Nac Mac Vegan: adventures in rabbit food

09/05/2010

Sankō-in: a culinary pilgrimage

Filed under: Eating out, Reading matter — Tags: , , — Feòrag @ 16:52

The sign at the gate to Sankou-in.Within my cookbook collection, there is one tome that stands out above them all: Zen Vegetarian Cooking by Soei Yoneda, the late abbess of Sankō-in, a Zen Buddhist temple near Tokyo, and Kōei Hoshino, who is the abbess now. It’s my favourite cookbook ever and my copy is well used. My World’s Best Inarizushi was derived from a recipe in this book (my main changes were to use brown rice and to use an expensive, naturally sweet mirin instead of sake and sugar) and whenever I post a picture of my lunch here, several of the items shown will have been made using recipes from the book.

The style is shōjin ryōri—Zen temple food. It’s completely vegan, and emphasises seasonality and balanced flavours. The presentation is exquisite, and it produces the best food in the world. I love cooking the recipes from the book, but there’s one hitch—I’d never had genuine shōjin ryōri (it’s expensive) so I didn’t know if my efforts were any good.

My plans for my recent trip to Japan trip included having at least one genuine shōjin ryōri meal, and hang the cost—it’s a special treat. Thanks to a very helpful member of staff at the hotel, I obtained a reservation for lunch at a Buddhist temple. The cost would be 5800円 (about £40), but I really didn’t care—the temple I was going to was Sankō-in.

Koganei is an ordinary suburb to the west of Tokyo, not a destination a tourist would happen upon, nor have any interest in. A busy place with downmarket department stores, made more mundane by the overcast sky on the day I visitied. Sankō-in is a tricky place to find, especially as the map in Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide neglects to mention the small Shinto shrine on the corner where you are meant to turn right. It’s also behind a large modern supermarket, not the sort of place you expect to find such a sanctuary. But when you go round the back of the supermarket, there’s the gate, with a few of your fellow diners gathered, waiting for the right moment.

Gathered at the gate to Sankō-in

A jolly female statue by the dining hallThe dining hall is round the back of the old wooden temple building, past a small cemetery. I paused. Soei Yoneda is almost certainly buried here. I also stopped to admire the delightful feminine statues dotting the grounds, a permanent jolly note, regardless of the weather.

I entered the vestibule of the dining hall, removed my shoes and donned the provided slippers, before entering. On giving my name, I was taken to my table—a fairly low and sturdy affair, with five miniature tatami mats taking the place of a cloth. My name was written on paper and weighted with a stone at one corner. A single red lacquer tray was placed upon the table.

The food is prepared by local women who are interested in learning shōjin ryōri and experiencing some aspects of temple life. The courses were brought out one at a time, and the signal to start eating was after one of the women had said a few words about the food.

The first course was a sandwich biscuit containing sweet red bean paste. The biscuit was very light and barely there, almost as light as the polystyrene outer of the Flying Saucer sweets I remember from when I was young.

Next up was tea—a supremely frothy, virulently green and bitter matcha served in a deep blue bowl. This shock to the palate ensured no sweetness lingered, a nuclear option to provide clarity for the subtle delights coming up.

The third courseChopsticks were delivered in time for the third course. There was a wonderful familiarity as all the dishes were featured in the book: Mountain yam rolls (p.135), simmered pumpkin (p126), burdock with spicy sesame dressing (p.152), and simmered dried-frozen tofu (p. 178). I’ve tried to make three of those dishes myself and, while my efforts were reasonable—a credit to Yoneda and Hoshino’s writing— they lack the subtlety of the real thing.

The fourth course can be found on page 195. Sesame “tofu” in a thick sauce, served with a knob of grated ginger. Non-tofu tofus are a staple of zen temple cuisine, and are made by thickening sesame milk or juice with kūzu then letting them set. Sesame tofu has a much softer texture than even silken tofu, making this a challenge to my chopstick skills.

Very fresh bamboo shootsCourse five wasn’t in the book—konnyaku and bamboo shoots dressed with sweet white miso and yūzu. The bamboo shoots were the freshest I’ve ever had, with no hint of woodiness. Looking out of the window behind me, I saw newly disturbed earth in the bamboo grove. Could they be that fresh? I think they were.

The sixth course was another classic, a slight variation on the recipe for aubergine with miso sauce in the book. Instead of using halves of aubergine, a small aubergine had been grilled whole then slit almost all the way through. The white miso sauce was then applied and grilled some more, producing a melt-in-the-mouth delight, and another chopsticks challenge.

Next was a simple clear broth containing a single horizontal slice of the same fresh bamboo and sansho leaf, and the eighth course was something I did not recognise at first. It appeared to be a yellowy-green non-tofu tofu on a slice of daikon, topped with darker green stuff and surrounded by broth. Earwigging on the next table (a party of journalists from a Hong Kong travel magazine and their interpreter), I learned it’s something else on my Japan hit list—awa-fu! I’ve been experimenting with making this mixture of cooked millet and wheat gluten, and am pleased to report that my latest effort is spot on. The miso-based sansho topping is another recipe in the book and the broth was exquisitely simple with no dashi.

The ninth course was three pieces of lotus root tempura. To make each piece, very thin slices of lotus root had been quartered, then three of these quarters layered on top of one another before battering and deep frying. The lotus root remained crispy.
Rice, tea and pickles

Course ten was rice, tea and pickles—a respectable lunch in its own right. The rice contained slithers of the fresh bamboo. The three pickles were ume, layers of dashi-simmered konbu with sansho (a variation on p. 108!) and something I did not catch at first but which was a finely minced daikon pickle. The tea was hojicha—roasted green tea.

The eleventh and final course was a mystery—a special tea to be drunk in a special way which involved not removing the lid! Not even for a peek. It was very bitter, very cleansing and a perfect finale to a very special meal.

Mystery tea

06/04/2010

Review: Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide

Filed under: Reading matter — Tags: , , , — Feòrag @ 09:58

Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide cover

I’ve been in Tokyo for the last week, and am finally ready to catch up and write some restaurant reviews. First though, a book recommendation.

Last time I was here, in 2007, I picked up a small booklet called the Tokyo Kyoto Osaka Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide and it proved invaluable. When I heard of a new edition coming out not long before I came back, I asked a friend who lives in Tokyo to mail order a copy for me in time for my arrival. This new edition is colour and much expanded – it’s now the Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide.

Not every vegan or vegan-friendly restaurant is listed. The important thing about this guide is that the author, Herwin Walravens, has personally visited and eaten in every restaurant which has a full entry. He’s clearly an enthusiastic eater, as the vast majority of vegan restaurants are to be found within. There are plenty of photographs of the food, and the restaurants themselves, and the maps are useful. A section at the back includes shorter descriptions of interesting eateries the author has not yet managed to visit.

Further appendices contain information on veganism in Japan, and how to survive in convenience stores, including photographs of the few vegan products there are. I’ve found a couple more, which I will blog about later.

As the author is a Dutch man, writing in two languages, neither of which is Dutch, the English can be a little interesting in places, but the occasional head-scratching moment does not distract from the sheer quality of this guide and the information it contains. If you are vegan or vegetarian and are visiting Japan you absolutely need this book. Remember – you probably can’t afford the international roaming charges to access the Happy Cow’s Tokyo listings, nor Vege-Navi (a really good resource which allows you to find restaurants by nearby railway or metro stations) on the move.

Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide by Herwin Walravens, Children of the Carrot. ISBN: 978-90-813822-1-2. Price: ¥1680 plus postage. Updates are regularly posted to the book’s website.

08/12/2009

Chocolate beer waffles!

Filed under: Gadgets, Reading matter — Tags: , , , — Feòrag @ 21:41

This morning, I got a copy of Vegan Brunch by Isa Chandra Moskowitz. The American brunch foods aren’t common in the UK – we have our own tradition of enormous breakfast later in the day – but I developed a fondness for them through the Sunday afternoon brunch at the late, lamented Country Life in Boston.

The recipe that caught my eye almost immediately was one for chocolate beer waffles. Three of my favourite things in one recipe! I have a waffle machine, and nearly all of the ingredients in stock, so I’ve been making them. I also made the chocolate drizzle – a rich sauce – from the same book to go with them.

The very first thing that impressed me about the waffles section was the list of problems you might have and how to fix them. It included the one that had been bugging me about my own waffle iron – waffles splitting horizontally – and the fix worked.

Anyway, I made the waffle mix with Black Isle Brewery‘s organic porter and Green and Black’s cocoa. I had to buy in almond milk, which is a wee bit expensive, and in future I’m pretty sure I can make it in the soya milk machine anyway. The sauce recipe included a variation involving liqueurs, so I made it with Wynand Fockink Bitterkoekjes. My friends and I have already exhausted all the jokes surrounding the distillery name on our many visits to their proeflokaal just off Amsterdam’s Dam square.

The waffles were lovely, but it was all a bit rich. I learned it’s really important to remember to spray the waffle iron every time, and that it’s not a good idea to forget you have a waffle in there. For this recipe alone, I recommend this book. I’ll check some of the others in due course.

The Post-Punk Kitchen website, home of Isa Chandra Moskowitz.

28/11/2009

Japanese tofu article

Filed under: Ingredients, Japanese, Reading matter — Tags: , , — Feòrag @ 12:14

Kimiko Barber goes In search of traditional Japanese tofu in today’s Financial Times.

02/06/2009

Veggy Steady Go!

Filed under: Reading matter — Tags: , , — Feòrag @ 13:02

I can’t resist Japanese bookshops wherever I am, even though my ability to read Japanese is pretty limited at the moment. When I was in Seattle I found myself in Kinokuniya browsing for filthy gay manga anything of interest. It was there that I spotted the first two issues Veggy Steady Go!, which bills itself as Japan’s first vegetarian magazine (日本初のベジタリアン・マガジン!!) and urges us to eat more vegetables (もっと野菜を食べましょう!- this is the form you always see translated as “Let’s do whatever!”). Now, cookery is one of the areas where my ability to read Japanese is a little less limited, and resistance was futile.

Issue one includes the traditional article on going vegetarian and material about different style of vegetarian eating, including macrobiotics, raw foods, something called Natural Hygiene, whose proponent looks really unhealthily skinny, and ayurveda. There’s news about products of interest to the vegetarian, and a travel guide – brief articles on Germany, Denmark, and New York and longer in-depth pieces on London (but why is that fish shop mentioned?), Paris and, unsurprisingly, Japan. There are recipes – a curry, vegan carrot muffins (I’ll be having a go at that one), risotto, a French-style macrobiotic dish etc, all of which appear to be vegan.

Issue two focusses on vegetarian people, with interviews with a couple of actresses, a woman who runs a café and an author, plus two people who talk about being vegetarian in London and New York respectively. There’s a three page item, probably advertorial, on the Maman Terrace shops and restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka — I’ve eaten at the Osaka branch, and it wasn’t bad at all. The article I most want to translate is on Shoujin Ryouri – the cuisine of Zen temples, and my favourite food in the whole world. It seems to focus on two places where you can eat the cuisine.

There are many more recipes (hooray!), and they come from all over the world. There’s an Indian-style chickpea curry, Jamaican baking, Spaghetti alla Genovese and potato salad — the latter, as is common in Japanese magazines, being to advertise a particular brand of soya mayonnaise. There’s a feature on vegan home cooking. The travel guide concerns itself with vegetarian eating in Okinawa, a part of Japan where they eat more soya and fresh vegetables than anywhere else in the world, but also tend to put pork in everything. They’ve also noted the existence of Lush cosmetics.

I notice from their website that there’s a new issue out, but I’m not sure where I’ll be able to get it in the UK as I haven’t seen it in either of the Japanese bookshops in central London.

Blog at WordPress.com.