• Kikkoya, an obanzai restaurant in Kyoto, serves a simple obanzai of lightly blanched spring cabbage soaked in dashi. (Florentyna Leow)Source: Florentyna Leow
Though the term itself is relatively new, obanzai taps into a collective nostalgia for homestyle cooking.
Florentyna Leow

23 Mar 2021 - 12:19 PM  UPDATED 8 Apr 2021 - 10:41 AM

--- Watch Vanishing Foods, Sundays 6pm 21 March-9 May on SBS Food and the via SBS On Demand ---


Many associate Japan's former imperial capital with the finer aspects of Japanese cuisine: kaiseki, shojin ryori and tea ceremony, to name a few. But I rarely ate such things while living in Kyoto during my mid-20s. Instead, much of my time in the city was spent at restaurants like Omuraya.

Omuraya is the very definition of 'cheap and cheerful'. It's a charming little obanzai restaurant down the road from Kyoto University.

During my time in Kyoto, I'd always hear blues music in the background. At the counter would be large bowls heaped high with a medley of colourful dishes — obanzai. These were mostly seasonal vegetables, with a smattering of meat and fish: kabocha squash and mushrooms simmered in soy milk, mustard greens (ohitashi), soy-simmered kelp, burdock root kinpira and ginger-flavoured sardines. You'd order a few small plates to eat with rice and miso soup. It was as far from fine dining as you could get, and I loved every meal there.

A simple mustard green and yuba ohitashi (blanched greens and soy milk skin with savoury broth) at Shunsai Imari, an obanzai restaurant in Kyoto.

Obanzai is popularly understood to be homestyle Kyoto cooking, typically in the form of side dishes eaten with rice. Chefs play fast and loose with whatever is in season, though obanzai tends to be vegetable-heavy, with seafood or meat used more to add flavour and depth than to act as a major component. You could draw many parallels between obanzai and a pantheon of side dishes from across the rest of Asia: think zhap fan (economy rice) of the kind found in Malaysia and Thailand, or banchan in Korean cuisine. 

One hallmark of obanzai is its perceived emphasis on creating minimal waste, and making use of every available part of an ingredient. It's the kind of head-to-tail approach found in 'grandma cooking' across cultures. One obanzai that exemplifies this is okōko no taitan, which culinary experts Aun Koh and Setsuko Sugimoto introduce on the series Vanishing Foods on SBS Food and via SBS on Demand. Consisting of rice bran pickles simmered in shōyu and dashi, it's a thrifty yet delicious way of using up over-fermented pickles.

"The distinction between what is and isn't obanzai is very clear to people in Kyoto."

Not everyone cares for obanzai. Restaurateur Kento Inuzuka, who spent 12 years in Kyoto, thinks it isn't all that special, mostly because he prefers to eat something he can't make at home, but also because he'd rather have hot food. Most obanzai dishes are made in advance and served cold from the fridge or at room temperature. People who don't live in Kyoto, he says, tend to conflate obanzai with Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine), which to his mind is served hot and freshly cooked.

"The distinction between what is and isn't obanzai is very clear to people in Kyoto," he says, laughing. "Also, there's not much meat or fish. It's kind of, well, old-fashioned."

Nevertheless, obanzai is fascinating in how it reflects a growing nostalgia for grandma cooking. The term 'obanzai' is relatively new. While its earliest recorded use dates back to an 1849 recipe book for home cooks, it only came into popular parlance in 1964, when chef Shige Ōmura used it in her serialised newspaper column to refer to Kyoto-style home cooking. It was a cultural call to arms to preserve these dishes for future generations.

Practically speaking, homestyle side dishes across Japan, called osōzai, share more similarities than differences with obanzai. However, obanzai tends to be touted as unique to Kyoto.

Okara, soybean pulp leftover from making soy milk or tofu, is often repurposed and sauteed with various seasonings and vegetables to make a frugal and delicious

Nori Mizutani, a Tokyo-born consultant, observes, "I think they did a good job of commercialising that concept.

"I know it's supposed to be regular osōzai in Kyoto, nothing fancy, but they turned that nothing fancy into something fancy. You know how it goes."

Some proponents insist that at least half the ingredients must be locally grown or processed to qualify as 'true' Kyoto obanzai. At the risk of sounding cynical, highlighting terroir is extremely effective PR: eating obanzai is a highlight for many travellers to Kyoto.

Indeed, these days, obanzai is much more the purview of restaurants and delis rather than 'real' home cooking, which is why some Kyotoites consider obanzai restaurants entirely inauthentic.

The commercialisation of obanzai speaks to the cooking and eating habits of a younger generation. Though recent statistics are hard to come by, an increasing number of Japanese people prefer takeout and ready-made alternatives. Healthy, thrifty, delicious, and nourishing, obanzai ticks all the boxes for those who can't, don't, or won't cook.

Obanzai is the epitome of ofukuro no aji (the taste of mum's cooking), the sort of food your imaginary Kyoto grandmother would have cooked for you, and it grounded me in Kyoto the way kaiseki never did. Though I've since left Kyoto for the big city, obanzai will always taste like home.

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @furochan_eats, Instagram @furochan_eatsPhotographs by Florentyna Leow.

This cafe's menu revolves around fluffy Japanese milk bread
Shokupan is the star at Melbourne's Le Bajo, which serves fruit sandwiches, azuki bean toast and Nagoya-inspired breakfast sets.
Japanese-style cabbage rolls

More common in Eastern European cuisines, cabbage rolls have been adopted by Japan as part of yoshoku – Western food that has become part of the Japanese diet. When I lived in Japan, I ate these frequently at a little coffee shop near my office that only made them once a month, and I've had fond memories of them ever since.

Kaiseki is a Japanese celebration of seasons
Kaiseki: it's the height of Japanese dining, it has a long history and is about the joy of eating ingredients at their peak.
Five Japanese dishes to try before you die
Sure you've gotta pick up a nasu dengaku at some point, but if you're a pizza aficionado it's worth trying a slice of Naples in Tokyo. Trust us.
This Japanese cake delivers 15cm of happiness
Even people from Shanghai and New York are ordering cake business 15 Centimeters' perfectly sized Japanese cheesecakes for loved ones in Sydney.
Now is the time to embrace this Japanese way of eating
Bringing people together to share food, donabe-style, might be the warmest way to combat isolation blues.