Think your deli has a good salad bar? I now know that mine doesn't. Some stalls feature different prepared salads and pickled/marinated vegetables from lotus roots to bamboo to celery and spinach. This was one of the better stalls.
Delicious marinated vegetables for sale
God damn. A rice stand. I love rice. Many Japanese feel that a meal is not complete without it. I make it at home often with the best present the Bigger Half has ever given me, a delux zojirushi rice maker. I know it was expensive for us when we were just getting started, but I use it at least once a week, and wish I had been smart enough to bring a bigger suitcase and lug some of the fine offerings of this stand home. Rice from different areas of Japan has different textures. Some are softer, some are meant to be cooked and used in sushi a bit more al dente. Longer grains come from different regions too. Some are more starchy. You get the idea.
A specialized rice shop
At the same rice shop, off to the right, they had a bunch of different types of onigiri to try. Each had been made with a different type of rice, and the fillings for each varied. Some had umeboshi. Others were a mix of burdock root and bamboo throughout. You should definitely try one to get a proper bite of delicious, chewy, starchy rice mixed with the tangy vegetables of your liking and that still crunchy nori wrapping.
Amazing onigiri, inexpensive and made
with some of Japan's finest rice
Some shops had fried items, many in the kushiage style, that where you could select a piece of this vegetable, that fish cake, or that roll, and make quite a little meal for yourself.
A stand of fried items, featuring spring rolls,
fish cakes, and various veggies
A stand later and I saw the bigger half's jaw drop. There was this guy, behind a plastic window, grilling up ladders of cascading eel. The smell of charcoal was intoxicating, and each time we saw him reintroduce the potent soy sauce to the eel, we knew that we could not leave without an order of his unagi.
An eel stall, grilling up fresh unagi
The flavor did not disappoint. Crunchy and perfectly grilled on the outside, sweet and sticky from the "tare" or sauce typically used with unagi, this sweet flesh was savory and flaky and still chewy. I highly recommend that you look for the eel guy and purchase a single order of the best unagi I've had in years.
Holy shit. The unagi.
At one of the stalls we saw a few live items ready for purchase. Among them were these:
Teeny live crabs that can be cooked and stewed, and
popped into ones mouth: super crunchy
Live little eels. Check out the reflection in the ceiling
(yellow, blue, red)
Even a live turtle.
We passed another little dried and cooked fish stand, which had all of their offerings laid out for the world to see and salivate over.
More dried and fresh fish. Check
out the chirimen (tiny dried fishes) on
the bottom right of the screen (so good!)
At this same stall, we could not pass up a little pile of broiled tiny fishes, to be eaten off a stick with all their bones. The fish had salty, crispy skin, and a touch of miso sauce. The bones were crunchy and the flesh sweet and flaky. A fantastic snack!
The Bigger Half enjoying his little miso-broiled fish
on a stick
Whale bacon. Just like it sounds. This white/red processed meat is made of whale though I couldn't tell which type. I believe in trying everything, and so we purchased a few slices of this delicacy. The texture is rubbery, like that of the fatty part of bacon. The reddish piece tastes vaguely of actual bacon, with the savory flavor of meat emerging with each chew.
Whale (kushira) bacon. Very interesting.
Another stand featured various yakitori, or chicken on skewers, and different baked/grilled little birds, butterflied and ready for purchase. While we were very enticed by this stand, we waited for a grand feast of yakitori to come later that evening.
Booth featuring lots of cooked items, featuring yakitori
There were booths specializing in chirimen, stewed with soy and sugar and interspersed with tiny little brined sanshou peppers, a relative of the schezwan peppercorn. We were sure to purchase a bit of this for breakfast the next morning.
Chirimen with little mountain peppercorns
We had to take a little stop at stand that sold stewed baby octopus, hot pink and nice and chewy. The slightly more expensive offering that they sold on skewers to passersby had a little nitamago quail egg stuffed in the egg. If you see these, get one. They're better than they sound, and less weird than you think. In fact, if I ever start my own bar, this will be one of the bar snacks. So delicious.
Baby octopus stuffed with a quail egg
We had neared the end of our visit to Nishiki Market, snacks in hand, and ready to venture back to Kyoto Nene House, where we were staying. But not without my umeboshi, those little pickled mountain plums so sour that ones mouth puckers in delight, sucking the flesh to the very pitt. I love these things, and have always considered them one of my favorite foods. One of the stalls at Nishiki sold these plums, the biggest, roundest, fruitiest looking ones I've ever seen. I truly enjoyed these at breakfast, savoring every last puckering moment.
My beloved umeboshi
I hope you've enjoyed this little tour of Nishiki Market, and decide to go yourself. If you need an inexpensive way to really tour all of the greatest hits foods of Japan, this is the way to do it. The staff at each stall are helpful and friendly, so you needn't be intimidated at all. How essential is it that you visit this market to really get a "flavor" of Japan? Well, if you only have time for Kinkakuji (the temple made of gold) or Nishiki Market, trust me, go to Nishiki. 

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