Tofu can be a touchy subject for many foreign visitors. Most have not had pleasant experiences with this food in their home countries. I often hear from guests about their disdain for the gelatinous white cubes of soy, and how it's "boring," or even worse, "disgusting." My answer is that they simply haven't had good tofu yet. They key with this simple food is not just what the tofu itself is like, but what the chef does with it. A whole world of flavor and texture is waiting for you to discover in that simple white cube of soy, and KyoTours Japan wants to share a very special tofu restaurant with you.
Okutan is one of Kyoto's finest tofu establishments with a history reaching back more than 350 years. The menu here is simple, and Okutan is known for its high quality tofu that is unlike anything you've had back in your home country. The multi course lunch is modeled after the same meals that are eaten by Zen priests in the nearby Nanzenji Temple, so it's a very authentic experience.
The menu changes slightly with the seasons, but it always includes about half a dozen courses of a variety of tofu cooked in unique and delicious way. If this sounds like too much tofu, it's not! The variety in preparation of each dish adds up to a surprisingly filling meal that remains simple yet offers a number of different tastes. I've seen self-proclaimed tofu aficionados melt in ecstasy when sampling the fare at Okutan.
Okutan has two locations, but the original is located in the Nanzenji Zen Temple complex, and the authentic atmosphere continues on the inside of the restaurant. It's not as formal as you might expect from a temple restaurant, and dining in an old wooden building with friendly staff actually conveys the feeling of eating in a rural countryside restaurant instead of a big city. For a Japanese person, dining at Okutan is a nice blend of Kyoto temple cuisine and homestyle cooking. If you like tofu, Okutan is by far your best bet in Kyoto for excellent food. Even if you're on the fence about tofu, Okutan just might convert you into a tofu fan.
Let's take a look at Okutan's lunch course in more detail:
The meal is brought out in multiple courses, not rushed but at a brisk pace. You'll start with gomadofu, which actually isn't even tofu! This sticky mass is made from sesame seeds, mashed and processed into a refreshing cube that cleanses the palate for the meal to come. I actually like this stuff more than real tofu, as it has more character and a very fine texture that is especially pleasing when served chilled on a hot summer day.
Next, grilled tofu on skewers arrives. The thick, green miso glaze on this is guaranteed to surprise you (in a good way), and will definitely reverse any misconceptions about a meal of tofu being bland and unexciting. The sticky sauce has just the right amount of citrus zest to it that complements the firm tofu nicely. This is the dish that guests often ask if they can have a second helping of!
The centerpiece of the meal is the boiled tofu, served family-style in a bubbling pot over a live flame. Even though this is the most simple of the dishes served over the course of your lunch, this is the showstopper. The tofu cubes somehow manage to be both chewy and firm, while also melting in your mouth like cotton candy. Ladle out a few cubes into your bowl, add some soy sauce and green onion with a dash of grated ginger, and you have one of the most underrated dishes of Japan... and one that most tourists never have a chance to try. This is Japanese comfort food, designed to warm you up on a cold winter's day, or cool you down in the hot summer (they serve chilled tofu over ice in the warmer months)
You'll also be served a small plate of tempura consisting of seasonal vegetables like pumpkin or carrot, a sheet of flash-fried seaweed, and zesty herb leaves. I'm always impressed with the freshness of the tempura at Okutan, and the crunch of the fried batter pairs nicely with the softness of all the tofu. Drizzle on some salt or green tea powder for the full flavor experience.
The final dish of the meal is one that I find a little challenging, but proves fun and unique for many foreign diners. Tororo is a grated yam porridge that is often poured over rice or eaten alone as a healthy side dish. It's slimy and starchy, but has the taste of rich potatoes with a hint of cream. Personally, I'm not a fan, but it's worth spooning some over your rice at Okutan and trying it for yourself. Top it with some green onions, grated ginger, or pickled vegetables to give it a more layered texture.
A tofu lunch at Okutan is a truly unique Kyoto experience that you shouldn't miss out on... no matter how you feel about tofu beforehand! To dine like Zen monks in such a nice setting should be a part of your Kyoto vacation, and will add to the authentic atmosphere as you visit the temples in the eastern foothills of the city.
Okutan is perfect for vegetarians or other guests with food allergies, as the menu is very simple. The menu is a simple set course lunch for around 3,000 yen. Reservations are not necessary, but highly suggested, as lines form outside the restaurant during peak tourism seasons.
KyoTours Japan often suggests Okutan for lunch to guests who join us on our Higashiyama Culture Tour. We're happy to make reservations for our guests who wish to dine here during one of our tours, or for another day during their stay in Kyoto. The second Okutan location is located on the hilly approach to Kiyomizudera, but is often very busy, so we highly suggest visiting the Nanzenji location.