Posted:Jun 23, 2023

Noma Kyoto (Part 1) - The First Half of the Course at the Kyoto Pop-up

Noma is a Danish restaurant that is called one of the best in the world. Shu Fujita, a cultural anthropologist of contemporary cuisine, reviews Noma Kyoto, its pop-up restaurant in Kyoto. Fujita provides an overview of the entire course and Noma's philosophy through a description of all the dishes. (Photos by Kosuke Nagata)

Noma Kyoto Photos by Kosuke Nagata

Noma is a Danish restaurant called one of the best in the world. Shu Fujita, a cultural anthropologist of contemporary cuisine, reviews Noma Kyoto, its pop-up restaurant in Kyoto. Fujita provides an overview of the entire course and Noma’s philosophy by describing all the dishes. (Photos by Kosuke Nagata)

Noma is one of the most famous restaurants in contemporary cuisine. In January of this year, it was announced that the restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, will close its doors in 2024 and take a new path as a “specialized food lab.”

In March, Noma opened the pop-up restaurant “Noma Kyoto” in Ace Hotel Kyoto for a limited period of two months. This is the second time Noma has held a pop-up restaurant in Japan. The restaurant was a hit with customers, both for the creative course menu using ingredients from all over Japan and for the price of €775 for a food and beverage package.

Shu Fujita, who studies contemporary cuisine as a cultural anthropologist and has contributed an article to Tokyo Art Beat discussing the similarities in thinking between “contemporary cuisine” and “contemporary art,” has written an in-depth review of Noma Kyoto. While describing every dish of the course, he discusses the contrasts and continuity between each dish and Noma’s attitude as perceived through them. The first part is an overview of Noma and a review of the first half of the course. The second part is a review of the second half of the course and a comparison with the restaurant “Central” in Peru, where Fujita conducted fieldwork in the past. 

The photos were taken by Kosuke Nagata, an artist who creates works on the theme of food. 【Tokyo Art Beat】

Part 2 is here:

Noma, a Leader in Contemporary Gastronomy

The limited-time restaurant “Noma Kyoto” in Ace Hotel Kyoto from March 15 - May 20.

Noma is a restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. It has not only received the highest rating of three stars in the Michelin Guide but has also been ranked first five times in “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants,” a ranking of restaurants based on a combined vote of chefs and critics.

Such recognition is because Noma has created a style that has greatly influenced the current trends in gastronomy, as discussed in an article on the contemporary history of gastronomy, “Food and Art: Enjoying Contemporary Cuisine as Art” (available in Japanese). Inheriting new cooking techniques brought to the world of gastronomy by El Bulli and other “modernist cuisines” and their attitude of aiming to provide an experience more than deliciousness, Noma created dishes that reflect a thorough commitment to the nature of Scandinavia. Instead of using ingredients brought from outside Scandinavia, such as lemons and olive oil, the restaurant has used ants, fir trees, and other items that may not initially be considered edible. Today, restaurants that demonstrate this orientation toward the land and this style of cooking can be found in many parts of the world.

Noma has been influenced by Japanese cuisine in terms of technique, especially fermentation using koji such as miso and soy sauce. This pop-up attempts to interpret Japanese ingredients and food culture in its own style.

Although Noma Kyoto sold out soon after reservations opened, Fujita was fortunate to have the opportunity to dine at the restaurant. This article discusses the details of the cuisine, the effect of its composition, and how Noma Kyoto can be characterized in comparison to another contemporary restaurant, Central (Peru).

This review draws heavily from dining at the same table with food essayist Sakiko Hirano, Japanese sweets artist Sayoko Sugiyama, and artist Kosuke Nagata and exchanging ideas. Since the party engaged in lively conversation as they broadened their perceptions of each other, it is difficult to separate whose views are whose, so this article will not present a strict division of them here. 

In addition, while the staff explained the main ingredients and seasonings when the food was served, not all of the numerous ingredients and seasonings used were explained. According to the staff member who explained the dishes, even the relatively simple-looking dishes in this course used close to 30 different ingredients. Therefore, there are probably many elements that this article has left out.

Noma in Kyoto

Noma Kyoto is located in the dining space on the third floor of the Ace Hotel Kyoto. The atmosphere does not have the staidness of a Western fine dining restaurant but rather is filled with objects reminiscent of folk art and Japanese nature. On a shelf in the corner of the room, where wine glasses and other items are arranged, there are simple ceramics, woven baskets, driftwood, and used wooden containers for fermenting malted rice, while kelp and cloth dyed to resemble seaweed hang from the ceiling. There are no tablecloths on the tables, and the tableware looks unadorned and simple.

Review of All Dishes (First Half)

The first five dishes were served on five small plates placed on a round bamboo colander. This can be described as a serving method similar to that of hassun, a method of serving several dishes on one plate in traditional Japanese cuisine. The chef recommended trying the five dishes in a clockwise order, starting with the one in front.

Yuba and Gyoja Garlic

First, an “umami paste” was placed between the Kyoto yuba. No detailed explanation was given, but I could taste the richness and flavor of miso or tamari. Since Noma has been making miso, such as corn miso or tamari of black pepper, this sauce is likely based on the fermentation of koji as well. There was an aroma somewhat like udo. And kihada nuts were added as a spice. Kihada is the fruit of a deciduous tree in the mandarin orange family and has been used as a herbal medicine in Japan. Like sansho, which is the fruit of a deciduous shrub of the tangerine family, it has a citrus aroma but also a bitter taste. It is accompanied by Kyoto wild vegetables, including gyoja garlic sautéed in smoked butter, nobiru (Japanese garlic), nazuna (shepherd’s purse), and fava beans. Blackcurrant oil was also drizzled over the top.

This is probably different from the dish one might imagine from the words “yuba and wild vegetables.” Such a dish may conjure up images of the mild flavor of yuba and the soft taste of mountain vegetables. The yuba, however, is as full-flavored as the rich paste it is coated with, and the gyoza garlic and nobiru used in this dish have a more pronounced flavor compared to the lightly flavored fuki or udo. Also, while in Japanese cooking, wild vegetables are often boiled to remove their sharp flavors, here they are served raw or grilled. The use of blackcurrant oil and a relatively heavy sprinkling of salt give the dish a certain volume, even though it is made with yuba and wild vegetables.

This is a different response to the wild vegetables and yuba than is typical in Japanese cuisine. Perhaps in Japanese cuisine, wild vegetables and yuba are presented in a more subtle, less angular way, with a more delicate flavor and aroma. From the very first dish, Noma presented itself in contrast to the Japanese culinary style.

Barley Malt and Red Ginger

A plate of barley malt covered with koji and coated with a sauce- possibly soy sauce-based- is grilled and topped with thinly sliced red ginger marinated in oil and shaved citrus peel.

The first impression one gets is the contrast between the distinct richness and umami of the barley koji and the distinct spiciness of the red ginger. It has a catchy flavor, like a familiar snack using shoyu in Japan. The fact that it is baked with sauce rather than simply barley koji leads to this sensation. The use of barley koji instead of rice koji brings a distinct richness and complexity, and the use of red ginger instead of regular ginger also contributes to the complexity of the aroma. Nevertheless, the catchiness of this dish is worth noting. For example, instead of red ginger, Japanese spices such as sansho and kihada, or wild vegetables could have been added to the dish, and it would have been delicious enough, given the receptiveness of barley koji. Compared to these possibilities, the spiciness brought about by choice of red ginger makes this dish pop.

Tomato Flower

A semi-dried mahoroba tomato, from Kochi, is surrounded by roses from Ishigaki Island to form a rose-like shape. The inside is stuffed with semi-dried fly honeysuckle and sarunashi (Japanese hardy kiwi). Underneath the flowers is a paste- probably miso-based- on blackcurrant or other berries and nasturtium leaves.

The base of the dish is an aromatic swelling of tomatoes, fly honeysuckle, roses, and blackcurrant miso, the smell of which is comparable to red flowers. Both the tomatoes and the fly honeysuckle are semi-dried to concentrate the flavor, yet they are moist and sweet without any umami or dryness. This impression is followed by the richness of the blackcurrant miso, the bitterness of the nasturtium, and finally, the sourness of the sarunashi. The sourness of the sarunashi, which itself is a fruit but has a somewhat fermented flavor, responds to the blackcurrant miso and complicates the acidity in a way that is different from that of tomatoes and fly honeysuckle. The acidity of the sarunashi was not that strong, but without this acidity or if it had been citrusy, it would have been somewhat monotonous. The combination of tomatoes, roses, and berries could have brought bright flavor, but in this plate, the tone is lowered to some extent, and its concentrated flavor and richness lingered in the aftertaste. The blackcurrant miso contributes greatly to the stability of the dish.

Cherry Tree Leaves

A black garlic paste is applied to the back of a salted cherry leaf, and the edges are covered with hazelnut powder.

The aroma of the cherry leaf, the distinct texture given by the paste, its concentrated umami, and its oiliness give the sensation of eating the cherry blossoms themselves. After that, the aroma of garlic rises. The fly honeysuckle powder also works like the gorgeous aroma of cherry blossoms. Rather than being an elegant dish to enjoy only the aroma of cherry leaves, this dish seems to be a casual dish to enjoy cherry blossoms with strong flavors.

Pollen Gel

A tomato jelly with the aroma of smoked green tea is covered with bee pollen and hibiscus powder. The bee pollen is fresh and has a fluffier texture compared to the dried product that is commonly available.

The tomato jelly was more concentrated and sweeter than tomato soup and had a distinct red flower aroma. That concentrated aroma was connected to the scent of pollen and then hibiscus. This was supported by the slightly heavier aroma of smoked green tea. The combination of tomato, hibiscus, and pollen seems possible at thinner concentrations, but the strong, almost flower-drunken aroma stands out here. Green tea also reinforces the impression of such intensity.

Interim Consideration I

All of the five dishes served as a hassun are well-salted and also have a generous umami flavor, which gives the dishes a sense of volume. While they could be less salty with subtler umami like Japanese cuisine, the dishes here were certainly chosen for their clear taste, such as those of “amuse bouche” in French cuisine.

The overall aromatic trend is toward red flowers and berry-like scents - blackcurrant, tomato, honeysuckle, and hibiscus. Among the spring scents, sharp scents seem to have been chosen, clearly differentiated from grassy scents or white and yellow floral scents.

In addition, Noma is generally known for its acidity, especially the variety of acetic acidic tastes derived from the original vinegar. However, here acidity is rarely used. This is despite the fact that there is room for more acidity in the vegetable-based dish. This trend toward less acidity continued later in the course, and when acidity was used in this course, it was mainly in the form of light fruit-based acidity. Bitterness was also almost non-existent throughout the course.

At the same time, it is important to note that even though some unusual ingredients were used in this course, there were no outlandish combinations of ingredients. When foreign restaurants hold pop-up restaurants in other countries, it is common for them to prepare local ingredients in their own style, and they often showcase combinations of ingredients that tend to surprise the local people. However, there was no “betrayal” in that sense in this course. All of the dishes were based on new ingredients and new combinations, but they seemed to be “natural” to some extent, respectful of Japanese cuisine in their own way.

Seaweed Shabu-Shabu

A broth is made from smoked mekabu (a thicker part of wakame, a seaweed) and barley koji oil, which is boiled to emulsify it and make it slightly cloudy. Kelp harvested in its first year, seaweed such as tosakanori and akanori, spinach sprouts, and konatsu, a citrus fruit eaten with its skin intact were swished in broth “shabu-shabu” style. They were then marinated in a soy sauce based on aonori (green laver), combined with the acidity of seaberry, and drizzled with oil scented with habanori seaweed.

The broth was rich despite the lack of animal ingredients. And the experience of shabu-shabu with seaweed- some of which changes color when heated- is simply delightful. The sauce, which was probably inspired by ponzu (Japanese sauce made from citrus juice and shoyu), was also rich with the aroma of seaweed, as if experiencing a seaweed forest.

Oni-ebi (Devil Prawn)

Freshly peeled oni-ebi are topped with chopped ginger and Madagascar pepper and kelp salt (salt that appears by boiling kelp broth down until crystallizing its salt content).

It would seem to be a relatively familiar taste if one were to describe the dish as having the plump aroma, sweetness, and umami of oni-ebi contrasted with the flavor of ginger and the rather citrusy aroma of Madagascar pepper. What is surprising about this dish, however, is that it is quite salty. In addition to a certain amount of salt added to the prawn itself, probably to give it texture, there is also a certain amount of kelp salt on top, which gives it a distinctly salty taste. Rather than eating the devil prawns, one has the impression of eating the kelp-scented salt through the rich layers of aroma created by the devil prawns, ginger, and Madagascar pepper.

Shrimp goes well with sourness, and just as gari (pickled ginger) is used in sushi to provide a sour note, here, the aroma of Madagascar pepper evokes the sourness of citrus fruits. Despite this, the almost complete absence of acidity here seems to be a strong choice, and its absence leads to the effect that accentuates the taste of kelp salt.

Japanese Spear Squid, and Whiskey Vinegar

Japanese spear squid sashimi placed on a bed of ice, topped with powder of rose, salted cherry blossom, and other ingredients, and a small amount of citrus jelly, with a slight umami paste placed underneath.

At the center is the opaqueness and sweetness of the squid and the red flowery aroma of the powder, which is supported by the acidity of the jelly and the umami of the paste that quickly disappears in the mouth. Rather than bringing out the flavor of the squid (if that were the case, thicker squid would have given more room for chewing), this dish aims to show the aroma of rose and cherry blossoms disappearing in an instant.

Miso Crisp

Served at the same time as the squid. A thin crisp, probably made from the original miso, was topped with shrimp, peach sap jelly, and ants. Also sprinkled on top was a shrimp-flavored crunch, presumably made from the shrimp tomalley.

This has a distinctly encompassing taste, with the umami and saltiness of the miso, the sweetness of the shrimp, and the acidity of the ants. There is the crunchiness of the chips, the squishiness of the shrimp, the slipperiness of the jellies, the popping sensation of the ants, and the texture of the crunch. The low tones of the miso, the sweet taste of the raw shrimp, and the distinct slight aroma of citrus peel also complement each other. In all aspects, the composition is like a full combination of various layers.

The strength and multidirectional nature of the dish seem to contrast with the squid, whose flavors seem to disappear in an instant. The absence of herbs and other high-toned aromas in this dish may have been to avoid masking the flavors of the squid.

Bamboo Shoots and Squid Soup Stock

Bamboo shoots are boiled in “corn-bushi,” cut into thin slices, and mixed with Japanese spear squid and kelp broth, flavored with jasmine aroma. Corn-bushi is made from corn that has been smoked, dried, and aged like dried katsuo-bushi (Japanese bonito flakes for making dashi) with the cooperation of Kinshichi Shoten, a producer of katsuo-bushi in Kagoshima. Behind the bamboo shoots, there is a paste with umami flavor- probably made from corn kernels.

The combination of bamboo shoots and corn, a combination that is sometimes seen in Japanese cuisine, has been deepened by the new method of using corn-bushi. The use of the bushi seems to have made it possible to concentrate only the aroma of corn without increasing the sweetness and umami. The jasmine aroma is a very natural combination of these central elements, and indeed, the combination of those seems to go better with the aroma of jasmine’s white flowers than the aroma of red or yellow flowers. Such a subtle gradient is at the heart of this dish. The dish could be accentuated by an intake of a strong accenting aroma, which is not the case here, instead leaving the impression of softness. The absence of cream and other seafood ingredients also gives the dish a lightness without adding richness to it.

It is not clear why the dashi broth from the Japanese spear squid is used, but the use of something other than dried bonito flakes shows a will to expand the possibilities of dashi broth in cooking.

Swordfish and Kelp

Slices of the fatty part of swordfish from Kesennuma are brought to room temperature. It is served with a butter sauce made from kelp salt made from concentrated kelp broth.

The swordfish is originally fatty, but by bringing it to room temperature, the creaminess of the fat is enhanced. The temperature also makes the texture of the fish extremely tender. This mellowness is strongly combined with the toffee-like sweet butter sauce. This could be taken as a composition to emphasize the fatty taste of swordfish, but if that is the case, there would be many other cream-based sauces that could have been used, and it is possible that the rich swordfish was chosen to catch the rich flavor of the kelp-butter sauce. However, this dish seems to match the property of the swordfish rather than using vinegar or soy sauce to give it a refreshing taste as in the case of ordinary sashimi.

Compared to the lightness of the previous dish of bamboo shoots, this dish is much more powerful.

Tofu and Raw Almonds

Tofu made from green and white soybean milk is served with finely sliced raw almonds. Nasturtium flowers are stuffed with a butter sauce made from vegetables and miso, accompanied by spruce soup and marjoram oil.

The tofu made from green and white soybeans is aromatic. The greenish aroma of the soybeans seems to be more pronounced than the earthy aroma of the soybeans. It smoothly connects with the white, sweet floral tones of the almonds. One is reminded that almonds and apricots are close species. The tangy aroma of nasturtium and the sauce give contour. Meanwhile, the tofu is not overly creamy, and the nasturtium and sauce do not interfere with the tofu and almonds. The texture is also restrained. The composition seems to be aimed at a fluffy calmness.

Perhaps the image of chilled tofu (hiyayakko) is the source of reference, as evidenced, for example, by the shaved almonds that resemble dried katsuobushi (bonito flakes) and the use of nasturtium as a condiment. However, it is clear that the degree of weakness is chosen to emphasize the softness of the tofu rather than the composition of the chilled tofu. Rather, it brings a sweetness like that of sweet bean curd (douhua from Taiwan). On the other hand, the fact that the fruits were not matched as in the case of the sweet bean curd allowed the narrower range of aromas to stand out.

Interim Consideration 2

The overall impression of the dishes, with the exception of the swordfish dish, is that they are restrained. This is in contrast to the oily and grilled flavors used in the hassun. If Hassun was close to French cuisine in volume, then the subsequent dishes can be said to be closer to the trend of Japanese cuisine.

In addition, dishes up to the miso crisp, and swordfish are contrasted with bamboo shoots and tofu in two ways. The contrast first appears in terms of the intensity of the aroma. Whereas Japanese cuisine, for example, when using wild vegetables, carefully and lightly boil them in hot water to reduce their overly sharp flavors, French cuisine balances the strong flavors of wild vegetables with other strong flavors to achieve a bold taste, and the first half of the course has a French flavor in this sense. In contrast, bamboo shoots and tofu seem to be oriented toward a calmer flavor that could be described as Japanese cuisine.

Next, the range of flavors differed between the pre-miso crisp/swordfish and the bamboo shoot/tofu. The former group had many layers of aromas and light and heavy tastes, with a structure that encompassed sweet, umami, sour, and salty, whereas the latter dish had a narrower range and a subtler presentation. If offering a wide variety of tastes and aromas at the same time is typical of French cuisine, this kind of restriction may be typical of Japanese cuisine.

Nevertheless, a fourth characteristic seems to be that light-toned aromas consistently form the keynote of all of the dishes from the hassun to the bamboo shoots and tofu. In contrast to Japanese cuisine, where intermediate tones are used as the basic tone, and citrus fruits and condiments are used intermittently or as accents for higher tones, this course always contained bright tones. However, compared to the red floral scents used in the dishes up to the squid, the subsequent scents are more in the vein of white flowers.

Part 2 is here:

The Japanese version of the article can be found here.

Shu Fujita

Shu Fujita

Shu Fujita is a cultural anthropologist, born in 1991. He is a research associate at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo, where he studies "contemporary cuisine," which has been seen in some of the haute cuisine in various countries since the 2000s. Through anthropological fieldwork at a restaurant in Japan and Peru, he investigated how people cook in contemporary cuisine restaurants. By intermingling the results with research in the fields of cultural anthropology of food, anthropology of art, and anthropology of science and technology, his project will consider questions such as the nature of the act of cooking and the nature of creation. He will also work to deepen anthropological ways of thinking through video making.