Sparrow? Cod roe ice cream? Octopus with quail egg-stuffed heads?
Not what I’d expected either to be honest, but Nishiki Market is not known as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen’ for nothing. And I’m nothing if not up for trying something new.
Staying in Osaka, we’d headed to Kyoto for ‘One Day Only’… principally to visit Nikishi Market, but also the Fushimi Inari shrine (famous for all its red torii gates).
We got off the train and headed straight for the food… We’d heard the market area was rammed by lunchtime, but even at 11am it was pretty busy (lunchtime in Japan tends to be earlier than most places, but much, much earlier than what we’re used to in Spain!!). We found some food – a custard-filled pastry – before we even entered the market, so dove straight in. We’d seen them being made – not our exact one, although it was still warm – and that was the cool thing about so much of the market; you could see it either made, cooked, or both, right in front of you. It gives you an experience on a whole other level than just buying it in a shop.
One thing that we found is really important in Japan (and the market area was not exception) is that eating while walking in the street is not the done thing. Eating on the metro, local trains, and buses is also frowned upon (long distance trains are the exception). In the market, you buy your snack, eat it by the store, or in one of the designated eating areas, and you either take your rubbish back to the stall you bought it from, or you take it home with you (there aren’t many bins around). We ate our custard pastry in front of the shop, as the owner’s watched on to check that we enjoyed it!!
So, with that in mind, we headed off to the market ‘proper’. I almost want to say I didn’t know where to start, but it would be a total lie; I knew exactly: with the first stall we came upon…
Free samples of dried seaweed with sesame, and sun-dried fish paper. The seaweed was my favourite, light, crispy, slightly salted, and with the roasted sesame… yum!
There are plenty of free samples as you walk through, mostly of pickles, but also tiny fish with various flavours – we tried the miso and liquorice. Really nice, but not something we felt we needed to buy a whole bag of. Especially as we wouldn’t be able to bring them back to Spain and would have to eat through them all over the next two weeks. Same for the pickles. Pickles are usually served automatically in restaurants and takeaway bento boxes, so you have to really love pickles (or be a pickle connoisseur) to want to buy more. We don’t really fit either of those categories, so we enjoyed our free samples and moved on…
Next? Sardine on a stick. The surprise? It had a full roe sack which kind of disintegrated as I bit into it, but added both texture and extra fishy flavour! I bought one for ¥500 (about £4), but we later saw smaller ones for ¥200 (about £1.60) which would have been plenty big enough for a try.
We moved on to some enormous prawns – he painstakingly arranged them to make a heart (it means “I love prawns” he said) when I asked if I could take a photo… but they really were delicious. One stick for ¥500 (about £4), and three big, juicy, really meaty prawns – almost lobster-like in their meatiness.
Mid-tour dessert stop: a matcha (green tea) cake. It was more like a small matcha pancake wrapped over a lump of sweet red been paste, which was kinda disappointing. I love matcha, and matcha-flavoured things, but this was overpowered by the red bean paste inside. Hugo liked it though, so I donated it to him and moved on to some more fish.
Octopus with quail’s egg stuffed head. Sounds a little odd, perhaps, and indeed it was. Bit it was also delicious. The octopus was really, really red, and had been marinated in a sweet red sauce (possibly even char sui?). I bit into the head and the quails egg shot out the side, rescued only by lightening-quick reflexes at the fear of losing food. The octopus itself was chewy, but in a good way, and the egg broke up both the sweet marinade and the chewiness nicely. I went for a small one, but they had 3 sizes, up to ¥400 (about £3.50).
Grilled scallop. This is a must-have! It was so, so good! Tender and juicy, cooked to perfection; grilled over open flame, brushed with a soy sauce reduction…. honestly, just go there and eat it. Even Jamie (who isn’t that keen on scallops normally) loved it. So did Hugo, but he likes pretty much everything, so that’s not saying too much… I also had a ‘crab stick’ from the same stall. This one got deep fried and, although it was much nicer than a rolled crab stick you’d buy in the supermarket in Europe, it was basically still a hot, oily crab stick. Get the scallop, every time. In fact, get three, because there was a discount for buying three sticks.
Sparrow. I walked past this twice before my curiosity got the better of me. I mean, I had sparrows in my garden in London, I see them around town in Cartagena; they’re tiny and cute and fluffy. And grilled, it seems. And they were grilled to perfection; semi-spatchcocked (if that’s a thing?), the remaining bones were grilled to the point of being crunchy enough to eat. The meat was surprisingly rich; more akin to pheasant than chicken, but very tasty. They were served with a reduced soy sauce glaze, which certainly added to them, but I couldn’t have eaten more than one stick. One of those things that was interesting to try, but just in a small quantity.
We had promised Hugo an ice cream, so we stopped at the snoopy store for a strawberry cone with a snoopy wafer. Decent ice cream, strawberry flavour. There isn’t much more to say…
Spicy cod roe ice cream. Slightly (only very) envious of Hugo’s Snoopy ice cream, I decided to head off to sample the spicy cod roe version; surprisingly spicy (that chilli spice that really gets you in the back of the throat), but also really delicious; a delicate roe flavour, but it went really well with the plain ice cream. Strangely addictive, and certainly no weirder than salted caramel (on the assumption you like fish…). The lady on the stall was absolutely lovely, and even gave us a free ‘top up’ of plain vanilla for Hugo (I guess she took pity on him having a mum that would tease him with an ice cream that turned out to be spicy fish egg flavour…).
We had had our fill, so it was time to move on to the shrine. You definitely don’t need to go into a restaurant while you’re in this area of Kyoto, you can snack to your heart’s content, and try a bit of everything on offer. One word of warning though, it can potentially be more expensive than a restaurant – sticks/snacks start at about ¥100 (about 70p), but go up to ¥1200 (about £9.50) for things like Wagyu beef skewers, so buy the time you’ve had 7 or 8 things, you’ve potentially spent a fair bit. That said, pick and choose your snacks, and you’ve got a really unique food experience!