Posted:Jun 23, 2023

Noma Kyoto (Part 2) - The Second Half of the Course at the Kyoto Pop-up and Comparison with Central in Peru

Noma is a Danish restaurant considered amongst the best in the world. Shu Fujita, a cultural anthropologist of contemporary cuisine, reviews Noma Kyoto, its pop-up restaurant in Kyoto. He 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 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 that it will then take a new path as a “specialized food lab.”

In April, Noma opened a 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. 

Following the first part of the review, in which Fujita gives an overview of Noma and the first half of the course, the second part reviews the second half of the course and also discusses the contrast between Noma and Central, a Peruvian contemporary cuisine restaurant where Fujita once conducted anthropological fieldwork. 【Tokyo Art Beat】

Part 1 is here:

Review of All Dishes (Second Half)


Kinki fillets are coated with a paste made from elderberries, egg yolk, and salted cherry blossoms and grilled over charcoal like saikyo yaki (grilled fish marinated with miso). The dish is so simple in appearance that it could be mistaken for a Japanese dish, except that it is decorated with stones on the plate.

What is unique about this dish is that the kinki is not grilled until crispy. Kinki has a lot of fat in its meat, and when such food is served, the fat tends to be often grilled to a crisp to emphasize its savory flavor. Here, however, the kinki is tenderly cooked. The possible effect of this is to emphasize the mildness of the kinki’s fatty flesh. The kinki is not the same as when it is cooked to a crisp; rather, it seems to be loved for its fat that melts mellowly. It might even be said that they are re-proposing the deliciousness of fatty meat. The taste of such a mild fatty flavor connects seamlessly without any boundaries with the sauce, which is also thick and oily.

While the previous bamboo shoot dish was gentle, this is a powerful dish based on the deliciousness of the fat and oil. This gradual change in the flavor is intended to re-elevate the calmness of the diners once they have settled down.

Lotus Root Steak

A finely sliced piece of lotus root is grilled for two hours and coated with a shoyu made from porcini and truffles. Juniper berries are used as a spice. It is accompanied by a mild sauce made from concentrated shijimi clam stock, egg yolk, melted butter, and vinegar.

At first glance, the teriyaki aroma of this dish is so strong that it is difficult to perceive the lotus root-like qualities of the dish. However, the lotus root’s unique texture, which is unlike other root vegetables such as carrots or potatoes, seems to be utilized in this dish. It is also a satisfying new addition to the vegetarian repertoire of slow-roasted white vegetables such as cauliflower, turnips, and root celery that are often served in place of meat. The fine slits in the lotus may have been inspired by the technique used to roast duck. And to compensate for the lighter flavor of the roasted vegetables, the dish is slowly grilled with the sauce and served with a fatty sauce. The fact that juniper berries are used as a garnish instead of spices of citrus fruits such as sansho or kihada may be an allusion to the fact that berry sauces are often served with roast duck and other dishes.

The tension is brought into play by the fact that, on the one hand, the rich, sweet, buttery sauce continues from the previous dish, while on the other hand, the former is less grilled and the latter is more grilled.

Wild vegetables

Wild vegetables such as udo, kogomi, rape blossoms, gyoja garlic, taranome, and suiba are each grilled over charcoal or heated in a butter sauce, and then combined with a sauce made from lobster miso.

Perhaps, this is a dish to simply savor the wild vegetables. Dishes like this, in which several kinds of seasonal vegetables or seafood are simply prepared and arranged on a single plate, have been served at Noma in the past, and are often found in restaurants outside of Noma as well. Nevertheless, the use of grilled or oiled wild vegetables is distinctly different from Japanese cuisine, where vegetables are boiled and served in a fat-free sauce. Also, the fact that bitter vegetables are not included here shows a careful choice. Rather than surprising the palate with the distinct taste of spring, mildness seems to have been chosen. Again, given that the use of vinegar-based acidity is a Noma signature, it is strange that a vinegar-based sauce is not used here, but one reason may be that the chef wanted to use lobster miso to lead into the next dish.

This is a somewhat calming dish in contrast to the kinki and lotus root steak, which were both strong in richness and umami but also had few visual components.

Ise Lobster

Ise lobsters are grilled over charcoal with rose oil and kanzuri (paste made from chili) oil. Underneath, “kabocha-bushi” and “corn-bushi” used earlier were tucked in. It is garnished with kinome, young leaves of sansho pepper, and sprinkled with yuzu peel, and eaten with a squeeze of sudachi (Japanese citrus fruit).

The sweetness and umami of the lobster can be felt, but it is the flavor of the corn and pumpkin-bushi that stands out. Their aroma, reminiscent of chestnuts and other nuts, is concentrated and supported by smokiness and umami. The flavor of this paste is the heart of this dish because another crustacean other than Ise lobster could’ve been used, even if it was important to have the rich flavor of the lobster. This impression comes from the fact that the lobster is not grilled and its aroma is controlled and that the shrimp tomalley could have been added here to enhance the shrimp flavor but was not. But by suppressing the impression of the lobster in such a way, the good compatibility of the lobster with the corn and pumpkin stands out.

Green Rice and Roses

This dish combines cooked ancient rice called “green rice” with rose petals from Ishigaki Island and rose oil.

Contrary to its flamboyant appearance, the dish was composed in such a way that one could simply taste the flavor of the green rice. The aroma was more muffled and similar to green vegetables rather than that of typical brown rice, with a slight sweetness. The rose aroma was slight, with only a slight swelling effect. The texture of the grains is not so puffy, but there is a graininess. The contrast was low, the range of flavors was narrow, and it seemed to be seasoned in the same way as the bamboo shoot and the tofu. This is a meaningful choice to make the most of green rice, which is characterized by its unique mild flavor rather than sweetness and richness. In a sense, the fact that Noma chose not to add pickles or any other garnishes suggests a somewhat more restrained aesthetic than that of Japanese cuisine. The fact that they did not even use umami, which has been used so frequently in the past, is somewhat surprising.

Shijimi Clams

Yuzu sorbet is trapped in fresh cream, chilled and hardened into the shape of a shijimi clam, and colored with squid ink. It is served with a jelly of kijoshu (sake brewed with sake instead of water).

The citrus flavor gives the cream, which is extremely light on the palate, an even lighter impression, while the combination of berry fruits would have given the dish a more robust feel. The fact that the jelly is as small as a shijimi clam creates a flavor that disappears in the mouth in an instant. The kijoshu jelly also functions to extend the sweetness of such flavors. Desserts served in gastronomy restaurants often have complex compositions that can only be offered in restaurants, but this simplicity of appearance seems to have been created with Japanese sweets in mind.

However, the table could not figure out why this cream and yuzu dessert took the form of a shijimi clam, which had no connection to its flavor. The next day, however, Noma’s chef, Ryo Haga, told us that, although he had not heard directly from the creator of the dish, he thought it might have been inspired by a Japanese sweet called “hamazuto.” Hamazuto is an amber-colored agar encased in a shell, with miso-flavored hamanatto (sweetened black bean) floating inside. With such a reference source in mind, one can imagine that the Japanese material of agar is replaced by the Danish material of cream, while the impression and the color of hamanattto are replaced by the taste of citrus fruit and kijoshu.

Strawberry Mochi, Sweet Potato, and Canistel

Strawberry mochi (rice cake) is made of dried Amaou strawberry, cut in half lengthwise, with caramel made from saffron and cardamom, and gyuuhi (Japanese rice cake) sandwiched between the two.

The sweetness of the Amaou, rather than its sourness or flavor, balances well with the caramel and gyuuhi, and the aroma of saffron and cardamom brings a delightful atmosphere.

The “sweet potato” is made from steamed and pureed sweet potatoes, shaped into a sweet potato shape, and covered with white chocolate and sweet potato powder. The rich flavor of the sweet potato is spread by the white chocolate and loosely outlined by the crispiness of Madagascar pepper and anise.

Canistel is an Okinawan fruit called “egg fruit” in English (similar to lucuma in Peru), which originally has a steamed pumpkin-like flavor and sweet creaminess. The fruit is made into a paste and drizzled with elderflower oil and vinegar. Placed next to the sweet potato, the seemingly similar yet distinct aroma is clarified while perhaps it is further emphasized by the slight acidity and white flower aroma.

Comparison - Noma’s Constructiveness in Contrast to Central

While the above is a primary description and analysis of Noma Kyoto’s cuisine, this review will conclude by clarifying the contours of Noma Kyoto’s cuisine by comparing it to that of Central, a contemporary cuisine Peruvian restaurant.

Central is characterized by the fact that each of the several dishes, which are served simultaneously in a course meal, is made exclusively from ingredients that grow in a particular ecosystem, according to Peru’s diverse ecosystems, which include everything from the sea to the desert, the Andes, and the Amazon.

For example, when a dish with the name “Extreme Altitude,” which was served in mid-2019, was presented to a guest, the following explanation was given.

This is a dish that interprets what we felt in Pisac, a region of the Andean province of Cusco, where native varieties of corn of many colors are grown, of which we serve four, in different shapes and textures. White corn is used to make dumplings, purple corn to make bubbles, and red corn to make chips, which are served with a sauce made from chicha de jora, a traditional fermented corn drink. They are topped with kiwicha, a quinoa-like grain dyed with purple corn dye. Enjoy imagining a field of colorful corn and kiwicha, surrounded by Andean mountains.

This is a dish that interprets what we felt in Pisac, a region of the Andean province of Cusco, where native varieties of corn of many colors are grown, of which we serve four, in different shapes and textures. White corn is used to make dumplings, purple corn to make bubbles, and red corn to make chips, which are served with a sauce made from chicha de jora, a traditional fermented corn drink. They are topped with kiwicha, a quinoa-like grain dyed with purple corn dye. Enjoy imagining a field of colorful corn and kiwicha, surrounded by Andean mountains.

The key note of this dish is the harmony between the rich sweetness of the white corn dumplings (gnocchi) and the sauce made from concentrated chicha de jola, which combines sweetness with a mild sourness derived from fermentation. The four varieties of corn prepared in different ways maximize the range of flavors that corn can bring to the table. In terms of texture, the differences brought about by the stickiness of the dumplings, the smooth texture of the foam (espuma), the hardness of the chips, and the crunchiness of the kiwicha ensure that no part of the dish is the same.

The author conducted long-term anthropological fieldwork in Peru, mainly in Central, from 2018-2020, working in the restaurant’s kitchen as a cook.

As mentioned earlier, Noma is a restaurant that interprets the land in a new way with modernist culinary ideas and techniques, and in this respect, Central has a similar orientation. Central, however, clearly places emphasis on ingredients. As one chef who holds an important position in Central’s kitchen puts it:

At Central today, the dishes have become a window to the world. So they are enough if they are simple, clean, and transparent. We used to use more chips and powders, but these days we don't put too many elements. We think the food should be such that everyone knows what they are eating. Central used to be more about technique and perfection, but now the food is more rustic. If you want a perfectly shaped pie, you might need a machine that costs tens of thousands of dollars, but we don't need one. Rather, (Central’s chef) Virgilio said, "Natural is not perfect. I like things that aren't perfect." (From field notes, December 17, 2019)

Here, Central contrasts its own cuisine with dishes that use techniques derived from modernist cooking, such as chips and powders, and strive for perfection. Underlying this is a strong desire for the direct presentation of ingredients. The chef of Central had this to say about the dishes of Mil, a research center and restaurant in the Andes.

The current Mil offers a contemporary interpretation of Andean ingredients. But it's like contemporary art, something that is in vogue around the world and may be forgotten when it goes out of style. So, for a few more years I want to offer real food. Like oca (an Andean tuber) or fava beans just boiled. Like what the peasants around Mil eat. It doesn't necessarily have to be extremely tasty, but something more real than that." (From field notes, April 27, 2019)

This tendency to simply show ingredients is evident in the limited number of ingredients used in each dish compared to Noma Kyoto. As mentioned in the previous article, Noma Kyoto uses about more than 30 ingredients even in dishes that appear relatively simple. Small amounts of shoyu, miso, oil, or powder are used in a variety of ways.

In contrast, at Central, each dish never has more than ten ingredients. This is because Central does not feel the need to use such a small amount of flavor in a dish that one cannot tell which ingredient it is derived from, in its attempt to show the flavor of the ingredients. Rather, what Central requires is to present flavors in a form that can be clearly associated with the ingredients. The important thing is, rather than adding more elements to create a dense composition of flavors and aromas, composing the plates with ingredients that echo each other and reinforce its identity.

From this perspective, Noma Kyoto’s focus is on construction through taste. While using local Japanese ingredients, rather than showing them off directly, this pop-up seems to have been geared toward creating dishes with a Japanese-style construction, such as reducing the use of acidity, which has been one of Noma’s hallmarks. Ingredients are here considered at the level of taste, rather than as something rooted in the land, and one might even say that this is closer to the idea of constructing a dish by strictly analyzing ingredients, as in modernist cuisine. This tendency is clearly evident in dishes such as the Hassun items, which cover a wide range of tastes and aromas and are assembled in a way that allows for internal conflict. The bamboo shoot and tofu dish also, while having a narrow taste band and weak contrasts, is tightly composed by combining small amounts of various seasonings in order to achieve the gradual transition of flavors.

This approach to ingredients may have led to the impression that the Japanese spear squid and Ise lobster could be replaced with other squid or crustaceans, even though those ingredients are significant enough. If the best part of the squid or the lobster were to be brought out, Noma’s cooks with deep practical knowledge would not have been satisfied with this cooking method. This is proof that Noma Kyoto’s goal was different from the objective.

Of course, it is true that Noma Kyoto’s cuisine, through its composition and flavors, refers to the land of Japan. The sharp kelp salt-derived saltiness of the oni-ebi seems to correspond to the blackness of the Japanese sea, while the gentle cohesiveness of the tofu evokes the moist, warm air of spring. In this sense, these dishes correspond to Japanese nature.

However, the contrast with Central reveals that Noma Kyoto was pursuing a dense, structured cuisine, rather than a loosely connected palate that suggests the ingredients themselves. The reason for the length of this review is that Noma Kyoto does not bet on the possibilities of ingredients like Central, or pursues subtlety of temperature and density like sushi, but rather a meticulous assembly of various options in ingredients and cooking methods. Noma Kyoto was aiming for something different from Central or sushi, and that is the kind of rigor that makes it easy for thoughtful descriptions to become lengthy. Culinary values are never just about this kind of rigor.

But, despite the differences in goals, there is no doubt that Noma Kyoto’s cuisine was constructed with a level of detail that was in itself astonishing. The intensity of Noma Kyoto’s thinking was worthy of the world’s best restaurant.

Part 1 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.