Nicknamed Kyoto’s kitchen, the iconic Nishiki market is spread over five blocks and has multiple entry points. A short 10-minute walk from Shijō Station, local residents and tourists flock to the covered shopping arcade for food and kitchenware needs.
Nishiki began as a wholesale fish market. The first shop opened here in 1310, and since then it has grown to house more than a 100 food stores. Most of these have been owned by families for generations. The lanes seem narrower than they already are as vendors display their wares outside their shops.
Under the red-green-yellow glass roof, life is buzzing most days of the week. Retailers shout out the virtues of their produce and hand out free samples too. There are food kiosks selling skewered snacks. Sit-down food is there too, but not too many of them, and they can accommodate no more than four people at a time.
The locals know where to find their locally-produced fresh vegetables, fish and meat. Some are seen biting into what look like soy milk doughnuts. Women sell sticks of honeyed sweet potatoes, and men negotiate for a fresh portion of oysters.
Taste the unusual
Chances of stumbling upon once-in-a-lifetime delicacies are very good at Nishiki. Most famed, and perhaps most photographed, are tako tamago or baby octopuses stuffed with quail’s eggs. They are dark pink and chewy on the outside and yellow and moist inside.
Sample the yakitori sparrow. Yakitori translates to ‘grilled bird’ and is popular. If you prefer fish, there is plenty to choose from — raw, steamed or fried. Wakasagi is spicy and served cold. These very small sea fish are soaked in soy sauce and a Japanese herb called sancho. The expensive preparation of karasumi or egg of mullet roe is also available. Since the Edo period, this has been considered a high-priced fish because it is consumed with valuable sake.
Another favourite is komochi yari-ika (squid stuffed with egg). This pregnant soft fish is stuffed with its own egg, giving the delicacy a creamy texture. When the squid is fresh, it remains translucent, a day older, it turns white. Hanging in transparent pouches, are dried fins of pufferfish. These are immersed into hot sake, which the Japanese believe make them ‘superb’.
For veggie lovers, there are freshly-harvested turnips, crunchy orange carrots, and a lot more. Also called kyo-yasai, this city takes great pride in its locally-grown greens. There are many varieties of pickles, but do note that some of them may be soaked in fish broth or oil. These pickles are prepared with seasonal vegetables. The salty-sour shibazuke, or bright purple cucumber and eggplant pickle, is a favourite of the locals. And senmaizuke is a winter special pickle made of 1,000 (‘sen’ in Japanese) thin slices of Kyoto’s turnips seasoned with seaweed. Sesame dumplings, balls made with black sesame paste inside, make a healthy snack. This is one of the fastest-selling savouries.
Obanyaki (also called imagawayaki) is a sweet cake filled with azuki or red bean paste, a common ingredient in most Japanese food. Expect to find it in yatsuhashi or sweet baked strips of rice and flour.
The Japanese take pride in their baked and jelly desserts. Mochi (mashed rice cakes) are available in many flavours. Matcha or green tea is most popular. There is also sakura mochi (cherry blossom rice cake), dango (mochi-like sweets on a stick doused in sugar and soy sauce), warabi mochi (jelly dipped in soybean flour and sugar) and yomogi mochi or sweet red bean layered with herbs or leaves. Perhaps, the most unique dessert here is black bean ice-cream, which is grey. Other treats include narazuke or pickle infused with sake. It can be heady. And Nishiki is the place to try it.