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Friday, Dec. 31, 2010

FOOD

Eat temple style at home or find the right Tokyo eatery


Special to The Japan Times

It seems implausible these days but, until 150 years ago or so, Japan was essentially a vegetarian country. Certainly, river fish were caught, seafood was eaten by people on the coast and hunting was part of life for those living in the inhospitable interior. But the Buddhist tenets against taking life were officially embraced in Japan for over 1,000 years.

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That long tradition found its pinnacle of expression in shojin ryori (Buddhist temple cooking), whose influence still permeates every aspect of Japanese cuisine: Its intense focus on the changing seasons, reflected in ingredients and presentation; the ingenuity in preparing plants from land and ocean in myriad ways; and the exquisite attention to detail on the plate and in the kitchen.

All these have arisen from the same profound attitude — a strong appreciation for the rich and varied bounty of the vegetable kingdom. It is this deeply ingrained approach to eating and living that Elizabeth Andoh introduces so beautifully in her latest cookbook, "Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions."

As she writes in the introduction, "A keen appreciation of food does not require anyone to choose a plant-based diet, but it is in keeping with such a mindset. Kansha is about abundance — of grains, legumes, roots, shoots, leafy plants (aquatic and terrestrial), shrubs, herbs, berries, seeds, tree fruits and nuts — not abstinence (doing without meat, fish, poultry, eggs or dairy). It is about nourishing ourselves with what nature provides, cleverly and respectfully applying human technique and technology."

There is much more to kansha ("appreciation") than merely eschewing animal products. A single ingredient may be used in numerous ways. One particular vegetable — daikon, for example — is likely to be abundant at a certain time of year, which gave rise to recipes that transform it in a multitude of ways. At the same time, as much as possible, every part of each ingredient should be used, even the trimmings. This is leaf-to-root cooking: Nothing goes to waste in the kansha kitchen.

These are the underlying principles for Andoh's extensive repertoire. A quarter of the 240 recipe pages are devoted to cooking rice and noodles; 20 pages are given over to soups and broths, and a further 30 to pickling. This reflects the relative importance of these foods on the Japanese table. But Andoh also offers plenty of what Westerners might think of as "main dishes" (even though in Japan they are considered subsidiary).

They range from delicate aspics and spicy stir-fries to simmered casseroles and crispy croquettes. And, of course, there is an entire section for tofu and other soy foods: scrambled, deep-fried and in burgers, pancakes or spring rolls.

Two standout recipes that should win over even the skeptics are the "glazed eel look-alike," produced from mashed tofu and yaki-nori seaweed; and the rich, savory "miso-slathered nama-fu," made with fresh wheat gluten.

As with Andoh's previous book — the essential "Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen" — the recipes have been exhaustively tried and tested. Besides her own cooking classes, she also draws on her "advisory panel," a volunteer network of enthusiasts in Tokyo and around the world who have all prepared the dishes to ensure they work with ingredients and conditions outside of Japan.

"Kansha" is a hefty volume, loaded front to back with detailed descriptions, guides to ingredients, and instructions on tools and techniques. It is also a very handsome book, illustrated with sumptuous full-page photos. Japan's vegetarian tradition has never looked more appetizing and appealing. Thanks to Andoh, it is now likely to find enthusiasts far beyond Japan's borders.

"Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions" by Elizabeth Andoh is published by Ten Speed Press.

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If ever a city cried out for a specialist guide to the way it eats, it is Tokyo. It has countless thousands of restaurants, traditional food stores and gourmet boutiques, not to mention the fish market by which all others are measured. Accessing them, though, is another matter — especially for those short on time and language skills.

Where to eat sushi in Tsukiji if you don't want to wait in line? How to find the finest wagashi confections, sake or shochu, handmade rice crackers or croissants to rival the best in Paris? These conundrums and plenty more are answered in Yukari Sakamoto's "Food Sake Tokyo," the first proper English-language guide devoted specifically to eating and drinking in the megalopolis.

Sakamoto has filled her little volume with all the intelligence she has gleaned over many years living and working in the city. She lists favorite food stores and restaurants — not just the high-end places feted by the name-brand guides but also plenty of humbler, local eateries — tying them in to specific neighborhoods and suggesting itineraries.

She covers Ginza, Asakusa and Tsukiji, of course, but she also leads the way to less mainstream corners such as Tsukishima and Tsukudajima. The best depachika (department store basement food halls) are noted, as is Kappabashi, which is famous for its kitchen supplies and wax food models.

This is a guide designed to be carried around in your pocket or day pack, so it would have helped if the font were rather more readable in the half-light of a traditional restaurant. But your time and wallet (and pocket) are likely to give out well before you exhaust all of the eating and drinking options that Tokyo has to offer.

"Food Sake Tokyo" by Yukari Sakamoto is published by The Little Bookroom.

FOOD



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