Byodo-In Temple in Kaneohe, HI
Standing outside on the first cold, crisp day of 2014, I could have sworn I heard the distinctive “don…don…don” of a kine (wooden mallet) striking an usu (stone mortar), far off in the distance. Though unlikely, the tradition of making mochi for oshogatsu is so ubiquitous in Japanese culture, it would be unthinkable for anyone immersed in the culture to ignore it. Pounding sweet glutenous rice into submission is no simple task, typically requiring a whole village to pitch in and churn out enough mochi to ring in the new year. Celebrations are based around the ritual and everyone gets something delicious as their reward. Though ozoni soup is the most authentic way to commemorate the turning of the calendar, ensuring good luck and prosperity for the coming months, mochi is the perfect blank canvas for any flavors sweet or savory. Naturally, my inclination is to play up its capacity for creating unique sweet treats.
Forget pounding stubborn grains of rice until your arms ache and your hands throb. This is mochi for the modern baker, dressed up in a rich cloak of chocolate, no less. Mochiko, otherwise known as finely powdered sweet rice flour, makes the process move along much more smoothly- literally. Crossing cultural boundaries and incorporating some unconventional ingredients, the resulting brownies are a curious hybrid of Japanese and American tastes. Shockingly decadent in comparison to the plain white spheres produced from typical methods, these mahogany brown squares are a definite indulgence, which strikes me as a fitting way to kick off a joyful new year. For anyone expecting a standard brownie though, the texture may come as a shock. Chewy with a delightfully bouncy, sticky texture between the teeth, it makes no secret of its glutenous rice foundation. To some who struggles with anything that isn’t either crispy-crunchy or pudding-soft, these may not be the most winning recipe.
For the rest of you adventurous eaters and bakers though, it’s a stunningly simple mash-up that’s long overdue. Have your mochi and enjoy it too, without any of the hard labor (or choking hazards) associated with the original. As a side bonus, these rice flour-based treats are “accidentally” gluten-free, so everyone can start their year on a sweet note!
2 Cups Mochiko
1 1/2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1/3 Cup Unsweetened Cocoa Powder
2 Teaspoons Baking Soda
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
9 Ounces (1 1/2 Cups) Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips, Divided
1 1/2 Cups Plain Vegan Creamer
1 14-Ounce Can Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/2 Cup Plain or Vanilla Vegan Yogurt
2 Teaspoons Vanilla Extract
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease an 9 x 13-inch rectangular baking pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together the mochiko, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and powder, and salt. Stir until all the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the mixture and set aside.
Place the margarine and 6 ounces (1 cup) of the chocolate chips in a large, microwave-safe container along with half of the creamer. Microwave for a minute, stir well, and then continue heating at 30-second intervals, mixing thoroughly in between each new cycle, until the chocolate has completely melted. Add in the remaining measure of creamer plus the coconut milk, yogurt, and vanilla. Stir until smooth.
Pour the liquid ingredients into the bowl of dry and stir thoroughly with a wide spatula. Don’t worry about over-mixing, since there’s no gluten here that might form. Go ahead and beat the tar out of that batter! Toss in the remaining 3 ounces (1/2 cup) of chocolate chips and mix until evenly distributed throughout the mixture. Once there are no lumps remaining, transfer it into your prepared pan and smooth out the top. Bake for 55 – 60 minutes, until dry and slightly crackled on top. The toothpick test won’t be particularly helpful for this brownie, so just trust your intuition when it appears to be done on the surface.
Let cool completely before slicing into bars.
Makes 16 – 24 Brownies
There’s something different about Kajitsu, and it’s not just the seasonal menu, refreshed every month to highlight fresh produce at its peak. The entire restaurant itself has picked up and moved to a new space in Midtown, large enough to accommodate two separate dining rooms containing two very different food philosophies. The original vegan concept of Kajitsu resides upstairs, now open for lunch and literally showing off the food in an entirely new light- Large picture windows improve the ambiance immeasurably from the previous location. Downstairs, open only for lunch, a second concept called “Kokage” offers eggs and various seafood in traditional kaiseki style. Happily, there’s more than enough to delight the senses with their shojin cuisine that one would never feel the need to venture back down to the lower dining room.
Previously a dinner-only spot, the addition of lunch service has opened up not only more cost-conscious prices, but a wider range of choices. In addition to the typical prix fixe filled with authentic (and perhaps challenging) delicacies, diners can pick from more familiar dishes such as rice and noodle bowls.
Tanuki Udon, a regional specialty of Kyoto, is presented with finesse that elevates the humble soup far beyond its deceptively simple roots. Vibrant green and still crisp scallions swim amongst the chewy wheat strands, enveloped in the hot and ginger-spiked broth. Generous squares of fried tofu add richness, all while soaking up that aromatic liquid like the tender edible sponges they are. Yomogi-fu, a new ingredient to me, is made of mugwort; I’d compare it to a savory cross between tofu and mochi. Posessing a unique chew that seems to bounce between the teeth, the surprising texture is a welcome interjection in the otherwise low-key, soothing stew. The oversized bowl seems bottomless, but should your spoon finally clink against the polished ceramic, it’s a sad moment indeed.
Not to worry though, because there’s more! Inari Sushi is included alongside, putting all previous experiences I had with the stuff to shame. Nothing more than fried tofu skin stuffed with vinegared sushi rice, the quality of ingredients and care of preparation are key to creating anything beyond subsistence rations. Soft yuba yielding easily to the lightest pressure, each grain of rice was perfectly cooked. Coated with the lightest hint of sweetness, it is an excellent study in contrasts, balancing out the gentle acidic bite within.
For those craving a bit of tempura, the Kakiage Donburi is sure to satisfy. Thin ribbons of various roots and gourds, with the incongruous handful of corn kernels mixed in, are expertly fried to a crisp consistency. The whole wispy jumble is perched upon sticky rice, and sides of miso soup and pickles round out the meal. Not a lick of grease is to be found here; you’d hardly know it was even deep-fried if not for the batter.
What makes Kajitsu a truly memorable experience, however, is still their carefully curated set menu. On this occasion, spring was in full force and the offerings gracefully reflected that transitory period from start to finish. “Ichi Ju San Sai” means “one soup and three dishes,” a format that ensures both balance and variety in a given meal. The rice is masterfully cooked, of course, but rather unexciting in comparison to the other culinary delights. Miso Soup always hits the spot, no matter how hot or cold the day is outside, and this particular interpretation held delicate strands of fresh yuba, reminiscent of an umami egg drop soup. After warming up on the savory, salty miso, the very next side brings some relief; chilled, refreshing, and wonderfully slippery…
Yes, the Spring Jelly would be best described as slippery, or perhaps gelatinous if one were feeling less charitable. It’s a texture that I happen to adore, but it may be more challenging for unfamiliar eaters. I hastily deconstructed the artful dish, plucking the finely shaved radish off the top and fishing out the jelly-like tokoroten noodles. Somewhat like a vegan aspic, the spring jelly itself was a melange of star-shaped crunchy vegetables, suspended in a dome of clear agar. The only thing I could positively identify in the mix was okra, since the other vegetables provided more crunch than flavor. Regardless of how strange that might all sound, may the record show that I adored this dish. No where outside of Japan would you ever find such a thing, and even then, I wouldn’t trust it to be without some fishy addition. This is what my memories of Japan taste like, and I only wish it was available a la carte so I could reminisce all year round.
The main event, Tofu with Ginger Sauce, arrived at the table in a heavy but shallow stoneware vessel, bubbling madly. Like a box full of edible treasures, the surprises never ceased with each successive bite. Sure there was tofu, both fresh and fried, plus a big dollop of freshly grated ginger just as promised, but it was otherwise nothing like what I had imagined. A starch-thickened sauce coated everything, infusing ginger into all the components. More of that chewy yomogi-fu made an unexpected cameo, and the addition of avocado was particularly inspired. Hot avocado rarely appeals, although something about how soft and tender it became, practically melting into the sauce itself, was utterly delectable. Though not a meal for the texturally challenged, I would it again any day, or every day if given the chance.
So how does the new Kajitsu compare to the old? It’s hard to make any definitive judgement so early on, although all signs point to greater success on the horizon. The very same spirit propels the establishment forward, while fresh inspiration pushes cooks and diners alike down a new path. I can’t wait to see where this new departure will lead.
Many thanks to Liz of Kosher Like Me for treating me to this unforgettable culinary adventure!
Nothing motivates quite like a hard deadline, and this one certainly lit a fire underneath me. Kajitsu, temple of shojin cuisine in NYC, had been on my radar for years, but always seemed just outside of reach, despite its easy accessibility. Offering a set menu that changes each month, your only choices are between four courses or eight, with prices that match the painstakingly crafted edibles on offer. There just never seemed a proper occasion or reason to visit, never enough justification to drop that kind of cash on the experience of a single meal. As it turns out, the reason is presented right in the name: Kajitsu, translated as “fine day,” or “day of celebration,” says it all. In other words, treat y’o self, because today is just as worthy of celebration as any other.
When it came to light that the restaurant was closing up shop and moving to a new location, that was the catalyst for finally dropping by. Sure, it was due to reopen only a few weeks later in the heart of Manhattan, but I wanted the full, original experience. Moreover, I wanted an excuse, and this was as good as any.
Seated at the chef’s counter, we were privy to some of the fine details to go into composing these plates, but without seeing any of the real hustle and bustle in the kitchen. To call the atmosphere “meditative” is an understatement; there is no music, no loud chatter. Overhead lights focus directly on the food, which is the only place your attention is desired to fall. Distractions are at a minimum, right down to the tableware. Everything has a place and a purpose, including the attentive waitstaff, never missing a beat.
After the shorter kaze menu was chosen and our fate effectively sealed, the performance began.
Real, sharp, pungent wasabi grated mere seconds before hitting the plate took me by surprise. It was nothing like the colored horseradish found in most other eateries, but that was only an accent flavor to the Sashimi Style King Oyster Mushroom. Served chilled, the slippery slices of mushroom were paired with a savory sauce, a perfect compliment to the natural umami found within. Another delicious surprise came by way of the pickled celery, delightfully tender and yet crunchy all at once. That’s the sort of condiment I would buy by the jarful if only they would package it.
Daikon Soup may not sound like much on paper, but the surprisingly thick broth, enriched with a light asparagus puree, perfectly hit the spot. Concealed by a thin sheet of simmered daikon, a single piece of wheat gluten shaped like an ume blossom stood out in brilliant pink, a playful addition that lightened the serious mood. It would be a stretch to describe a bowl of soup “fun,” but that little touch brought a smile to my face.
The main course ,which was named the Plum Tree Plate, was a collage of complimentary components, displayed together on one plate. Standouts include the lily bulb puree, which is something never before seen in my world, and tasted for all the world like classic, comforting mashed potatoes. Fava beans and string beans came coated in a crispy, completely grease-free shell of tempura, adding just the right degree of indulgence into the meal.
Finally, ending on a soothing note, Baby Mountain Yam Soupy Rice gave diners an opportunity to play with their food just a little bit. Soup came in a separate pitcher, to be poured over a perfectly molded square of yam-filled sushi rice. Sheets of nori practically melted upon contacting the hot broth, seamlessly adding just a hint of oceanic salinity into the mix. Though my sweet tooth still yearned for a sphere of mochi or a small matcha cookie, I found myself perfectly full and content after that last spoonful of soup.
It was a meal worth the wait, although I certainly won’t let so much time pass before my next visit. Happily, they’re due to reopen in Murray Hill by mid-March, so there’s no excuse not to celebrate the day, for any reason at all.
For a day commemorating a Mexican military victory back in the 1860’s, you’d think that Cinco de Mayo would be a bigger deal in Mexico than the states. An excuse to drink beer, make merry, and eat greasy tacos, the truth is that the holiday is as American as apple pie. It’s hardly our only holiday that’s lost a bit in translation, or invented by greeting card companies, so such a revelation is hardly shocking. A cultural mishmash of customs both authentic and artificial, it may not have the deep meaning that so many partiers wish to believe, but still offers plenty of joy to those who wish to participate.
Since we’ve already asserted that it’s not quite Mexican and not recognizably American, why not go all out and throw another culture into the mix? Fusion usually brings up bad memories of overwrought, underdeveloped “concept” dishes, but it needn’t be that way! Enjoy it for what it is, not what it “should” be- What could be more fitting idea for this non-holiday after all?
Guaca-maki, a maki roll stuffed with brightly spiced and zesty guacamole, smoky roasted red peppers, crisp romaine lettuce, and some meaty strips of grilled veggie burgers for protein. Admittedly, adding burger bits to sushi was a bit wilder than I wanted to swing on this already crazy concoction, but for a quick meal, it was the only option on hand. Next time, I might recommend black or pinto beans to round this roll out. Finally, this inside-out roll is coated in a crunchy exterior of crushed tortilla chips, and served not with soy sauce, but hot salsa.
It’s certainly not for everyone, and not something I would ever serve to serve to “serious” company, but it doesn’t hurt to play with your food every once in a while. Leave your preconceived notions of sushi and Cinco de Mayo at the door- You just might like it if you try it!
Much like a Japanese version of Day of the Dead, Obon is a celebration of the departed, including a full festival of games, dances, and of course, food. Though traditionally said to occur on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, our calendar places it squarely in August, and so while the date may vary, most sources agree that today is the day to party. Good eats are naturally a part of any holiday worth observing, but Obon doesn’t have any specific must-have dishes. A comforting melange of traditional street foods, it’s all casual fare that you’ll see throughout Japan; dango, manju, takoyaki, and everyone’s favorite overseas, sushi. Inari falls into that last category and strikes me as the best suited for grabbing and going, dancing and running about. An edible tofu-based pouch that can hold all sorts of goodies, rather than an open-bottomed roll, it just sounds like an ideal snack to me.
The only trick is hunting down tofu pouches, but then the sky is the limit for fillings. Traditionally stuffed with little more than seasoned sushi rice, I like to stick pretty close with the tried-and-true assemblage, but with a multigrain twist. Zakkokumai, a blend of grains and seeds meant to enhance plain old white rice, has long been an obsession of mine. Making your own blend is a snap; just throw in any seeds you fancy (sesame, sunflower, poppy) and any grains that will cook in approximately the same time as the rice (quinoa, bulgur, oats, millet, pearl barley), as well as some quick-cooking legumes, such as beluga lentils or pre-soaked red beans. The beans may tint your rice slightly to an amber hue, but I think it looks much more inviting and less dull that way!
Packets of zakkokumai are available in Japanese grocery stores, and they typically recommend mixing in 1 tablespoon of the blend per cup of sushi rice. I like to up that figure a bit, often to twice the amount of zakkokumai for a more satisfying range of textures and flavors. To finish up the rice for sushi, stir in a tablespoon or two each of rice vinegar and mirin, and a dab of sweetener if desired. Inari pouches tend to have a light sweetness to them already though, so I prefer to omit the extra sugar for this application.
You could stop there and have perfectly delicious inarizushi, or you could take it a step further and mix in shredded nori, cooked and shelled edamame, shredded carrots, thinly sliced scallions, diced cucumbers, sauteed shiitake mushrooms– Just about anything, really! Takeout sushi may be easier, but certainly not even half as flavorful or exciting as inari you can make at home.