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Friday, March 18, 2005

TOKYO FOOD FILE

SHOJIN ROCKS

Zen to warm the soul


Zen is austere and meditative. It is the practice of ascetic self-denial on the path to serenity and satori. It is the cult of monochrome and minimalism. Above all, it is serious -- and so is its food, the vegetarian tradition known as shojin ryori.

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Katsurou Noguchi and his wife, Mieko, offer a warm, homespun version of shojin ryori, at their Meguro-Honcho restaurant.

Sure, if that's what you want. We will gladly point you in the direction of temples where your sustenance will be little more than a bowl of thin brown-rice gruel served with crunchy, salty takuan pickles. Our path, though, is one that leads straight to Sosaibo's welcoming door.

A rustic lantern spills light onto a narrow alley in a sleepy, residential area of Meguro. Two small jizo statues stand among vegetation in front of a simple, single-story shack. All too often, shojin restaurants feel uncomfortably earnest, self-righteous, bland. No such problem at Sosaibo -- you can tell by the way you're greeted by owner-chef Katsurou Noguchi and his wife, Mieko.

Noguchi has the wiry frame, gleaming pate and warm smile of a contented bonze. He studied the Zen culinary arts among the temples of Kamakura, then returned home and molded the tradition to his character -- honest, unpretentious, thoughtful and with a homespun aesthetic all his own.

You will be ushered past the modest kitchen to a small room in the back, just eight tatami in size, where you sit on thin zabuton cushions at low wooden tables. The battered plaster walls are covered with sheets of aging, yellowing paper inscribed in cursive script. The washi panels of the shoji along one side bear charming, naive paintings that illustrate the main points of the menu for each month of the year. And, built into the back wall, is a substantial refrigerator packed with sake.

Zen and nihonshu -- what an excellent combination. And what good sake, too. That fridge holds more than 40 isshobin magnums of prime jizake from all corners of the country, of which no fewer than 17 are varieties of Kikuhime, one of Ishikawa's finest kura. This is Madame Noguchi's domain, and her friendly, forthright disposition does not disguise her expertise in the field.

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We settled in with a glass of junmaishu from Tedorigawa, a favorite brewer in Ishikawa; and one of smooth, cloudy-white nigori-zake from Kikuhime, which perfectly mirrored (and rapidly ameliorated) the wintry conditions that still prevailed when we visited Sosaibo earlier this month.

The meal started -- as is customary in the shojin tradition -- with a small cube of creamy-gray goma-dofu, handmade from fragrant black sesame seeds. This, along with the sake, whets the appetite and helps you settle in slowly, while Noguchi prepares the first proper course, an array of appetizers that he calls nanashimori, literally "a selection of seven kinds of starters."

There were, in fact, far more than seven different preparations on that colorful tray, carefully decorated to signify the seasons. To mark the end of winter, yellow-blossomed nanohana was covered with a snowlike slush of grated daikon blended with rice vinegar and a hint of wasabi. A sprig of dark red peach blossom celebrated the first hints of spring.

The actual composition of the nanashimori tray changes each month. Indeed, Noguchi only decides its composition after he has inspected what looks freshest in the market each morning. At the beginning of this month, when Tokyo was still locked in that late-winter chill, this is what he served us:

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A lacquer bowl holding warm suimono, just a couple of mouthfuls of clear soup with a melting-soft ball of yomogi (mugwort) mochi in its depths; a single small radish, accompanied by a dip of miso infused with red wine; lightly steamed French white asparagus, served with a cream-colored dip; flavored tart with bainiku (pureed pickled ume plum); rolls of fresh yuba (soymilk skin) accented with piquant ginger juice; a few amanatto beans cooked and marinated in umeshu liqueur until naturally sweet.

Then came a small saucer of dark sasa-dofu, tofu that had been packed in miso till its flavor was akin to a rich, savory cheese; shards of daikon, bamboo shoot and myoga dressed with a delicate strawberry aemono sauce topped with hassaku citron; sauteed greens anointed with karashi mustard, mixed with slivers of daitokuji-fu (a classic Buddhist meat substitute prepared from wheat gluten); oshitashi of over a dozen types of steamed and diced greens; and a miniature onigiri rice ball composed of seven different cereal grains, including dark-red kodaimai rice.

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The uptown shojin establishments may have the edge in terms of refinement, but Noguchi's food has all the honest virtues of the best home cooking -- unadulterated flavor and, better still, no artificial additives. He also rejects the use of refined sugar, which is so often used to excess in Japanese vegetarian cooking.

There was plenty more of our 5,000 yen (per head) meal still to come. A saucer of preserved matsutake (though made from mushrooms and not squid guts, he calls it shiokara), to go with our sake. Then crunchy, new-season bamboo shoots grilled over charcoal, their slight astringency offset by a fragrant sauce of miso blended with fresh kinome leaf.

Next came sashimi: Noguchi will provide fish (or even meat) should you ask for it, but his vegetarian alternative is an eye-opener for the uninitiated. He salts and presses konnyaku jelly, a preparation known in the temples as yama-fugu ("mountain puffer fish"); he prepares slices of eringi mushrooms similarly -- yama-awabi ("mountain abalone"); and he mixes slivers of raw vegetables with myoga, a common sushi-shop garnish.

Our deep-fried dish was a mixed tempura of fukinoto (wild butterbur shoots); nanohana (greens covered with specks of mochi rice; a square of yuba; a whole umeboshi plum; and a delectable cube of moist sake kasu, the lees left over from sake production. Simple but utterly unique.

Rice and pickles are the usual way to round off a temple meal. In our case that comprised another serving of that delectable, wholesome rice blended with other grains. But Noguchi sent us home with taste buds fully satiated, thanks to a serving of homemade strawberry ice cream -- also sugar-free -- topped with a remarkable viscous syrup that he cooks down from the concentrated juice of watermelons.

Sosaibo is one of Tokyo's great originals. It may look funky and unorthodox, but by the end of the evening you find yourself wishing Tokyo had more places with half this much character and originality. It is certainly incongruous that they play '60s American pop music -- "The Eve of Destruction" played as Noguchi brought out a nabe hotpot to the table next to ours. But Madame Noguchi has a good reason for wearing that Radiohead T-shirt.

There is no sense of otherworldliness here, just good wholesome nourishment and serious fun. Surely that is the first essential step for all of us on the road to enlightenment.

Sosaibo
4-1-9 Meguro-Honcho, Meguro-ku, tel: (03) 3710-4336
Open: 6:30 p.m.-midnight Mondy-Friday, also second Saturday of month.
Closed: Saturday (except second) and Sunday.
Nearest stations: Musashi-Koyama (Meguro Line)
How to get there: From the station, walk alongside the Meguro Line tracks (in the direction of Denenchofu) to the first large street, then turn right. At the third set of lights (Meguro-Honcho 5), continue for a further 50 meters, then take the first side street to the left (by a large green sign for a dental clinic). Sosaibo is on the left after 20 meters.
What works: Zen and fine sake -- now that's what we call enlightenment.
What doesn't: For those of us not accustomed to zazen, those zabuton cushions are quite thin.
Number of seats: 10 (plus a counter that can seat four)
BGM: U.S. pop staples from the 1950s and '60s
Price per head: Courses from 5,000 yen
Drinks: Beer from 500 yen; sake from 500 yen
Credit cards: The main ones are accepted.
Language: Japanese menu; little English spoken
Reservations: Essential to phone ahead in Japanese



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