Welcome back to part 3 of this Japanese vegetarian food series! We’re more than half way there. In part 1, I go over some of the philosophies and ideas behind shojin ryori (Japanese Buddhist monk food). Then in part 2 I go into the ingredients, talking about what you’ll need to make shojin ryori food. In part 3, we’re going to go into the actual making bits, though we’re going to stick with the foundation. Being vegetarian, shojin ryori has some pretty delicate tastes, meaning these foundations are going to be extremely important if you want to make good tasting shojin ryori food.
So what are the foundations? In my mind, they are the stocks, the rice, and the sauces. The sauces are extremely easy and don’t take much effort. The rice, while just rice, is very important to get right. Rice really pulls all the dishes together and serves as a sort of “reset” between bites. Then finally there’s the stocks, which are probably in 30% of the shojin ryori recipes out there. This means that each meal will probably consist of some kind of stock. Because stocks are the hardest (in my opinion), we’re going to start with that and work our way down.
When it comes down to it, dashi = umami. Umami was discovered by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda who figured out that umami (the fifth basic taste, apparently) comes from the amino acid glutamate. Now, here we’re going to learn about the traditional Japanese dashi stock, which comes from konbu, though it’s good to know that the term “dashi” refers to all kinds of Japanese stocks, the most common of which uses fish flakes as well as konbu for the flavor. Dashi is pretty much the main reason why it’s hard to be vegetarian in Japan. Everything is full of dashi that has been made with fish (it’s delicious, by the way).
Here we’re going to learn about vegetarian shojin ryori dashi, though. When making dashi, your goal is to add this umami taste to your food. Now, because umami comes from glutamates, one thing we can do is look at how many glutamates different ingredients have.
Shoyu (Soy Sauce): 782
*These numbers are milligrams of glutamates per 100g
Another thing you can get umami from is guanylate, which can be found in various dried vegetables. By far, the winner in this realm is shitake mushrooms, which have 150 mg of guanylate per 100g. This will come up again in the stocks section so take note.
But, notice something out of place in the list above? That’s right, tomatoes have quite a bit of umami, at least compared to most non-konbu ingredients. Ever wonder why your pizzas and spaghetti sauces tasted so good? That’s right, umami. Try to see if you can detect the mystery flavor the next time you eat something with lots of tomatoes.
Konbu stock can be made from dried konbu. Usually you can find this in a regular grocery store, though it really depends. One thing to make certain of is that you have dried konbu. Not just any seaweed will do. For example, wakame has almost no umami magic in it (see the umami-magic list above).
There are a ton of konbu stock recipes out there and I’ve tried them all. This is the best one, and I’ll tell you why afterwards:
- 6×6 inches worth of dried konbu. Wipe it with a damp paper towel.
- 1 quart of cold / room temperature water
Nice and simple, right? You’d think that it would be hard to mess up, but you would be wrong. Follow closely now. First, fill up a glass container (glass is preferred just because vegetable broths soak up outside flavors very easily) with 1 quart of water. Then, put your dried konbu in it. Cover this container with something and then wait for 5-6 hours. When that amount of time has passed, put the konbu into a sealed container. You’ll probably end up using it in something or another. If it starts growing a white filmy thing, throw it away. This is not good.
So how is it possible to mess up something like this? Well, there are many recipes that do it the wrong way. Here’s how they screw up (don’t do these things).
- They have you warm up the water to speed up the process. If you have to do this in a pinch, it will make your dashi more quickly, but it will also taste worse. This is because the enzymes that break down the umami and allow the flavors to melt together work best at lower temperatures. When you heat things up they break apart faster for a while, but then they will become inactive. Just make sure you start your dashi earlier.
- They don’t have you put in enough dried konbu. The richer you want your dashi, the more konbu you should add. I wrote 6×6 above but I usually put a bit more than that. Probably around 8×8 inches worth of dried konbu?
- They don’t have you cover the container, which means other smells and tastes can sneak their way in. You want your dashi to be as pure as possible for a better taste.
The main things here are to make sure you start early so you don’t have to rush and thus compromise the taste of everything your dashi goes in. If you follow these simple rules your dashi will be splendid!
Shitake stock doesn’t get used nearly as much as konbu stock, but it’s an important one to add. It’s about as easy as konbu stock, too.
- ~8 dried shitake mushrooms
- 2-3 cups warm water
- 2-3 cups room temperature water
There are a lot of different opinions on this, but you have to remember: shojin ryori is full of deliciate flavors. So, we’re going to make a delicate stock. First, put your dried mushrooms in the warm water. This is the get all the bitterness and crap out of your shitake mushrooms. After 15 minutes, drain the water and refill with room temperature water. This is going to be your stock. When the mushrooms are nice and tender (you like touching those mushrooms, don’t you pervert?) you can remove the mushrooms for use in some other recipe and then keep the shitake mushroom stock for whatever you want.
Konbu + Shitake Mushroom Stock
Lastly, here’s a little hint. For umami explosion, you can make stocks that contain both konbu and shitake. That means you’re getting tons of glutamates and guanylates. That’s double the umami right there for you. If you do this you can expect a richer broth. I use this in some soups and stews to add a little extra flavor when I’m feeling feisty.
Rice is like The Dude’s rug, it really ties the dishes together. When eating Japanese food, you tend to have many different things to eat from. Each dish will have a different texture or taste, allowing you to have the most satisfaction possible while eating your meal. Instead of just eating all your rice at once, for example, you’d come back to it every once in a while to sort of reset your mouth before moving on to the other taste. Suffice to say, it’s important.
The difference between good rice and bad rice is pretty big, at least when you’ve had good rice before. With good rice, it’s almost as if you can taste and feel each individual grain in your mouth. With bad rice it’s all mushy and doesn’t have a distinct flavor. Buy good rice and you’ll thank yourself later (though your bank account may not). Look for rice that’s been nicely polished, too, it helps with the taste.
Oh, and in case it goes without saying, get Japanese style short-grain rice.
Preparing And Cooking Your Rice
Although your rice bag will probably give you a better method for making the particular rice you’ve bought, let’s go over some basic things here. For this particular “recipe” I’m just going to go with one cup of rice. Double or triple it as needed. Also, I’m going to assume you don’t have a rice cooker. Rice cookers are like magic and make delicious rice. This is the one I have, and it makes perfect rice (plays music, too).
- Put the rice in a separate bowl. Rinse it out, drain, rinse it out, drain, rinse it out, drain. Do this around 3-4 times until the water isn’t so cloudy. If you buy highly polished rice one rinse or even no rinses will do just fine.
- Put your drained rice in the pot you’ll be cooking in. Let it sit for 30-60 minutes.
- Add 1 cup (plus a tad extra, I’d say a few tablespoons) of water to the pot as well. Cover it and bring to a boil, then turn it immediately to low heat. Let it cook for 10ish minutes.
- Turn off the heat and let it stand (keep the lid on, this is important!) for another 15 minutes.
- Open the lid and hope that you did it right. If you didn’t, go buy a rice cooker. Did I mention rice cookers are awesome?
That’s all there is to it. Rice is best served fresh. Second and third day rice isn’t all that great, though it makes for good chazuke (rice porridge). You may have to make adjustments to the timings above depending on your stove, though hopefully that does the trick for you. It worked okay for me, though I’m definitely just going to stick with the ol’ rice cooker.
Although sauces are kind of not used in traditional shojin ryori, we’re going to include them here because hey, you’re probably not a Buddhist monk and neither am I. That being said, even if you do want to go 100% shojin ryori style, some of these are used in various dishes and not as a side dish (which is what shojin ryori tends to have problems with) so they’re still important.
In part 2, when I went over shojin ryori ingredients, I made certain sauces (like ponzu) optional. Why? Because you ought to be making your own sauces. It’s so much better this way. Invest in some good shoyu, rice vinegar, miso, and mirin. If you do this, you’ll be able to make everything, and it will be amazing.
1 Part Rice Vinegar, 1 Part Shoyu
You’ve probably had this sauce before. Goes really well with gyoza and many other things. It’s also really easy to make! Just some vinegar and some shoyu in even amounts.
1 Part Rice Vinegar, 1 Part Shoyu, 1 Part Mirin (or sugar)
Sanbaizu goes nicely with salads and is used to make other kinds of dressings. If you make it with sugar, warm everything up in a pan and let the sugar dissolve.
1 Part Lemon, 1 Part Shoyu, 1 Part Mirin
Ponzu’s the best. I probably use it on too many different things. It’s great for dipping meats into (though we won’t talk about that here, ahem), though you can also dip various things from hot pots, shabu shabu, and so on into this delicious sauce. Trust me, making it fresh like this is totally worth it, too.
1 Part Rice Vinegar, 1/3 Part Salt, 1.5 Part Sugar
The most complicated of the sauces! Put everything in a pot and let it simmer until the sugar is dissolved (don’t forget to mix!). Then, let it cool. Amazu can be used for marinating vegetables as well as for salad dressings.
And Now You’re Ready To Cook!
Next week we’re going to take a lot of these staples and apply them to some actual shojin ryori cooking! There are hundreds of recipes out there, though hopefully we will be able to put together something nice and simple to get you started. The goal will be to give you a better idea of the ingredients and staples that go into all of this, as well as provide for you a stepping stone that allows you to jump up to the “next level” so to speak. Shojin ryori is very difficult to get right, to say the least, so it’s good to take things slowly.
So, get prepared to put everything from the these first three weeks together! Only one more week until this whole series is complete and you’re sitting on your laurels full of the best vegetarian food you’ve ever made in your entire life.
Header Photo: emrank