“Just Enough” Vegan Recipes and Stories from Japan’s Buddhist Temples
This is the season for indulgence, when we all find ourselves eating, drinking and acquiring things with abandon. So, instead of another recipe for dessert, consider taking a few bites of wisdom from Gesshin Claire Greenwood, and reading her latest book, “Just Enough; Vegan Recipes and Stories from Japan’s Buddhist Temples (New world Library $17.95)
I made two of the recipes from the book and photographed my meal, and hope you’ll try the Sushi Chirashi and Tofu Agedashi. They were the perfect counterweight to balance the holiday feasting.
The book is part memoir, part cookbook, and gives the reader an intriguing peek into the world of contemporary Buddhism, both in Japan and the US. Greenwood starts her journey in her early 20’s when she uproots herself to journey to Japan and live an ascetic life in a monastery. Greenwood embraces the simple, hardworking lifestyle and finds great wisdom and peace in zen philosophy, and is eventually ordained as a priest.
She also finds her place in the kitchen of the monastery, where rice, vegetables, and simple food are prepared in ritualized, carefully proscribed ways. The nuns teach and practice “oryoki,” which is a way of life in which one seeks to want and take only what one really needs. Just enough.
Every morning, before eating their porridge and vegetables, the nuns chant:
“We reflect on the effort that brought us this food and consider how it comes to us.
We reflect on our virtue and practice, and whether we are worthy of this offering.
We regard it as essential to free ourselves of excesses such as greed.
We regard this food as good medicine to sustain our life.
For the sake of enlightenment, we now receive this food.”
The nuns season with restraint, as Greenwood explains by describing how much less soy sauce she came to use on her food. Learning to taste food, and feel satisfied by it, is a step toward tasting life, and being satisfied with what you have.
I won’t spoil the book when I tell you that Greenwood, like many before her, opts to rejoin the secular world and leave the convent. She find a new Buddhist community in California, where the work and meals are just as proscribed, but definitely Americanized.
Greenwood describes her realization that following “the middle path” of the Buddha doesn’t have to mean inflicting suffering on herself, and that renouncing the pleasures of living to find spiritual purity isn’t the path for her. Greenwood has gone on to teach and write about Buddhism, while also finding love and happiness in the US. Her thoughtful, deeply personal writing on the struggle to practice Zen and live in the modern world gives us a glimpse at the space where spirituality and real life collide. Few of us have the tools to consider our actions with a deep Zen perspective, and her intellectual and emotional clarity is a gift.
She blogs at http://thatssozen.blogspot.com/ if you’d like to read more.
I recommend this book to anyone who is seeking balance in life, and has an interest in mindfulness. It’s become the buzzword, and it’s very valuable to look more deeply into practices that encourage gratitude. Even if you are just into Japanese food, you’ll enjoy trying the recipes from her time in Japan.
In a culture in which more is always better, it’s deeply refreshing to contemplate what might be “Just Enough.”
Fried Tofu in Sauce (Tofu Agedashi)
An excerpt from Just Enough by Gesshin Claire Greenwood
A necessary component in Fried Tofu in Sauce is excellent dashi, which in turn makes excellent sauce. This dish involves deep-frying tofu and serving it in a strong sweet-and-salty broth garnished with grated daikon and ginger. The grated ginger blends into the broth and gives the simple tofu a rich and satisfying
I know I say this about everything, but this truly is one of my all-time favorite Japanese foods. We would prepare this on special occasions at Nisodo, for example, for the annual ceremony to honor the temple members’ ancestors. For this event, the people would come to take part in the ceremonies and then dine in a private area afterward.
For this meal we would take out the formal obon, or black lacquered serving trays that you often see in fancy restaurants in Kyoto. We would spend days cleaning, prepping vegetables, and choosing and setting out the dishes. For the kitchen work group this was a particularly stressful time, because we had to serve about eight specialty dishes to order, as in a restaurant, rather than follow our staple rice, soup, and side-dish routine. Invariably, one of the eight dishes was either this Fried Tofu in Sauce or Marinated Fried Eggplant. Whoever was in charge of running the frying station would be covered in sweat by the end of the day, but the meal break when we could sample the specialty dishes was always a highlight.
Tofu agedashi is served in restaurants and izakaya bars (pubs) throughout Japan. In the United States, it has made its way to izakaya in major cities, but I’m always disappointed in the way it tastes. A gauge for the quality of an American Japanese restaurant is how well it prepares tofu agedashi. It’s not a hard dish to make, but something is often lost in translation. In this recipe, I cut a block of tofu into thirds because this is how we would celebrate and honor our guests (by giving them big pieces!), but you can cut the tofu into smaller pieces, as they do in izakaya, if you prefer.
- 1 block (14 to 16 ounces) firm tofu
- ½ cup cornstarch or katakuriko (potato starch)
- Vegetable oil for deep-frying
- ½ cup grated daikon, for garnish
- 4 teaspoons grated ginger, for garnish
- 1 green onion, thinly sliced, for garnish
- 1 cup dashi
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
Cut the tofu into thirds and wrap each piece in paper towels. Cover all three with a tray or cutting board, put a weight on the tray/board, and let sit for 30 minutes to press out excess water. Remove the towels. If you prefer smaller pieces, cut the tofu into 1½-inch cubes. Pat the tofu dry with towels.
Bring the dashi, sugar, mirin, and soy sauce to a boil in a small saucepan. Simmer for 2 minutes, stir, and turn off the heat. Cover the saucepan with a lid.
On a plate or cutting board, spread the cornstarch or katakuriko into an even layer. Dip the tofu pieces in the starch, coating them evenly. Shake off any excess starch and set aside.
Pour at least 1½ inches of oil into a large deep pan and heat to between 350 and 370°F. (Or if you have a deep-fryer, use it following the manufacturer’s directions.) Working in batches, drop the tofu into the oil and fry until golden brown, flipping once. Remove the tofu from the oil and place it briefly on paper towels to absorb excess oil.
Divide the tofu among three small bowls. Spoon the hot soy broth over the tofu and garnish with the grated daikon, ginger, and sliced onions. Serve immediately, while the tofu is still hot.
Colorful “Sushi” Rice
An excerpt from Just Enough by Gesshin Claire Greenwood (Note: I skipped the Koyadofu when I made this dish, since I was making tofu on the side.)
Sushi chirashi, or “mixed sushi rice,” is a high-class specialty served in sushi restaurants in Japan. This dish is usually comprised of a bowl full of sweet vinegared rice covered in a layer of assorted sashimi (raw fish), fish eggs, and shredded egg. The vegan version of this begins with the same vinegared rice, but layers on edamame (green soybeans), stewed shiitakes (see chapter 3), koyadofu (tofu), grated carrot, and avocado. This provides a variety of interesting textures and plenty of umami (see chapter 3). In Japan, hardly anyone eats avocado with rice — this is a California innovation — but I do enjoy the rich fattiness of avocado.
Koyadofu is a kind of freeze-dried tofu that is reconstituted in water and then stewed so that it absorbs the flavor of the broth. It has a spongy texture that is off-putting to some Westerners. If you can’t find koyadofu in an Asian market or if the notion of a “spongy” texture doesn’t appeal to you, you can of course substitute sliced grilled tofu. But I think the inclusion of koyadofu helps approximate the taste and texture of raw fish.
Edamame can be purchased already shelled, which is easiest, or you can boil the unshelled beans for 5 minutes, drain, rinse, and then squeeze out the beans.
I first ate this dish at Nisodo. We were required to use the formal black lacquered oryoki bowls at all three meals, but if the cook wanted to serve an ippan, a separately plated specialty dish like this recipe, she would do away with the large rice bowl. We would eat soup from our middle bowl, the ippan, and pickles, of course.
- 1 piece (2 × 2 inches) konbu (dried kelp)
- 2 cups uncooked rice
- 5 tablespoons sushi vinegar or 2 tablespoons sugar dissolved in 5 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 1 block (about ½ ounce) koyadofu (freeze-dried tofu)
- 4 small dried shiitake mushrooms or 2 larger ones cut in half, soaked overnight in enough water to cover
- 1 cup cooked and shelled edamame (green soybeans)
- 1 carrot, julienned or grated
- 1 avocado, sliced
- Sesame seeds, for garnish
- Shredded nori, for garnish (optional)
Broth for the Koyadofu
- 1 cup dashi
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1½ teaspoons sugar
- 1½ teaspoons sake
- 1½ teaspoons mirin
Broth for the Shiitakes
- ½ cup dashi
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
Add konbu to the rice and cook the rice according to package directions. When the rice is done, remove the konbu. Pour the rice into a bamboo serving basket or a heat-resistant bowl. Drizzle the vinegar over the hot rice and mix vigorously with a rice paddle. As you mix in the vinegar, fan the rice with a paper fan. This allows the rice to cool faster and makes it shiny rather than dull.
Reconstitute the koyadofu by soaking it in water for 5 minutes. After it has expanded and become soft, remove it from the water and squeeze out the excess liquid. Bring the dashi, soy sauce, sugar, sake, and mirin to a boil in a saucepan. Add the koyadofu and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and allow the liquid to cool completely, if time allows. This will allow the koyadofu to absorb even more of the flavor from the broth.
Remove the shiitakes from the soaking liquid and slice them very thinly. In a saucepan bring the dashi, sugar, and soy sauce to a boil and add the shiitakes. Cook on medium for 5 minutes or until the mushrooms are cooked through. Be careful — the broth is very sweet and may caramelize and burn!
Once the koyadofu has cooled, remove it from the broth, cut it in half lengthwise, and then slice it into 1/8-inch slices.
Spread the rice onto two plates in even layers. Keeping each ingredient separate, arrange the koyadofu, sliced shiitakes, edamame, and carrot on top of the rice, half on each plate. Layer the avocado slices carefully over everything. Garnish with sesame seeds and/or nori.
# # #
Gesshin Claire Greenwood is the author of Just Enough and Bow First, Ask Questions Later. She also writes the popular blog That’s So Zen. Ordained as a Buddhist nun in Japan by Seido Suzuki Roshi in 2010, she received her dharma transmission (authorization to teach.) in 2015. She returned to the United States in 2016 to complete her master’s degree in East Asian Studies. A popular meditation teacher, she lives in San Francisco, California. Find out more about her work at Gesshin.net.
Excerpted from the book Just Enough. Copyright ©2019 by Gesshin Claire Greenwood. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.