A Taste of Zen: Unpenjiru

My experience with the cuisine of Buddhist monks started on a week-long mediation retreat many years ago in the country side of Central Massachusetts. To say the least, the food was not the main draw. Luckily, I didn’t let that discourage me from future indulgence.

Years later, while on a stressful, month-long trip through Southern India, I decided to spend a rehabilitative day in meditation at a monastery in Bylakuppe, the Tibetan refugee colony in Karnataka, India. Although I wasn’t eagerly awaiting meal time, I was astonished by some of the delicious foods on offer, all of which were vegetarian. Putting Massachusetts to shame, they featured an assortment of vegetables, most of which were fermented and quite umami-rich, as a result. Even more astonishingly, I didn’t miss meat in the least, which for me was a minor miracle at the time.

With the culinary traditions of Buddhist monks freshly redeemed, I made my way to Japan, although for other purposes. One day, I found myself seated overlooking a garden at a Zen Buddhist temple on the outskirts of Kyoto. Lunch was an option and, recalling my experience in India, I was more eager to indulge. It payed off.

As it turns out, there is an entire culinary tradition in Japan related to Zen Buddhism, called fucha ryōri. Fucha culinary techniques, brought to Japan from China in the seventeenth-century, are designed to be nourishing, practical, seasonally-oriented and, of course, vegetarian. One of the standouts from that meal was the soup that follows, for which I have painstakingly reconstructed the recipe.

This soup can serve as a portion of a much larger meal as it did for me in Kyoto, or taking a double serving, as a light but highly nutritious meal in itself. At about 100 calories, five grams of protein and other densely packed nutrients per serving, this soup is not only healthy but deliciously makes great use of the dashi and umami concepts about which I’ve previously written, all without the meat or processed carbohydrates.

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Ingredients – Four Servings

30 g (1 oz or sheets with a surface area of about 500 cm2 or 25 by 20 cm) kombu
1 L (1 kg or about 34 oz) filtered water

2 (about 120 g or about 4 oz) medium carrots
3 inch piece (60 g or about 3 oz) lotus root
1.5 inch piece (90 g or about 3 oz) daikon radish
3 – 5 (60 g or about 2 oz) medium fresh shiitake mushrooms
½ (100 g or about 3.5 oz) medium satsuma-imo (Japanese sweet potato)
4 medium green onions
5 g (a piece approximately 2 cm in length and 0.5 cm thick) fresh ginger
¼ standard package (100 g or about 3.5 oz) momen-dōfu (firm tofu), without liquid

20 g (about 1 tbsp) light soy sauce
4 g (about 1 tsp) sesame oil
4g (about 1 tsp) vegetable oil
25 g (about 1.5 tbsp) mirin
15 g (about 1 tbsp) sake
3 g (about ½ tsp) coarse sea salt

Optional

30 g (about 1 cup, loosely packed) katsuobushi flakes
4 g alum powder (in Japanese, yaki myōban)

Substitutions

Lotus root can be substituted with same amount of daikon radish
Satsuma-imo can be substituted with same amount of any more readily available sweet potato
Alum powder can be substituted with same amount of baking powder
Try other dashi varieties, based on your taste. Also, the basic techniques in this dish can be applied to almost any seasonal vegetables, so long as you keep flavor balance in mind. Try experimenting with other vegetables.

Preparation

  1. Cut 0.5 centimeter (0.2 inch) slits three centimeters (1.2 inches) apart along edges of the kombu. Combine kombu and water in an airtight container and refrigerate for at least four hours (but no greater than 24 hours) before cook time.
  2. Thoroughly wash the satsuma-imo and pat dry. Cut into 1 centimeter thick medallions and soak in a solution called myōban sui, composed of the alum powder and 500 grams (about two cups) of cold tap water for at least 10 minutes, but no greater than two hours. Drain, rinse in fresh cold tap water and pat dry. Alum, an ingredient commonly included in pickling brines in the West to preserve crispness, helps to maintain the vivid color and firm texture of the satsuma-imo through cooking. Although soaking the satsuma-imo in myōban sui is not strictly required, it is highly recommended. Dice medallions into 1 centimeter cubes.
  3. Peel the carrot and slice it into rounds, about 0.5 centimeters thick. Peel the daikon and the lotus root and quarter them lengthwise. Cut each quarter piece into pie shaped wedges, about 0.5 centimeters thick. Remove any soil or grit from the fresh shiitakes, but do not wash them. Remove their stems, setting aside, and cut each cap into eights, making pie-shaped wedges. Cut the momen-dōfu into 1 centimeter cubes. Cut the white portion of the whites of the green onion and set aside; cut the greens into thin rings. Peel the ginger. Store all vegetables in separate bowls to prevent raw flavors from melding.
  4. Following the kombu’s cold soak, place the kombu in a large saucepan along with the soaking water. At medium heat, raise the temperature of the water to 75 °C (167 °F). Be careful to avoid bringing water to a boil. After raising to temperature, about five minutes, steep for 20 minutes. Remove kombu. The dashi should taste only mildly of seaweed and evoke the ocean, but with very strong umami.
  5. Add katsuobushi flakes, if desired, and continue to steep at 75 °C until flakes sink to the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. After flakes sink, strain through a fine mesh strainer (such as a chinois) or a sarashi cloth. Reserve dashi in a separate container. Note that katsuobushi is a fish product and is the only non-vegetarian item in this soup. Withholding it makes the dish entirely vegetarian. With the katsuobushi, the dashi should enrichen and deepen in flavor, taking on an even more substantial umami component and a mild but pleasing smoky flavor. It should not have a strong fishy component.
  6. Pour 850 mL of dashi into a large saucepan and bring to a medium simmer. Add half of the sake and stir, then add the salt and stir.
  7. Add the carrot, daikon, lotus root, mushroom caps, mushroom stems, green onions whites and ginger. Simmer until carrots are barely tender, which can be determined with a toothpick, about three minutes. Skim off any froth that develops atop the liquid. Remove pot from heat.
  8. Preheat oven to 165 °C (329 °F). Toss the satsuma-imo with the sesame oil and evenly coat. Add satsuma-imo in a single layer, evenly spaced to a nonstick, oven-safe skillet, well-greased with the vegetable oil. Once oven is at temperature, place the skillet on the middle rack and bake for 15 minutes.
  9. Remove satsuma-imo from the pan and place on a towel or paper towel. Shake to remove any excess oil and set satsuma-imo aside. Use a tong or chopsticks to hold the towel or paper towel and remove any excess oil left in the pan.
  10. Add the remaining 150 mL of stock to the pan, along with the potatoes. Place on medium flame and bring to a light simmer and add soy sauce and mirin, then stir to integrate. Upon stirring, the smell of the stock should be slightly harsh. Simmer for one minute, skimming away any froth that appears on the surface of the liquid. After one minute of simmering, the harshness of the smell should subside and be subtly sweet.
  11. Add the stock and potatoes to the large saucepan containing the stock and mixed vegetables. Add the momen-dōfu, stirring gently to integrate. Remove the mushroom stems, ginger and green onion whites. Taste the broth; it should be richly flavored but subtle and not overpowering. Too much or imprecise simmering may result in over-concentrated broth. If this is the case, add a little bit of filtered water (no more than 100 grams or about 3 ounces).
  12. Warm soup on medium flame until it just begins to bubble, but not simmer. Ladle the soup into four bowls, topping each with one-quarter of the chopped onion greens. Serve immediately.

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