Mention Japanese food and people think of delicate rolls of sushi, hot bowls of sukiyaki, perhaps some sashimi or yakitori. While these seafood and meat-centered dishes may typify the country’s cuisine, Japan also boasts a vibrant culture of vegetarian cooking. These foods and their history are the subject of Elizabeth Andoh’s new cookbook, “Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions.”
With over three decades of experience writing about Japanese gastronomy for publications such as Gourmet Magazine and The New York Times, Andoh offers an ideal perspective for bringing these dishes to the Western world. In her latest work, she introduces a new concept of Japanese cookery: “kansha,” meaning “appreciation.”
The author uses kansha as expression of thanks for the abundance of food nature provides. In the kitchen, it represents a mindset that respects nature by preparing meals with minimal waste and energy consumption. By recognizing the many uses of simple ingredients, Andoh illustrates how applying this practice can create meals that are nutritious, aesthetically pleasing, and delicious.
Embodying the idea of kansha is the recipe for “Daikon-Zukushi.” Here the Japanese white radish takes center stage and is used in its entirety. The leafy greens are dried and sprinkled onto rice; the midsection is divided into sections to be seared, glazed or pickled; and the thin daikon tip is grated for a garnish. The peels can even be incorporated into a spicy stir-fry. In Andoh’s kitchen, nothing goes to waste.
“Kansha” contains about one-hundred recipes organized into eight chapters. These range in difficulty from a simple bowl of white rice with mushrooms to detailed instructions for pickled vegetables that require over a week of daily attention. Many of the entries also explain multiple ways to prepare a dish—the traditional but often time consuming and labor intensive method and a modern update that uses recent innovations to simplify preparation. Although most of the recipes illustrate classic dishes of Japanese vegetarian cuisine, some, like “Matcha Muffins,” depict modern fare influenced by European favorites. The recipes are comprehensive, taking care to detail each step of the cooking process. While most readers will likely appreciate Andoh’s meticulousness, those who are just looking to make a quick meal may find it tedious. People without access to fresh Asian produce and grocery items should be aware that many of the recipes may be impossible without heavy substitutions.
Andoh has taken care to ensure that “Kansha” is a joy to flip through even when you’re not planning dinner. The book is peppered with notes of historic context, interesting bits of trivia, and personal anecdotes. Even the names of the recipes themselves are amusing thanks to the Japanese to English translations. Witness “Pom-Pom Sushi,” “Slithery Somen Noodles,” or, my favorite, “Crispy-Creamy Tofu, Southern Barbarian Style.” Several of the dishes are accompanied by attractive full-color photographs by Leigh Beisch.
Andoh has additionally included a comprehensive “Guide to the Kansha Kitchen,” a catalog of tools and techniques that serves as a valuable aid to those new to Japanese-style cooking. A helpful glossary of commonly used ingredients also aids those prone to confuse their sansho with their shiso.
Illuminating and entertaining, Andoh’s latest appeals to vegan and omnivore alike. For experienced chefs who wish to broaden their knowledge of Japanese cuisine or beginners seeking a guide through uncharted culinary terrain, “Kansha” is easy to recommend.