Last Friday night, I had an amazing low sodium cooking adventure where I learned to make a traditional, five-course, Japanese meal which included that beautiful ball of tofu sitting in a pond of orange beet puree that you see above. But before we get into this multi-volume thriller, a quick spoiler alert. This is a long post – actually, it will be broken into two posts – that is worth every minute of procrastination. So to prepare for the reading road ahead, I suggest we get our blood pumping and begin this morning with a little interactive blogging.
When I say “Japanese” you say “Sushi.”
Now, without going into too much psychoanalytical detail, I would venture to guess that most people associate Japanese food with California rolls and thinly sliced yellowtail. But surprise, surprise, there is a world of traditional cuisine, beyond seaweed and rice, that many of us have yet to explore.
Perhaps the word Izakaya is familiar to you – and if it is, well you are one of the lucky ones – but if not, Izakaya is the namesake of Japanese watering holes which serve substantial plates of homestyle classics: long-cooked stews of bitter melon and mountain yam; fried baby octopus and home-made, miso tofu; mushroom-infused broths with silky noodles; pickled vegetables and salt-cured fish. Intricate and interesting food to say the least.
I first experienced Izakaya at Sebo in Hayes Valley, a small twenty-top restaurant which flips its sushi menu on Sundays to serve an impressive list of what they call “Japanese pub food” and I what I like to call “five star.” As I was already friends with one of the chefs,he kindly agreed to experiment with low sodium versions of the menu. He created dishes like tempura potato croquettes and silky mirin tofu that even my unrestricted dining partners envied. Every time he knew I was coming for dinner, he would set aside some unsalted dashi, rice noodles, and a handful of uncommon veggies and with the simple applications of mirin, sake, and sesame oil, he was able to craft steaming bowls of low sodium, Japanese comfort food. My experiences at Sebo proved that the whole spectrum of Japanese cooking was not only possible, but enjoyable without salt or soy sauce. And now it was time for me to take the lessons learned while dining out and apply them to my cooking at home.
I actually credit my Jewish grandmother with teaching me the importance of using genre-specific ingredients in a non-traditional manner. Having lived in Japan during the 1970’s, she fell madly in love with the country, especially mirin cooking wine, and infused her home and her meals with the culture upon her return. Mirin found its way into everything she made, from brisket to chicken salad, and I’m pretty certain she invented asian fusion cooking before Nobu Matsuhisa.
She was fearless with her flavor integration and it always payed off, taking even her most simple meals and making them spectacular. She taught me that experimentation is important to good cooking and even more essential when it comes to making low sodium food. For if you are able to surprise your taste buds with new flavor combinations, you will be so excited by everything else you are experiencing that you will not have the bandwidth to miss the salt.
So now that we have travelled to Sebo, Japan, and back to my grandmother’s kitchen in Palo Alto, we find ourselves in my own apartment on a Friday night, cooking with Kaz.
Kaz grew up in Japan and learned how to cook by watching his mother at home and the Galloping Gourmet on TV. With a clear passion for art of cooking, he moved to the United States. Kaz trained to be a sushi chef in LA and finally made the move up north to the Bay Area where he manned kitchens at Ozumo and Greens Restaurant.While he clearly has the culinary chops, what makes Kaz an especially good chef is that he also has the heart. For him, cooking is not just about eating, but about healing. And like the Galloping Gourmet, he truly believes that you do not need to be clasically trained to be a good cook. You simple have to enjoy the process.
After perfecting fancy caterpillar rolls and fresh vegetarian ravioli, Kaz entered a new discipline and became a Zen priest. He trained in Shojin, Zen temple cooking where food and the positive exchange of energy is a true art.
A traditional Shojin meal consists of five vegan dishes: a rice bowl, a clear broth soup, pickled vegetables, and in our case, sesame tofu, and spinach with sesame paste. Shojin dishes generally do not contain too many ingredients, but each one is treated with a great amount of care. Stirring is done in all one direction, so as not to change the energy of the food, and when eaten, one is meant to take his or her time and no sound should be made. The whole experience is very different from our American obsession with quick food that explodes with flavor. The meals we created, over a three-hour time period, were subtle in their taste and stand-out in their delicate presentation and preparation.
While the recipes we learned this evening were not ones I would choose to recreate on a typical weeknight, they were a good reminder to slow down once and awhile and enjoy the process of cooking; to treat every ingredient and every step of a recipe with an extra touch of respect. You can taste the difference.
My lesson in Shojin cooking also reminded me that ingredients I don’t often use, like ginger and sesame, pack a lot of flavor. And whether you use them in a home-made tofu ball or in a ground-sirloin burger, the simple addition of these foods can drastically change a recipe. So get ready, for tomorrow promises a five course feast of Shojin goodness and some pictures to help illustrate the experience of mixing traditions, slowing down, and of course, chowing on.