Traditional Kyoto cuisine is divided into four categories: yūsoku, meals that were served to the imperial family and court nobles; kaiseki, which has its origins in tea ceremony; shojin, vegetarian cuisine originating in Buddhist temple kitchens; and obanzai, which started as street food. After the imperial court lost its power base to the martial rule of the shogunate, the art of yūsoku, imperial cuisine, gradually faded; however, one restaurant in Kyoto has kept this tradition alive for almost three hundred years: Mankametarō. As well as being the tenth-generation head of this Michelin two-star restaurant, Masakiyo Konishi 小西将清 is also the twentieth-generation master of the Ikama school of shikibōchō 式庖丁, a traditional culinary art form of displaying skill with knives by filleting a fish without touching it with the hands. An essential part of a yūsoku chef’s training was in the art of the knife.
These days, the Michelin two-star restaurant is run by the tenth-generation family head, Masakiyo Konishi 小西将清, but here is a translation of an interview with his father Shigeyoshi Konishi 小西重義, the ninth-generation head of the family, from September 2010.
I understand that the restaurant was established in 1722, is that right?
Yes, that’s right. Originally the family was established here in Nishijin as sake purveyors to the palace. This gradually changed and the business came to be known by its present name, Mankamerō, which catered for the imperial palace ceremonial court banquets. I’m now the ninth head of that family.
Today, what kind of meal is it that you are preparing?
This is a traditional banquet for September: it’s called the “Chrysanthemum Festival.” Since olden times, the Chrysanthemum Festival was a special annual event to pray for prosperity and longevity for oneself and one’s family members. Celebrated since the Heian era, this was an imperial court tradition, no doubt originating in China, in which sake was infused with chrysanthemum flowers and then drunk as a talisman for long life.
This meal looks so elegant and refined: what kind of food are you preparing?
To begin with, this is the appetiser: it is the first dish for which the guest will be using chopsticks, so it is called hatsu-hashi, “first chopsticks.” Today, the hatsu-hashi is sesame tofu with chysanthemum flowers. The next dish is called wanmono, which is a seasonal soup: in this case, it is eel with matsutake mushroom, which brings together an ingredient that is at its seasonal height, the eel, with an ingredient that is just beginning to come into season, the matsutake. This is followed by sashimi, served on a special raised platform that is unique to yūsoku cuisine, called a shimadai [see photo above]. Today the sashimi is tilefish which is known as kuji in Kyoto. As well as the kuji, there is sashimi of lobster, which is a symbol for eternal youth and long life. The centre of the arrangement is garnished with chrysanthemum flowers, which is suggestive of the flower-infused sake that was the Chinese tradition in times gone by.
Today you’re using chrysanthemums, but does this change in accordance with the season?
Yes, that’s right. For example, at New Year we use pine, for Setsubun in February we use plum blossoms, for Doll’s Festival in March it’s peach blossoms, and so on, in preparing for each seasonal banquet, which are known as sechi-e. Amongst them all though, I think the Chrysanthemum Festival is particularly gorgeous. In preparing yūsoku imperial cuisine, the food has to reflect the seasons: spring is gay and showy; in summer you need to feel coolness; in autumn there is a sense of abundance and richness; in winter you want to feel warmed. So I want to embody those feelings in the meals I prepare. Autumn is the season of ripening fruit and abundant harvests, so the meal should reflect this richness and extravagance.
Expressing the taste of the seasons is very typical of Kyoto cuisine isn’t it.
Indeed. When people come to Kyoto, an important part of their visit is getting that sense of the seasons. Of course, there is that seasonality anywhere in Japan, but it seems that the changing of the seasons are more acutely felt here in Kyoto: this changing of the seasons is expressed wherever you go in Kyoto. I think that developing a keen sensitivity to the seasons is really important.
Source: Wakasa Seikatsu
Address: 387 Ebisucho, Inokuma-dori Demizu Agaru, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto
Takekage bento: 6,534円