Sunday, November 1, 2009

Shōjin Ryōri, or tofu how many ways?

A few days ago I inadvertently stumbled into an 8 course meal at a vegetarian tofu restaurant. I'm not usually the sort of person that seeks out vegetarian restaurants, nor do I generally enter haphazardly into any sort of eating situation. But serious hunger pains and a glance at Kyo-tofu Fujino's menu (and by menu, I mean that I looked at the pictures and the plastic food in the window) lured me in.

It was only once I sat down and really examined the menu (and by menu I mean the questionably translated English nonsense they gave me once it became clear that I wasn't going to be able meet them halfway besides asking for water in Japanese) that I realized in horror that the only meat I was going to be having was in the form of a tofu patty.

The more I learn about Japanese food, the more interested I am in the seasonal aspects to it. In Japan, the seasons and the changing of the seasons matter a great deal, especially when it comes to food. So I decided to go with the special Autumn menu:

Small appetizer dishes: Fresh yuba, sesame tofu, konjac (devil's tongue) sashimi, deep-fried tofu and boiled shungiku leaves, seasonal vegetables with sweet and sour sauce
Deep-fried tofu and dried wheat gluten with miso
Warmed soft tofu with mushrooms starchy sauce
Crispy yuba salad
Tofu hamburger steak cooked with mushroom sauce
Cooked rice seasoned with deep-friend tofu and yuba
clear soup and pickled veggies
Hot green tea with small tofu confectionery

Yuba is one of Kyoto's specialties. It's a soybean product that is made in the production of tofu. It's sometimes called tofu skin, but it's actually the film that they skim off when the soy milk is being boiled. This may not sound particularly appealing, nor might your tummy be tempted by the idea of tofu and devil's tongue sashimi, but suspend your disbelief and trust me when I tell you that it was really good. Who knew that eating various types of soy and gluten-based products dipped in soy sauce could be not only edible but delicious? I am probably sending my poor father--who loathes both vegetarians and soy sauce--to an early grave by saying this, but it was seriously as good as a meat or fish-based meal.

Tofu in Japan is in a whole other universe to what you get in the UK. California comes up with some pretty good tofu due to the high population of hippies and macrobiotic food obsessives, but it's still nothing compared to Japan. In Japan, tofu is an art form. I remember how excited I was when I first discovered soft (as opposed to firm) tofu at a Korean market many years ago. That, as they say, is nothing. In Japan they make tofu so well that non-vegetarians can eat 8 courses of it and leave happy. If one of my veg friends had made this claim to me a month ago I would have snickered inwardly and nodded, knowing that if I disagreed the first blood they'd taste in years would be mine. But seriously, it's true.

At the end they even came to the table to make matcha, the green tea used in the tea ceremony and which you are probably most familiar with from the Starbucks green tea frappachino. This was served with a tiny piece of tofu-based cake.

So who do we have to thank for all of this? My friend Asta for taking me there, but more importantly the Buddhist monks that developed it. So to all you vegetarians, vegans and Buddhists out there, I concede. You've won this round.

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