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For a taste of home cooking, Kyoto style, don’t miss the chance to dine at an obanzai restaurant. This is Kyoto’s answer to soul food – cheap, nourishing, healthy and comforting dishes that have been passed down the generations. They’re short of culinary fireworks but big on flavour. It’s straightforward Japanese cooking at its best – a longstanding culinary tradition of using fresh, in-season ingredients means that an obanzai meal is always bursting with natural flavours. Expect lots of tofu, miso soup, pickled and root vegetables, and tasty stews.
Kyoto’s obanzai restaurants don’t have menus in English, but it’s easy enough to place an order. Walk up to the counter, point at whatever takes your fancy, and get stuck in.
At a restaurant such as Taroya, located down a back alley in Shijo Karasuma, you should take your cues from the regulars. From the moment this 25-year-old eatery opens each evening, a collection of locals take seats at the counter and begin to order obanzai dishes, one after the other, all made by the restaurant’s friendly owner. You can expect to pay between ¥350-550 for dishes such as spinach goma-ae or aubergine and herring taitan.
One of the joys of eating obanzai food is that it’s perfectly suited to solo diners –half-sized portions are available. At Aoi, it’s not unusual to see plenty of solo female diners, as well as tourists getting their first taste of obanzai with dishes such as inari sushi (¥250) or taitan with tomato and deep-fried tofu (¥880). It’s a tiny place – just six counter seats are up for grabs for those who want to watch the action – but it’s always lively thanks to owner Toshii-san’s ever-cheery demeanor. The large selection of sake also adds to Aoi’s jovial spirit.