Art and the Zen of Japanese Cooking

Veganism is burgeoning across the globe, gaining traction at an exponential pace. Still in its infancy, the movement was seen as a niche trend a mere decade ago, and the word itself was coined relatively recently in 1944. That’s not to say that the concept of plant-based cooking is a new idea; Japanese Buddhist monks were well ahead of the curve, abstaining from the act of killing animals for human consumption for many centuries. Shojin Ryori is the art of zen cooking, a plant-based approach to simple preparations, with expert attention to quality, wholesomeness, and flavor.

Shojin” originally connoted a type of zeal in pursuing an enlightened state of mind. Breaking down the word further, “sho” means “to focus,” and “jin” means “advance forward along the way.” It’s the relentless pursuit bettering one’s self that drives the cuisine forward. Over time, shojin ryori’s health benefits and meticulous, artistic presentation contributed to Japan’s approach to fine dining, kaiseki.

Believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation, the avoidance of flesh demonstrates respect for all life, which extends to an appreciation for plant life as well. In appreciation for their sacrifice, all parts of the plant are used. Things that we might throw away like cucumber peels or carrot tops are vital parts of the equation. Emphasizing the importance of every scrap, nothing goes to waste.

Additionally, unlike modern vegetarian food in Japan, shojin ryori dishes don’t contain garlic or onion, which are considered too pungent. Instead, natural flavor is drawn out through careful seasoning and gentle cooking processes. This is why shiitake mushrooms, concentrated sources of umami and tanmi, have been the critical backbone of countless zen dishes.

Beyond their Japanese origins, these same principles can be applied to western cuisine with great success, too. Take Italian minestrone, for example. Devised as a way to make the most of any scraps that might be on hand, this brothy soup is light and refreshing, yet wholly satisfying thanks to a rich palate of deep flavors, varied textures, vibrant colors, and ample umami. Since the exact components are flexible, it’s easy to bend the formula further to accommodate these zen principles.

Call it fusion if you must, but my shojin minestrone is in a different category from the typically overwrought, inelegant attempt at dumbing down Asian dishes to make them more palatable to hapless diners across the globe. Rather, by starting with potent Sugimoto dried shiitake, it takes the true essence of zen cooking to amplify ingredients found farther afield. Starting with a stock bolstered by the water used to rehydrate the mushrooms, you get all the tanmi properties infused into the liquid, along with the meaty texture of the caps.

Unique to Donko shiitake, this particular variety has a much thicker cap and tender stem, which means that every part of the mushroom can be chopped and added to the stew for a completely waste-less preparation. Forest-grown in Kyushu, a Southern island of Japan, they contains the largest amounts of Guanylate, which creates a much more intense savory flavor.

Buddhist monks were hip to the meatless movement long before it ever had a name. The wisest way to honor their innovation is to keep it alive, and keep innovating with their discoveries in mind.

Continue reading “Art and the Zen of Japanese Cooking”

Bowl-In-One

Say you’re craving Japanese food, and most people will automatically think of sushi. Maybe ramen, or udon, but almost never a bowlful of rice garnished with ground meat. At least, that’s been my personal experience, even as a lover of all things from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Soboro donburi, also known as soboro don, is a traditional Japanese dish of lightly seasoned ground chicken served over a bed of warm sushi rice. Yes, it does have a deep rooted history in the national cuisine, dating back to the Meiji era (1868-1912) as the nation became industrialized and homemakers had less time to dabble about in the kitchen. A complete bowl-in-one was highly appealing, along with the minimalist composition that allowed these comforting meals to come together quickly and affordably.

In the spirit of thrift, any type of ground protein is a reasonable substitute that still rings true to the original concept, which is why my meatless soboro is as authentically Japanese as any other yoshoku.

Commonly accompanied by scrambled eggs and a simple green vegetable, it’s unfussy everyday fare that follows more of a blueprint than hard and fast recipe. For anyone else seeking a bite of comfort in a pinch, consider this your new go-to.

Continue reading “Bowl-In-One”

Wordless Wednesday: Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

Vegetable Nigiri; Hi Fi Mycology Mushroom, Aderezo, Lemon Zest. Zucchini Ahimi, Shiso, Rebel Cheese, Aderezo. Spaghetti Squash, Salsa Macha, Rebel Cheese, Scallion.

Veggiepillar Maki; Fried Miso Eggplant, Sesame, Pickled Cucumber & Carrot, Topped with Avocado and Serrano, Yuzu Miso Sauce, Sesame.

Fuyu Crudo; Rainbow Cauliflower, Beet Aguachile, Avocado, Roasted Beet, Salsa Macha, Sesame.

Spinach & Tofu Dumplings; Cashew Cheese, Candied Cashew, Cilantro, Red Curry Oil.

Lucky Robot
1303 S Congress Ave.
Austin, TX 78704

Honey-Do List

I think we can all agree that the end of year 2020 cannot come soon enough, for all its trials and tribulations. However, I’ll settle for striking a line through the year 5780 for now. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year arrives at sunset tonight. Offering an opportunity for a fresh start, rebirth and renewal, the significance of this holiday feels especially salient this time around.

Apples and honey are practically synonymous with the occasion, expressing edible wishes for a sweet new year. There’s usually a loaf of challah on the table, a lustrous golden crust shining beside tall pillar candles, perfumed with that same nectarous sweetener, too. In celebrations past, maple syrup was the default replacement, and plain bread the only alternative. Now we have truly ambrosial bee-free honey, either store-bought or homemade, and egg substitutes galore.

Rather than simply veganizing the classic round loaf, I felt that we could all use an extra measure of sweetness to rebound from such a miserably bitter 12-month cycle. Honey cake is a common addition to the festive table, but probably not like this one.

Kasutera, the Japanese interpretation of Portuguese castella sponge cake, is the perfect non-traditional dessert for Rosh Hashanah. Light and fluffy, yet still dense and rich, it glows with a golden interior crumb singing with floral aroma. The top and bottom are deeply caramelized from the high sugar content, but the interior remains as bright as a sunny day. Having the opportunity to enjoy such delicacy, tenderness, and indulgence strikes me as an ideal catalyst for a truly sweet new year on the horizon.

Chag sameach! Sweetest wishes for the year 5781!

Continue reading “Honey-Do List”

Sush-Easy

To anyone who can proclaim to dislike sushi, I can only shake my head in wonder. You don’t like rice? While the term has come to imply raw fish in modern usage, the actual translation of the word only refers to seasoned rice. Mouthfuls of lightly vinegared grains never hurt anyone, so why the animosity? If the paper-thin sheath of seaweed is still too briny for your liking, plenty of alternative wrappings are at your disposal for more colorful, flavorful containment. Beyond the predictable and traditional, there’s a bold new world of fillings to wrap up and roll out.

Let’s start with some Italian fusion with some Caprese Sushi. Mix herbaceous basil pesto into cooked and cooled sushi rice for a bold green backdrop. Press it into place along a paprika soy paper wrapper and line the center with vegan mozzarella, fresh heirloom tomato slices, and sun-dried tomatoes. Roll tightly, slice into a few thick pieces, and drizzle balsamic glaze across the plate before placing your fresh futo maki on top.

Traveling now to the jungles of Indonesia, Satay Sushi is a spicy, crunchy, savory treat that’s even better than anything on a skewer. Turmeric soy paper is the golden foundation for this one, with plain sushi rice cradling shredded carrots, grilled or sauteed meatless chicken, a thick smear of crunchy peanut butter, and everyone’s favorite hot condiment, chili crisp. You could always serve peanut sauce alongside, since I tend to encouraging going at least a little bit nuts.

Back to my own roots in New York City, Everything Bagel Sushi really is everything I could ask for in a mere maki. This one employs a sesame soy wrapper, of course, layered with the standard sushi rice, luscious lashings of vegan cream cheese, crisp cucumbers, minced red onion, dill, and a heavy sprinkle of everything bagel seasoning. Who needs the bread when you’ve got a compact roll ready to grab and go?

Finishing out with the next big blue plate special, Benedict Sushi promises to shake up the brunch routine with style and substance that would make the average English muffin crumble. It all starts with a spinach soy wrapper, rolling up around rice, blanched asparagus, vegan scrambled egg, and meatless ham. Slice and serve with a rich pool of hollandaise sauce for dipping, or dunking, as you see fit.

What’s your favorite way to wrap and roll? Do you stick with the traditional, understated vegetable maki, or shake things up with more unconventional fillings? While it’s hard to argue with the instant gratification of restaurant takeout, I promise you won’t find options nearly so fresh, fun, or fanciful as in your own kitchen.

Popit! for Soba All Summer

Come July, the heat is on. Bare feet scorch on sizzling pavement and even shady trees provide little relief. The only thing that appeals for lunch is either cool, cold, or straight-up frozen. There’s no place for a hot entree on this picnic table.

Luckily, Popit! is here to help! Since both their plastic and glass containers are ideal for advanced prep, you can pull a meal, ready to eat, right out of the fridge. That means you only need to suffer the brief heat of the kitchen once to reap the rewards all week long.

When I saw the small Popit! bread box, also billed as a “lettuce container,” I must admit, I didn’t think about using it as storage for a fresh loaf or salad fixings. One thing came to mind immediately: Zaru soba.

Chilled buckwheat noodles served with a light, brothy dipping sauce is the quintessential summer dish of Japan. Served on a special tray with elevated slats, the mat at the bottom allows excess water to run off, keeping the noodles from getting soggy. With that in mind, I couldn’t see these unique rectangular boxes in any other way. It was simply too perfect to do anything but build a warm weather bento box around that eastern inspiration.

Mentsuyu, the deeply savory dip that accompanies those chewy soba strands, traditionally contains bonito dashi, or fish stock, but is easily veganized by naturally umami dried shiitake mushrooms and kombu seaweed instead. Packed away in a small Popit! snack container, it fits flush right inside the main box. There’s no risk of leakage with those airtight lids locked tightly into place. Perfect for travel and eating alfresco, it also helps prevent messy drips by keeping everything close together.

Lightly blanched spinach is served on the side for a healthy serving of dark leafy greens, enhanced by the nutty flavor of toasted sesame. Tender pods of salted edamame provide all the plant protein you could want in a fun finger food. All together, it becomes a well-balanced, refreshing, and highly versatile meal that will help you keep your cool.

Grab your chopsticks and chill out. Don’t forget to slurp for maximum enjoyment!

Continue reading “Popit! for Soba All Summer”