If I can’t travel, I cook. I’ve never been to Mexico, and used to think I hated the cheesy-beany glop that claims to be its cuisine, but that all changed when I found Rick Bayless’s first, Authentic Mexican. I’ve never been to Thailand, but back when I was so new to cooking that I’d never even baked bread or knew what to do with most of the vegetables in the produce section I scouted out lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and turmeric root (before it was trendy) to make everything I could from Vatcharin Bhumichitr’s Vatch’s Thai Cookbook. French, Italian, Chinese, you name it.
Unless you named Japanese. Then I was stumped. Raw-fish sushi was a nonstarter and back then the only ramen I knew about was the hangover-cure with a toxic flavor packet you got in college. Despite its name, Shizuo Tsuji’s Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art was encyclopedic and forbidding.
Then, one happy day, I came across a reference to Elizabeth Andoh’s Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, and in keeping with the frugal habits of grad school poverty I checked it out of the library.
It was beautiful! Wonderful! And simple! …if only you could find the ingredients. That’s where I ran aground. A tiny packet katsuobushi flakes (a.k.a. bonito, dried shaved tuna) to make the ubiquitous dashi broth alone would have broken the bank. I did cave in occasionally and spend roughly $17 a pop for a tiny container of umeboshi plums, but clearly that was not a sustainable habit. Same for sakē. Same for matcha powder. To say nothing of all the ingredients I couldn’t source at all: myoga, shiso, mitsuba, yuzu, miso not from a hippie commune, seven-spice powder, kampyō, yama imo… you get the idea. There are no doubt places in the U.S. or Europe well-supplied with these items for an ex-pat market, but I didn’t live near them.
So, with extreme regret and reluctance, I returned the book to the library and decided not to add a copy to my collection.
Then approximately ten years later, on Thanksgiving Day 2017, we got offered jobs in Tokyo. And so I rushed right off to the nearest internet to buy my very own copy of Washoku.
Needless to say, now that I live in Japan, the recipes therein ares not only doable and affordable—in fact they are the only sensible choice. Cheese and meat with bones it are what break the bank now. All the exotic ingredients I didn’t even recognize exist in quantity at the discount supermarket five minutes from my house, and definitely count as the frugal option.
So I got right down to work and bought a miso in every color to make all kinds of soups, sauces, and broiled fish. Tofu from a proper tofu vendor is a revelation: still mild and gentle, but so much more interesting than the sani-pack stuff you get off a grocery store shelf stateside. I’ve learned how to cope with konnyaku and its derivative shirataki (NB: do not ignore the instructions to pre-cook in boiling water) and have greatly expanded my rice repetoire. I have learned to love hijiki (wakame was easy to love) and discovered that the skin of the kabocha squash is edible, and delicious.
It was an easy jump from Washoku to Andoh’s Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions. Full disclosure: this one also went through the library vetting process, and besides the same problem of inaccessible or expensive ingredients, it just seemed too, well, spartan. Which of course is kind of the point of much Buddhist temple cuisine, from which some of these recipes are drawn.
But here, too, context made all the difference. When you’re surrounded by dairy in the Western world, vegan seems pretty hardcore on the deprivation scale. In Japan there’s no real distinction between vegan and vegetarian since the whole dairy category is bracketed anyway (at least until recently), and a tremendous amount of creative energy has gone into crafting meatless recipes for centuries now.
So, with Kansha I upped my tofu game, had my first go at using kanten (agar-agar) for jellied grapefruit wedges, and tried out both okara (the leftover bean bits from making soy milk) and sakē lees (the leftover rice bits from making sakē). And to be perfectly honest, I plunder it for vegetable accompaniments to a shamelessly omnivorous meal.
But wait! It gets better!
Not only did I buy Andoh’s books, I also signed up for her newsletter… and one day, be still my beating heart, I saw she was offering a three-day intensive cooking class right here in Tokyo. Setting aside my starstruck flutters, I sent in my application, and next thing I knew I was having a fifty-minute phone interview with the lady herself. Boy, was I glad I had eight years of home cooking in France to pull out as my ace. I passed the test and in February 2019 presented myself (along with two other novices) to study at the feet of the sensei.
Well, Elizabeth is not only immensely learned and skilled but also an absolutely lovely human being. And tireless. The other two pupils and I were about dead on our feet at the end of each day, but she never wavered for a moment in energy. I could hardly take in all she was teaching us fast enough. Or, conversely, slow myself down when it came time to eat the final results.
Wait, wait! It gets better yet!
At the end of our final day, Elizabeth remarked offhandedly that she was looking for a new assistant and would I be interested? Reader, I am not known for being one lacking in self-esteem, but I did not honestly think she meant it seriously.
She meant it.
Not long after, she wrote and asked if I could help out at future courses, replacing Atsunori, her husband of nearly fifty years, who stood in as assistant at the intensive I attended. You need not wonder how I responded. I’m on for three one-day classes in April and, assuming I wash out the suribachi correctly, hope that I’ll be able to assist in more!
The moral of the story, obviously, is that you should move to Tokyo. Barring that, here’s a recipe adapted from Washoku that shouldn’t break the bank. And if you live near an Asian market carrying Japanese products, snap up a copy of Washoku for yourself and dig in!
Creamy Tofu Sauce
4 oz. tofu (either silken or firm)
2 tsp. sweet, light miso (or “white miso”—usually easy to find at health food stores and co-ops)
pinch of salt
drop of mirin (sweetened Japanese rice wine; if you don’t have this to hand, I would suggest an equally tiny bit of sweet white wine)
Bring a small pot full of water to boil. Drop in the tofu in one block and cook for 2 minutes. Drain and slip the tofu into a thin kitchen towel (not terry cloth) and squeeze gently to press out extra moisture. Drop the tofu into a food processor bowl. Pulse a few times till fairly smooth, scrape, and add remaining ingredients. Pulse again till smooth and creamy.
You can use this as a dressing on any kind of steamed vegetable (julienned carrots would be nice, or green beans), or, as Elizabeth suggests, as a dip for raw veg like red peppers.