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In the town of Rouen in Normandy, France, there is a dish that should not be missed. It is canard a la rouennaise a la presse — pressed duck. Here is how my husband and I discovered and enjoyed this culinary experience this summer.
Rouen is a charming historic Norman town 80 miles north of Paris with a well-preserved and meticulously reconstructed (from war damage) old-town district. The Seine flows through town, dividing the historic section and the postwar new one.
This summer we visited the town to see the Cathedral Notre-Dame of Rouen, which inspired Claude Monet; learn the history of Joan of Arc in the place of her death; and take long walks from one historical site to another through narrow streets and small plazas. And, of course, we were ready to savor some good, local meals to complement our time in Rouen. Canard a la rouennaise a la presse was the natural first choice. We made a reservation at La Couronne, taking note of the warning in a guidebook about the price of the dish — “if you can afford it.”
La Couronne is housed in a beautiful half-timbered inn claiming to be the oldest inn in France. It was transformed into a restaurant in the 19th century. When the present owners, the Cauvin family, took over the restaurant in 1989, they did research on the building and found evidence that the space they use as a wine cellar dates to the 12th century.
Entering this old establishment with a dark wood ceiling and walls and windows enclosed by heavy drapes made us feel we were transported to the age of Joan of Arc. An elegant maitre d’hotel, Dominique Boucourt, ushered us to our table, and without hesitation we ordered the canard a la Rouennaise a la presse and good Bordeaux.
Table-side preparation adds to showiness of pressed duck
Canard a la rouennaise a la presse, which was quaintly translated as “squeezed duck in Rouen style” on the English menu, was invented at the beginning of the 19th century by executive chef Henri Denise at L’Hotel de la Poste in Duclair, near Rouen, according to Sacha Cauvin, the son of the current owner and manager of the restaurant. Paul Hamlyn, publisher of “Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia,” writes that “the recipe for pressed duck owed much of its immediate success to the Duke of Chartres, who commended it highly in Paris.” In Paris it became famous, but its ancestral home is Normandy.
While nursing a glass of wine, I realized our duck dish would be mostly prepared and served at our table, because at a distant table I could see Boucourt in action — carving the duck, pressing the carcass, cooking the fillets, preparing the sauce and serving the dish to a young couple mesmerized by the smooth operation.
Boucourt returned to our table with a side table full of cooking equipment — a chopping board, knife, tabletop cooker and machine called la presse used to squeeze the blood and juice from the carcass. He proudly presented us a very lightly oven-baked, plump Rouen duck, and then the show began.
He first removed the breast and legs from the body, removed the skin from the breast and then cut the meat into slices. Every procedure was done with such professionalism and speed that my sipping of wine stopped just so I could pay close attention. Boucourt moved on to cooking the sliced breast meat in a saucer over the stove on his table. Flamed cognac was added to the fillets. After setting the cooked breast meat aside, he filled the inside of the presse with the duck carcass. He closed the lid and screwed down the pressing element, and the blood and juices ran down into a silver bowl. He then placed another cooking saucer over the fire and poured in red Burgundy. When the wine began to simmer, he added the blood and duck juices. A chunk of butter followed, and the sauce was cooked down. The flame flickered up, and the aroma of the fragrant sauce hit our noses and made our stomachs growl. Boucourt finished the sauce with a little salt and pepper, and the previously flambéed duck slices were added to the sauce to flavor them.
Within a few moments, the beautifully presented dishes were served to us. The meat itself was flavorful and tender, and the strong but delicately aromatic, rich blood-wine sauce was heaven sent as the perfect accompaniment for the duck. While enjoying the dish, Boucourt’s finely tuned, flawless preparation flashed back to my mind. This year is his 33rd serving canard a la rouennaise a la presse, the longest such tenure in the history of La Couronne.
The La Couronne kitchen uses duck from Duclair, 11 miles west of Rouen. This duck originated in and near Duclair, and breeding standards for these birds were established in 1923. This is not the highly bred, much heavier variety known as “Rouen duck.” That is a different bird. Ducks from Duclair are slaughtered at the age of 10 weeks using a method that keeps the blood inside the body.
Using blood in food preparation is not a practice of the Japanese kitchen that is my own discipline. When I prepare duck, I take particular care to remove the blood. So I thank Rouen, La Couronne, Boucourt and canard a la rouennaise a la presse for providing me this precious experience and new knowledge that is now a part of my cooking knowledge and life.
The recipe presented here is not for the Rouen pressed duck, but for duck cooked the Japanese way. This is certainly different from canard a la rouennaise a la presse, but is an excellent easy way to prepare and enjoy duck as an appetizer course.
- ½ cup sake
- ½ cup mirin
- 2 tablespoons usukuchi shoyu (light-colored soy sauce)
- 2 tablespoons shoyu (regular soy sauce)
- 1 large boneless half duck breast
- Hot mustard paste for serving
- In a saucepan, combine the sake, mirin and both of the shoyu and bring the mixture to a simmer. Transfer the liquid to a steamer-safe container large enough to accommodate the duck.
- In a heated skillet, add the duck, skin side down, and cook until the skin is golden. Turn the duck over and cook until the other side is golden.
- Add the browned duck to the prepared liquid in the container. Transfer the container to a steamer and cook for 12 minutes. Remove the container from the steamer, and remove the duck from the cooking liquid, reserving the liquid in the container.
- Insert a grilling skewer through the duck breast and hang the breast over a bowl for one hour to allow any blood to drain from the meat for disposal. Return the duck to the cooled cooking liquid and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, remove the duck from the cooking liquid and slice thin. Serve the duck in six portions each with a dab of hot mustard paste.
Main photo: The duck is prepared table side at La Couronne. Credit: La Couronne
After several days in Japan, every foreign traveler notices that the Japanese love kare-raisu or curry rice as much as they do sushi and ramen. This dish of an aromatic but not very spicy curry sauce served with rice and protein can be found throughout the country, from the largest cities to the smallest remote mountain villages. There are entire restaurants specializing in kare-raisu, small family-run operations and large restaurant chains. The strange story of how this distinctive dish came to be a Japanese favorite starts with the British, their navy, and a Japanese physician’s observations on malnutrition.
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After Japan emerged from centuries of isolation with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government decided to model its newly developing navy after all aspects of the British navy, including the training of its officers and sailors. Around the same time, Japanese doctor Kanehiro Takaki, who had studied at an English medical school, was appointed as a navy physician. Takaki’s mission was to conquer the mysterious disease beriberi, which was very common among Japanese naval officers and seamen.
During his stay in England, Takaki did not see many cases of beriberi in the British navy. And he noted that the British sailors’ protein-rich diet that also included wheat bread — foods rich in vitamin B, which we now know is required to prevent beriberi — was very different from Japanese sailors’ simple diet of fish, vegetables and rice. He concluded that malnutrition was the cause of the beriberi epidemic and that the addition of such proteins to the diet could solve the beriberi problem in the Japanese navy. Takaki returned to Japan and worked to persuade the navy that it should adopt a Western diet containing protein for the sailors. Nutritious, filling and easy to make in a single pot, kare-raisu was perfect for the navy kitchen and was soon adopted by all branches of the navy. It became the custom in the navy to serve kare-raisu at the end of each week.
Also in that period, great changes were occurring on the Japanese culinary scene. The ban on meat eating that had been imposed on the commoner population was finally lifted. New ingredients such as butter and milk were introduced to the Japanese kitchen. The Emperor himself promoted Western-style meals, with the hope of building a stronger and taller Japanese population. Under these conditions, new Western-style dishes, collectively called yoshoku, were born, and some of these new creations were adopted by the navy kitchen. Kare-raisu, directly inspired by the curry-spiced stew dish served in the British navy, was one. This is how curry rice came to Japan from India by way of the British navy.
Here is an early kare-raisu recipe published in 1906 from the “Kaigun Kappo Jutsu Sankosho” or Navy Cooking Technique Reference Cookbook.
1. Cut meat, carrots, onions and potato into cubes.
2. Heat beef fat in a stock pot and cook flour.
3. Add curry powder, stock, meat and vegetables, and cook over low heat.
4. Add salt to taste.
5. Serve the curry sauce over steamed rice with pickled vegetables.
It is not at all different from the recipe in general use today.
In Tokyo, kare-raisu was first served to the public at high-class, white-tablecloth restaurants. Diners often dressed in Western attire and, wanting to be seen as modern, ate their curry with knives, forks and spoons, not the usual chopsticks. It is recorded that in 1877, Tokyo Fugetsu-do, a Western-style restaurant, served kare-raisu and its price was 8 sen (8 cents).
A few decades later, a different style curry was born in Tokyo. This new curry dish came directly from India by a rather serendipitous route. Ras Bihari Bose, an Indian activist, fled to Japan in 1915 when his plan with colleagues to overthrow the British Raj failed. But Japan was part of an Anglo-Japan Alliance, and Bose was not safe. Luckily, he fell under the protection of Aizo Soma, a businessman known for his benevolent activities. Soma owned and operated Nakamuraya, a store in Tokyo that produced newly introduced bread products along with the traditional Japanese sweets. Bose tasted Japanese kare-raisu while he was in hiding under Soma’s protection, but criticized it as “not at all authentic.” He proceeded to help Soma develop a more authentic Indian curry recipe. The result, Indo-kare, was introduced to Soma’s customers in 1927 at his new café-restaurant, which still exists.
Today kare-raisu and Indo-kare share the same popularity in Japan. My favorite kare-raisu is, of course, my mother’s curry. Her version is in between the European and Indian styles of curry. Beautifully caramelized onion with commercially prepared S&B Curry Powder and some flour in oil was cooked with carrot, potato, apple in chicken stock for more than four hours. As the sauce cooks, she checks the flavor several times and adds seasonings such as salt, sugar and shoyu (soy sauce). I followed my mother each step, tasted it as the curry cooked down and learned the very best flavor, texture and color in the prepared dishes. The end result was a velvety, brown, lightly thickened, aromatic sauce. Below is my recent kare-raisu recipe, inspired my shrimp curry recipe in my book “The Japanese Kitchen.”
- ¼ cup canola oil
- Half medium white onion, chopped in food processor
- 1 tablespoon ginger, chopped fine in food processor
- 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine in food processor
- 2 tablespoons Japanese S&B curry powder or Madras curry powder
- 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
- About 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
- 2½ cups chicken stock
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 to 3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
- 1 to 2 teaspoons Tamari soy sauce
- Sea salt
- About ¼ cup apricot jam
- About 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
- 2 chicken thighs and legs, skin attached, cut into 6 to 7 pieces
- Half lemon
- Cooked rice (short-, medium- or long-grain rice)
- Cook the onion in heated oil until it is lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add the ginger and garlic and cook 1 minute more.
- Add the curry powder, turmeric and flour and cook until it is smooth. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add an additional 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add the remaining ½ cup of the stock and stir with a whisk. Add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, tamari, sea salt, apricot jam and light brown sugar.
- Cook the curry sauce about 1½ hours -- longer is better. When the sauce is cooked halfway, squeeze the lemon half into the curry sauce and throw the used lemon into the sauce.
- Heat a little oil in the skillet and brown the chicken pieces on both sides.
- Transfer the chicken pieces to the curry pot. Cook the chicken in the sauce for 20 to 30 minutes over very low heat, covered.
- Serve the curry over hot, cooked rice.
Main photo: Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo
Every summer, a bounty of vegetables from my local green market inspires me to go back to nuka-zuke, an ancient Japanese pickling method based on fermented rice bran. Biting into crisp nuka-zuke carrot, radish, turnip, zucchini, cucumber, beet, eggplant or any other vegetable grown under the strong summer sun cools me off and makes me feel my body has absorbed the sun’s energy.
Pickled vegetables are ubiquitous throughout the world. You probably know that kimchi, sauerkraut, and brine-cured cucumbers and tomatoes are delicious. In New York, where I live, I have come to enjoy corned beef sandwiches – and what would one be without a great brine-cured pickle? These pickles, like nuka-zuke pickles, also have significant health benefits. They are all products of lactic acid fermentation and are wonderfully probiotic because of the bacteria involved in that process. These bacteria are proven to do many good things in our guts. They contribute to the growth of a healthful microbial community. They strengthen our immune system. They assist in good digestion. They help prevent constipation. They improve the body’s use of vitamins and minerals. They help to reduce blood cholesterol. And they decrease our sensitivity to allergens.
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I learned the nuka-zuke pickling ritual from my mother. One of the wedding gifts I received from her was a small batch of her nuka-zuke pickling base to use as a starter. At that time she had been nurturing it for 38 years in her kitchen. This year, my nuka-zuke pickling base that began its life with my mother’s gift celebrates 25 years of service in my kitchen. It has come a long way, in time and distance, from its origin.
The idea of pickling vegetables in rice bran, a byproduct of milling rice, arose at the beginning of the Edo period (1600-1868) in Japan. This is when eating polished white rice became popular in the big cities of Japan. Back then there was no scientific knowledge about rice bran’s excellent nutritional value. But increasingly, many citizens suffered from beriberi – lack of vitamin B1 – because of their reliance on white rice. Consuming vegetables pickled in a rice bran base, which adds vitamin B1, resolved the vitamin deficiency.
To make nuka-zukepickling base, which is called nuka-miso (only because it looks like miso; no miso is used), rice bran is lightly toasted and mixed with sea salt, water and dried akatogarashi red chile pepper. My mother also added kelp to improve the flavor and mustard powder, which has antiseptic properties. To let fermentation start in this new pickling base, we first pickle, for example, one cabbage in the prepared base for about a week or so. During this time enzymes breaks down the protein, carbohydrate and fat in the rice bran and lactic acid fermentation occurs. When we remove the cabbage (at this stage the cabbage is too salty to consume, and so is thrown away) from the pickling pot we will find remarkable biological activity in the pickling base. In one gram of nuka-miso pickling base we find over one hundred million good probiotic bacteria.
I can still vividly picture my mother pickling the vegetables, retrieving them from the pickling pot with a satisfied smile every time, taking care of the pickling base in the pot and serving the rinsed pickles sliced with razor sharp precision. I use all of the pickling tips that my mother taught me. Salt the vegetables before pickling. Toss and turn the pickling base one hundred times with my hands every day. This feeds oxygen to the bacteria. After some time using the pickling base it becomes wet from the water exuded from the vegetables. In such a case I add dried soybeans to absorb excess water. I always keep the pickling pot clean and hygienic. I add some salt if the pickling base became too sour.
Pickling vegetables in the nuka-miso base is lots of fun. I am dealing with living organisms, which though so very tiny react as a group like human beings. I know they do a very good job when I take care of their home — the pickling base — properly. I just pickled a couple of large carrots in the base very late last night before going to bed. I fetched them early this morning before they are too strongly flavored and become too salty. The very fresh, crisp carrots that were nurtured and massaged by my bacteria and enzymes overnight became tender, releasing a delightful fragrant aroma. I am always awed by the magical power of nature.
Some studies claim that the pickled vegetables have 2.5 to 10 times more vitamin B1 than fresh vegetables. The pickles also pick up other vitamins, minerals and lactic acid, from the base. But no matter how tasty and probiotic the nuka-zuke pickles are, we should control the size of the portion we consume, or risk taking in too much sodium.
When pickling time comes, I retrieve my nuka-zuke pickling base from the refrigerator where it has slept through the winter. I keep it in my large, deep blue, enameled pickling pot. When I open the lid of the cold pickling pot I think I can see trillions of my friendly bacteria waking up from their long sleep that began late last autumn at the end of the local fresh vegetable season. Hot, and sometimes humid, summer weather is ideal for these bacteria to become active again and do their wonderful work.
Here is the recipe for you to start your nuka-zuke pickling base. When you make it please think of the future of your pickling base. You could be handing down this probiotic-rich base to your children and those of succeeding generations.
Nuka-Zuke Pickling Base
2 pounds rice bran
6 ounce sea salt
About 6 cups filtered water or mineral water
3 Japanese akatogarashi red chile peppers or 1 tablespoon Italian chile pepper flakes
5-inch long kombu (kelp), cut into halves
1 cup dried soybeans
½ cup mustard powder
One small cabbage
One large enameled or plastic pickling pot (about 5-quart capacity) with a lid
- In a large skillet over low heat, toast the rice bran in several batches until fragrant. In a large pot, add the salt and water and bring it to a gentle simmer. Stir the pot to dissolve the salt. Cool the salt water.
- In the pickling pot, add the rice bran. Add the cooled salt water in three batches. The mixture should have a texture and consistency similar to miso and should not be watery. Add the kelp, soybeans and mustard powder.
- Cut the cabbage into four wedges. Sprinkle some salt over the wedges and bury each of them in the pickling base. Twice every day — in the morning and in the evening — remove, set aside the cabbage and toss and turn the pickling base with your hand. Return the set-aside cabbage in the pickling base.
- Continue the process for seven days, at which time your nose will begin to sense a fragrant lactic acid aroma. When this happens, your pickling base is ready for use. If this does not occur after seven days, continue the same process for another three days. Remove the cabbage and dispose of it.
I encourage you to experiment with all varieties of vegetables pickled for various lengths of time. You may find that some small vegetables such as radishes cut in half or larger vegetables cut into much smaller pieces are deliciously pickled after only two hours or so in the base. Because of this, you don’t need to do long-range planning to enjoy these wonderful treats from nature.
Prep Time: 30 minutes plus 7 to 10 days for making and completing the pickling base
Cook Time: Pickling time for vegetables in the completed pickling base is about 2 hours in summer
Yield: 4 to 6 servings, if, for example, you pickle 4 cucumbers, 4 radishes and 1 medium carrot
- Thoroughly rinse the vegetables that you wish to pickle, and wipe them with paper towel. Place the vegetables in a bowl, sprinkle with some sea salt and rub the vegetables with the salt.
- Dig several holes in the pickling base and drop the vegetables into the depressions, noting how many went in so that you don’t miss any when you dig them out. Over-pickled vegetables are too salty to consume. Cover the vegetables completely with the pickling base.
- During the heat of summer, the vegetables pickle in 4-5 hours. You may cut the vegetables into smaller pieces to hasten the pickling process.
Main photo: Nuka-zuke pickled vegetables. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo
Five years ago, I visited Peru and tasted ceviche, the national dish of raw fish cured in citrus juice, for the first time. I am a trained sushi chef and the author of a definitive book on Japanese sushi, but this meal was a revelation. The combination of lime juice and chile pepper with firm-tender cubes of a local white fish was strange, but utterly refreshing.
Ever since that meal in Peru, I have wondered again and again whether ceviche could be related to sashimi, the Japanese dish of sliced raw fish. (Sushi is raw fish combined with rice.) Both preparations are popular menu items today in high-end restaurants around the world, with creative interpretations that extend well beyond Japanese or Peruvian cuisine. Japanese celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa launched his restaurant career with a sushi bar in Peru, where he developed his signature style blending South American and Japanese takes on seafood.
Ceviche and sashimi were born in countries that share a similar geographical blessing. Warm and cold currents blend along the coasts of Japan and Peru, allowing high-quality plankton to flourish, and in turn, nourishing the fish to produce exceptionally tasty seafood.
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At a time when not much ice was available and no refrigeration system existed, early residents of both countries devised these ways to enjoy good quality seafood longer and more safely. According to Claudio Meneses, a Peruvian with a great depth of knowledge on Peruvian gastronomy, ceviche originally was developed before the Spanish conquest, as a way to prevent rapid spoilage of fresh fish. In this original method, fresh or dried salted seafood was cured in tumbo (banana passionfruit) juice or chicha, a fermented beverage made from corn, along with aji chile and sometimes local aromatic herbs. The word “ceviche” is said to be derived from the Quechua word “siwich,” which means fresh fish.
Although people sometimes say that ceviche is “cooked” in the citrus juices, this curing technique does not kill the parasites that are common in even the healthiest of marine and freshwater fish. Therefore, like sashimi, ceviche must be made with absolutely fresh seafood of the highest quality.
Ceviche for lunch
“Peruvian cevicherías, that is, restaurants that specialize in ceviche, only open for lunch because fish used for ceviche traditionally had to be picked up from the fish market the same day it was going to be served,” Meneses said. “While this is not exactly true today, tradition has kept and so far I only know of one cevichería that opens for dinner.”
Japanese sashimi preparation can be traced to nama-su, which appeared around the 14th or 15th century. “Nama” means fresh or raw, and “su” means vinegar. Seafood for nama-su was pickled in vinegar with ginger or wasabi, or in ume plum-infused sake (rice wine) before serving. All of the pickling ingredients had anti-bacterial functions. The Japanese, like the Peruvians, cured fresh seafood to prevent spoilage and extend its life as a food source.
As time passed and world commerce increased, the transformation of sashimi and ceviche was peppered with foreign influences, political changes and technological advancement. The first change in ceviche preparation came when the Spanish brought bitter orange trees to Peru in the 15th century. Bitter orange quickly replaced the local fruit juice as a curing ingredient.
In Japan, commercial production of shoyu, Japanese soy sauce, began and shoyu became widely available by the middle of the Edo period (1600-1868). Shoyu, which is high in sodium, was perfect for curing and preserving fresh tuna and skipjack tuna. Both are naturally dark in color, so the soy sauce does not affect their appearance. Shoyu also changed the way to eat raw fish in Japan. The umami-rich, savor of the shoyu, which masks any fishy taste, improves the overall flavor of raw fish. It therefore became an indispensable condiment to accompany sashimi. After World War II, more dramatic changes occurred in the Japanese sashimi kitchen. The refrigeration system introduced from America, efficient ice-making technology, development of high speed transportation networks and improved methods of fish catching and slaughtering allowed Japanese chefs to serve most seafood for raw consumption as sashimi at any place across the country, including areas far from the water.
From Japan to Peru
And then these developments in Japan began to influence ceviche in Peru, where the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw an influx of Japanese immigrants. By the 1970s, Japanese chefs living and working in Lima introduced modern Japanese sashimi preparation to Peru and these techniques migrated to the Peruvian ceviche kitchen. The Japanese chefs introduced a new way to cut ceviche seafood, in thin slices rather than the traditional cubes. This type of ceviche, known as tiradito, takes less time to cure because the large surface area and the thinness of the slices allow the marinade to penetrate more quickly. This resulted in the development of more subtly and interestingly flavored ceviches.
So although they originated on different continents and evolved in different ways, sashimi and ceviche were created around the same time for similar reasons — to make the most of a bounty of delicious fresh seafood. And over the years, these historical cousins have become even closer relatives as the culinary world has globalized.
This realization encouraged me to try to make my own ceviche dish, which I want to share with you. I happened to find a very good quality weakfish (sometimes called sea trout, though it is not a member of the trout family) locally and sustainably harvested in the northeastern U.S. by Blue Moon Fish, an operation on Long Island, N.Y. You can use any very fresh white fish available in your area. I recommend that you purchase the whole fish, so that you can confirm the freshness of the fish by looking at its eyes, which should be naturally bulging and not collapsed, and stomach, which should not be distended. You can find detailed filleting techniques in my book, “The Sushi Experience.” If you cannot find fresh fish in your area, then professionally frozen fish sold as sushi fish can certainly be used.
- 1½ pounds weakfish or other locally available, high-quality fresh fish
- Sea salt
- 1 garlic clove, chopped fine
- 1 yellow or red fresh cayenne pepper or other fresh chile pepper, chopped fine
- ½ red onion, sliced into fine thin rings, soaked in cold water for 30 minutes, then drained
- 1 lime
- 2 tablespoons coriander leaves
- Scale, clean, bone and skin the fish. Rinse the chopping board frequently during this process to remove any scales and blood attached to the chopping board.
- Fillet the fish, removing both the belly bones and center bones. You will have two back fillets and two belly fillets.
- Slice each fillet as thinly as possible and place the fish slices without overlapping on a large, clean serving platter.
- Sprinkle little sea salt over the fish. Garnish it with the chopped garlic and chile. Squeeze the lime juice over the fish. Decorate the fish with the onion and coriander leaves.
- Serve immediately.
Main photo: Ceviche with weakfish. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo
Today, we live in a world where many things have gone wrong with the diets of many people. These include inhumanely raised meat and poultry laden with antibiotics and hormones, and mass-made products laced with preservatives and artificial coloring and flavoring agents. Since these foods are cheap, convenient and readily available, people may consume too much of them, contributing to ever-increasing problems with obesity in the population. These are complex problems with no quick and easy solution, but there is a path that we can take to guide us toward a better way of preparing and consuming our daily food.
Shojin ryori: The backbone of Japanese food culture
Let us take a journey to search for the spirit of shojin ryori, the venerable Japanese vegetarian cuisine. The ideas behind this vegetarian cuisine were introduced to Japan by the famous monk Dogen, who traveled to China in the 13th century to study Zen Buddhism, then returned and founded several temples in Japan. Only monks at the temple followed the strictly vegetarian shojin ryori diet; the rest of the population depended on a diet of grains, fish, legumes, vegetables and fruit. However, the spirit of shojin ryori deeply penetrated the lives and dining styles of ordinary people and became the backbone of Japanese food culture — why we eat, how we eat and what we eat.
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Dogen prohibited the monks at his temples from slaughtering animals for human consumption, in the belief that killing is an inhumane act that interferes with the training of the monks who meditate in order to attain enlightenment. Shojin means a process of continuous meditation; ryori means cuisine. Zen Buddhist monks meditate at the temple throughout the day — even the time for preparing and consuming meals is an important period of meditation. To the monks, meals are not for enjoyment or satisfying hunger, but for sustaining their health so they can continue to meditate.
At each meal, Zen monks recite five teachings. This is the essence of that recitation:
1. We offer great thanks to nature that has brought us food to this table. We offer great thanks to the people who made our meal possible at this table, especially thanks to the monk-cooks who devoted their labor and time to prepare the dishes and to the farmers who produced this bounty.
2. We reflect to ourselves before consuming a meal, “Do we deserve to receive this meal?”
3. We do not bring human desires, including greed, anger or other emotions, to the table.
4. Our meal is like medicine for us. Our humble, but balanced meal nourishes both our mental and physical health.
5. Mealtime is the extension of meditation time. As we eat we continue to train ourselves in order to become a better person.
Offering thanks to those who brought meals to our tables
When I was brought up — not at all in a monastery — these five teachings were a part of my family’s life, and the lives of everyone we knew. We Japanese had no choice as to what we were served at our table. Our mothers prepared meals using ingredients that were given to us by nature, each in its own season. We were taught to offer thanks to everyone who brought the meals to our table, including the forces of nature, the farmers, the truck drivers, the fishermen and the workers at food stores.
Our mothers utilized every part of the ingredients and instructed us not to waste food. Our foods were not necessarily cheap, but were always the highest quality that the household could afford. And the food was always safe to consume. Mothers repeated these five teachings at each mealtime to make sure that we were properly satisfied and nourished.
Unfortunately, today in Japan highly processed, chemically laden foods are as ubiquitous as in the U.S. But the teachings of the monks and the food practices of my youth remain as valid today as they ever have been.
By introducing and practicing in our lives the spirit of shojin ryori that I have described, we can change our attitude toward why we eat, how we eat and what we eat. Here are a few more valuable concepts to add to our practice to complete and complement the spirit of shojin ryori.
Shojin ryori balances five colors, five flavors and five preparation techniques in order to create meals that nourish all of our five senses as well as our bodies and minds. The five colors are white, green, yellow, black and red. Think of employing as many of the five colors as you can for the vegetables in your meal. Using this idea, developed long before food chemists validated it scientifically, we can balance the nutrients in our meal.
The five flavors are sweet, salty, bitter, acid and spicy. These flavors should, whenever possible, come naturally from ingredients, and not by separately adding excess sugar, salt, acidity or spiciness to the prepared dishes.
The five preparation techniques are raw, simmered, grilled, deep-fried and steamed. The use of these cooking techniques produces different and pleasing textures and flavors in the meal. Deep-frying, which doesn’t have the best reputation these days, is a necessary technique, especially when we are cooking only vegetable dishes. It adds calories and nourishment in the prepared meal. And try to use all parts of the ingredients. They have, after all, given up their lives for the sake of nourishing us. If, for example, you are preparing a root vegetable, use both the leaves and root, including its skin.
A simple dessert with an appealing flavor
Now I want to share with you a delightful, delicious and nourishing dessert recipe, mineoka dofu. Mineoka dofu is derived from one of the most popular and ancient shojin ryori preparations called goma-dofu. Goma-dofu is prepared by cooking kelp stock and ground sesame paste along with kuzu, arrowroot starch. Monks at Zen temples spend more than two hours preparing this very simple dish, using the time to perform additional meditation. This mineoka dofu recipe, which can be prepared in much less than two hours, was created in the 18th century. Though the name has the word dofu, or tofu, in it, the dish does not contain tofu. This recipe uses milk (but not kelp stock), so the flavor will be very appealing to us. The recipe is from my book “The Sushi Experience.”
½ cup brown sugar plus ¼ cup granulated sugar, or ¼ cup light molasses instead of both sugars
2 tablespoons kuzu (arrowroot starch)
2 cups whole milk
¼ cup heavy cream
½ cup white sesame paste (available in Japanese stores, or substitute tahini, available in Middle Eastern stores)
2 cups small strawberries cut into halves
1. Make the molasses syrup first with the sugars and 1¼ cups water. If using light molasses, dilute with a little warm water if necessary.
2. Mix together in a bowl the kuzu, milk, cream and sesame paste and stir with a whisk. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a medium pot. Place the pot over medium heat and cook 2 to 3 minutes. At this point the mixture becomes sticky. Turn the heat to low and cook an additional 20 minutes.
3. Transfer the mixture into a mold and cool. Cover the mold with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Before serving, divide the mineoka dofu from the mold into dessert bowls. Pour the molasses syrup over the mineoka dofu and top with the strawberries.
There is a very good shojin ryori restaurant in New York City called Kajitsu. There you can experience real Zen temple vegetarian cooking. Such restaurants may be found in other large cities. Ask and be sure that they serve traditional shojin ryori, and not simply “vegetarian” dishes. If you call them and they don’t understand when you ask if they serve shojin ryori, try another place.
Main photo: The first course of a shojin ryori meal, including goma-dofu, in Kyoto, Japan. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo
Japanese meals are beautifully balanced and presented, and tend to be light on the stomach. You will never feel that you are stuffed with too much fat, sugar or protein by the end of a traditionally prepared Japanese meal. The balance we strive for not only satisfies hunger, but also entertains and nourishes each of the five senses — taste, smell, texture, color and sound.
Interestingly, non-Japanese cooks seem to think that cooking such a well-balanced meal in a home kitchen is not possible. But it is! In my New York City kitchen, I regularly achieve this goal with American ingredients because, like my fellow Japanese, I have learned to follow the simple “rules” governing Japanese meal creation. These rules, which originated in China, take into account the relationship of the five ancient key elements of the universe: earth, wood, fire, water and metal. I teach this cooking philosophy to my students during a week-long Japanese cooking course, Essentials of Japanese Cuisine, held twice a year at the International Culinary Center in New York City. They are fascinated to learn that they can apply the philosophy and rules of Japanese cuisine in their day-to-day cooking.
It’s elemental for Japanese meals
The Five Elements Philosophy holds that each element must be in proper relation to every other element in order for the universe to maintain a healthy balance and for human beings to maintain their optimal mental and physical health. Each element is tied to a color, taste and cooking technique: Wood is associated with green, sour and simmering; fire with red, bitter and grilling; earth with sweet, orange and raw; metal with white, hot and deep-frying; and water with black, salty and steaming.
When Japanese professional chefs and home cooks plan a meal, we naturally incorporate the Five Elements Philosophy. Both the simplest Japanese home-style meal and the most complex, structured, multi-course formal kaiseki consist of dishes prepared by complementary cooking techniques, flavors and colors. The following is an example of simple home-style dinner: a bowl of steamed rice (water), a bowl of miso soup (water), a grilled fish dish (fire), a sashimi dish (earth) and a simmered vegetable dish (wood) Another dish, such as deep-fried tempura (metal) can be also included in the menu.
Balance and moderation
Each of these dishes is served in modest-sized portion to ensure dining satisfaction. For example, a grilled fish dish, the protein, is typically about 4 ounces per person. At home these prepared dishes are served simultaneously, arrayed in front of the diner. At a formal kaiseki meal, the dishes are served in a prescribed sequence. In preparing the dishes we try to bring in five colors, not only to entertain the diner’s eye, but also to add to the health of the meal. Variously colored vegetables offer different vitamins and nutritional components.
And, finally, the Japanese meal balances the five taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot. Today in America when people talk about balancing flavors, they tend to single out four taste sensations — sweet, sour, hot and salty — and the result often is that the relative strength of these elements is escalated in an unbalanced fashion, over-emphasizing one over the other. Everything tastes too salty, too sweet, too hot and/or too sour.
The dominance of one flavor destroys the ability to detect and enjoy the natural flavor and aroma of each individual ingredient in the dishes — an important attribute of cooking Japanese style. In the Japanese meal, not only do we balance all five flavors, including the bitter flavor, which contains healthy chemicals such as polyphenols, but we also use these flavors in a way to enhance, not mask, the natural flavor of each ingredient in a preparation.
As I show in my new book, “Hiroko’s American Kitchen,” no matter what style cuisine you are preparing, if you balance cooking techniques, balance food colors and balance the five tastes, you can prepare nutritionally balanced, delicious and healthy meals. The ancient philosophy at the foundation of Japanese cuisine has endured for centuries without losing its relevance. Since I no longer live in Japan, I now use readily available fresh American produce, meat and seafood. By cooking these local ingredients in the Japanese way, I have produced many delicious dishes best described as “East-West hybrids” (Please don’t call it “fusion!”) as Nancy Matsumoto writes in her review of my book. I strongly believe that ascribing to the Five Elements Philosophy will introduce you to new and healthful way of cooking that will lead to a more balanced life.
Top photo: Hiroko Shimbo. Credit: Courtesy of www.hirokoskitchen.com