KYOTO, Oct 22 — When it is cold and rainy, or when we feel under the weather, there is really nothing like a bowl of hot chicken soup to soothe the mind, body and soul.
Every culture has their own take on this elixir, often a beloved grandmother’s recipe, requiring long hours of simmering.
But how many of us have tasted chicken soup that takes three days to cook though?
To savour this gourmand’s dream come true, we head to Toriyasa in Kyoto. Located a five-minute walk from the Hankyu Kawaramachi Station, this one Michelin star restaurant has tatami-floored rooms overlooking the Kamo River where the splendid views — with the occasional egret or river kite flying by — are part of the dining experience.
Forget temples and shrines, the very building we are in is a national treasure with a 270-year heritage. Designated as a yukei bunkazai or Tangible Cultural Property by the Japanese government, this traditional machiya is alive with the centuries that have passed — the dark wooden walls, the creaking floorboards, the dim glow in the corridors that light a passage back in time...
Toriyasa itself first began as a poultry business in 1788, originally operating in Kyoto’s famous Nishiki Market. A family-run business, today Toriyasa is helmed by Yasumasa Asami — the eighth generation owner.
His duty is to ensure the promise that, day in and day out, Toriyasa can be depended on for their celebrated mizutaki that has been enjoyed by the likes of even venerated Bakumatsu-era swordsman Sakamoto Ryoma.
But what exactly is mizutaki? A type of nabemono (Japanese hot pot), mizutaki is based on a lighter broth. At Toriyasa, this is further refined as tori no mizutaki or chicken hot pot.
What sets Toriyasa’s tori no mizutaki apart from the rest is how they make it. Chicken and water — and nothing else, not even salt! — is lovingly simmered for three days to create a full-bodied and creamy soup.
A server brings a heavy earthenware pot of the heavenly soup to the table and stays to prepare the entire meal from start to finish. That’s Kyoto-style hospitality for you!
We begin with some silken tofu in dashi broth, followed by zensai, a type of Japanese hors d’oeuvres. Firm tofu infused with mikan (mandarin) juice is the hue of a ripe orange. Fresh slices of sashimi have tender bite. Lightly pickled greens remind us of the season. These bite-sized morsels call on us to revel in the moment.
Perhaps to prepare our palate for the rich chicken flavours to come, appetisers made from the other parts of the chicken are offered. Fresh chicken livers stewed in sweet shoyu (soy sauce), brightened by a hint of yuzu citrus, are velvety without being cloying. We snack on chicken skin — flattened before frying to make it wafer-thin — that shatters delectably between our teeth.
Our first bowl is nothing more than the pure, unadulterated soup. Full of umami and nourishing collagen, it’s hard to believe that this is truly nothing but water and chicken, albeit after 72 hours of attentive stirring and simmering. We sip slowly, anticipating more bowls to come.
Chicken thigh meat is added, then vegetables such as shungiku (chrysanthemum greens, an indispensable addition to nabemono meals), Chinese cabbage and shiitake mushrooms. Soft cubes of tofu and rolls of yuba (soymilk skin) lend another layer of texture. Our server mixes bowls of shoyu, yuzu, scallions, grated daikon radish and shichimi (red pepper) for us to dip the tender pieces of chicken.
Seasonal side dishes make for ephemeral, taste-them-while-they-last accompaniments. Springtime means young leaves and shoots are perfect when coated with the barest of tempura batter. A shallow basket of sakura-ebi, a type of near-transparent pink shrimp available only during spring, is simply fried as crispy kakiage fritters. Nothing more is needed beyond a squeeze of lemon juice.
These sides are swiftly dispatched with but there is still plenty of soup left. We can’t help but say yes when the server asks us again and again if we’d like another bowl. It’d be impolite to refuse, and how could we? Every bowl is different.
After the pieces of darker meat are finished, she continues with the white meat. This way, the succulent breast meat absorbs more of the flavourful dark meat’s essence. Squares of quickly-seared mochi are added; these chewy sticky rice cakes — almost falling apart but not quite — become yet another receptacle for the soup’s rich savour.
The final bowl is perhaps the best. She ladles some cooked rice into the remaining soup, now as thick as a French potée. Beaten quail eggs and sliced scallions are added. Briskly stirred and covered again, the concoction transforms into zosui or Japanese congee threaded with silken ribbons of egg. All the flavours of all the ingredients that have gone in before are in this single bowl. Eaten with some tsukemono (pickles), it’s the best porridge we’ve ever tasted.
To complete our sumptuous meal, what could be more Japanese than an uncomplicated dish of warabimochi? The toothsome confection made from bracken starch is covered with sweet kinako (roasted soybean flour). We chew, slurp and reflect upon a repast most fine.
At Toriyasa, the soup may take three days to prepare. But, in truth, this delicious pot of chicken broth is a recipe 230 years in the making. Now that’s what we call “slow food”!
136, Saitocho, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, Japan
Open daily 11:30am-10pm