Thursday, September 10, 2009

In Praise of Japanese Food

When you think of Japanese cuisine, what foods come to mind - sushi, sashimi, teriyaki?

Remember that Japan has long embraced Buddhism, a philosophy that includes vegetarian specialty foods.

When I think of Japanese cuisine here's what comes to mind:

Okara - to make tofu, soybeans are boiled and then ground to make soymilk which is then turned into tofu by adding nigari coagulant that produces "soy curds". The leftover ground soybeans are okara. It's a great dish served cold with mixed vegetables.

Yuba - when soy milk is boiled, a film appears on the surface, which can be served fresh or dried into sheets. This soymilk film is called yuba. It's high in protein and is a great chewy, flavorful dish served with a bit of soy sauce.

Fresh tofu - Kyoto has remarkable tofu restaurants. My favorite tofu restaurant, Kiko, sits a dozen people and is so hard to find that even the Japanese cannot locate it. Here's a hint - it's just south of Shijo-dori between the Kamagawa River and Kawaramachi-dori behind the Hankyu Department Store, 30 meters south of the Murakami-Ju Japanese pickle store. Above, I've included a picture of the noren, the curtain over the doorway, which is a painting school of minnows from the Kamagawa river. Their Aoi tofu (naturally blue green tofu) is remarkable.

Shojin Ryori is formal Zen Buddhist cuisine. My favorite Zen restaurants are adjacent to the Kiyomizudera temple in Southeast Kyoto and surrounding Nanzenji on the Philosopher's Walk in Northeast Kyoto.

During the summer, fresh cold somen noodles, such as those served at Shinshin-an in Kifune are truly refreshing. In Kifune, a mountain town north of Kyoto, you can eat on tatami mats suspended over the flowing river. The somen is sent from the kitchen in tubes that flow in front of you and you catch the noodles with your chopsticks as they pass by.

There are numerous great vegetarian Japanese sweets

*Momiji Manju, a maple leaf 'waffle' filled with beanpaste.

*Wagashi are Japanese sweets made from pounded rice and bean paste. Here's a photo of the sweets I made in Kyoto during a wagashi lesson arranged for my family by Michiko Yoshida

*Fu Manju (wheat gluten with azuki bean filling - buy it from Fuka on the Nishiki market street)

Other favorite Japanese foods are rice crackers (buy them from Funahashi-ya on the Sanjo bridge, but be careful with the Sansho pepper crackers which numb your tongue) and fresh pickles (buy from Murakami-Ju on Shijo dori)

Of course, Japan prides itself on seasonal specialties. During the Fall look for Matsutake mushrooms and during the winter enjoy boiled tofu (Yodofu)

I could easily retire to Kyoto and enjoy the multitude of vegan friendly cuisines for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Next time you think of Japanese foods, realize that the American Japanese restaurant experience pales in comparison to the fresh, seasonal celebration of remarkable traditional foods available in Kyoto!


Bernz said...


It's kind of a "build your own soup". It's a fun communal (or personal) experience. Sort of like fondue, but probably healthier. For meat eaters like me, there's thin (think carpaccio) sliced quality Kobe meat that's dipped into the soup for seconds to "sear" it and add flavor. For vegetarians/vegans, there's always a vegan option on menus.

In Boston, my favorite is Shabuzen ( in Chinatown. There are shabu places popping up all over Boston. I'm sure there are Shabu places all around the country.

Rob Tweed said...

Unfortunately there are less praiseworthy aspects too:

- the almost total anihilation of Bluefin tuna (

- the ongoing attitude to whaling and whale meat consumption, disguised in the name of "science"

Unknown said...

Read this wonderful post and the following NYT review of Kajitsu in the East Village at the same time --