A vegan approach to Japanese cooking

in Food and Drink · 27-03-2020 01:00:00 · 0 Comments

Over a bowl of ramen, Ella Walker chats to chef Tim Anderson about taking a vegan approach to Japanese cooking.

You'd think ramen wouldn't work without a golden yolked egg, snugly suspended in the rich Japanese broth atop a tangle of noodles.

But slurping up the 'Ramen for Faye Wong' - chef Tim Anderson's edible ode to the vegetarian Chinese actress - it seems you can cope. Quite easily.

There are firm noodles, saffron-style strands of dried chilli, daikon, a bunch of otherworldly enoki mushrooms and a smattering of spring onions in a mushroom dashi that's heady and deep. The egg you forget about. A slab of belly pork you realise could totally knock the balance.

It's a swift lesson in the possibilities Japanese food offers for non-carnivores, which is the topic of Anderson's new cookbook, Vegan Japaneasy.

A follow-up to the Wisconsin-born, London-based 35-year-old's previous recipe collection, Japaneasy, it isn't "strictly for vegans" but does wedge open the door on a cuisine often considered closed to those who steer clear of animal products.

"I'm not a vegan and I'm not trying to make anybody be vegan," notes Anderson, who runs Japanese soul food restaurant Nanban. Meaning if you want to add a gooey ramen egg, no one will stop you, but the idea is to open up Japanese food to all taste buds.

"It was an interesting challenge, but it wasn't a big challenge," he says when pressed on how tricky it was to take traditional Japanese recipes and make them satisfyingly vegan.

What can be hard is actually visiting Japan itself if you're vegan. "Fish is in a lot of things," notes Anderson, plus, "there's funny cultural differences between here and there in terms of what's actually considered meat." You might be presented with a bowl of fish-based dashi, even if you said you're vegetarian. Also, "the word 'meat' is usually thought of as red meat, so chicken could turn up in a vegetarian order."

Anderson says it can be "tough" (unless you're staying in Japanese Buddhist temples, where cooking is often vegan), but home cooked Japanese food - the kind of fare in Vegan Japaneasy - is a completely different, much more accessible beast. And that's arguably down to Japanese seasonings, "which are so good".

"I realised my own home cooking was skewing more vegetarian, and because I was using delicious Japanese seasonings, you don't miss the meat," says Anderson. Soy sauce, miso, rice vinegar, mirin, sake - "there are just so many great ingredients in Japanese cooking that can be meaty and savoury and satisfying, but without actually containing meat."

It's also about not taking Japanese food too seriously. "People still think Japanese food has to be perfect and beautiful and made by very skilled craftspeople and artisans and highly trained chefs" - which is only true if you're an actual Japanese chef, says Anderson, but "home cooking doesn't have to be perfect."

Take gyoza. They may seem like delicate, fiddly dumplings you're bound to not pinch together properly, but although they take a little practice, but Anderson promises "it's easier than origami, and you get into a zone with them. Once you start, you can almost do it without looking; it's a muscle memory thing."

He recommends roping family and friends into a gyoza-making session. "This is how I remember gyoza from Japan; you get together with a bunch of people and everybody would sit around like old ladies, making gyoza," Anderson remembers, a little wistful. "And at the end of it, you have hundreds of gyoza. It's a fun thing, and then you get to eat gyoza at the end - which is never not great.

"Your gyoza may not be perfectly folded, but they still will be delicious and that's all that matters," he adds with a laugh. "Just don't be intimidated."

'Ramen for Faye Wong'


(Serves 4)

1 pack (300-350g) firm silken tofu, cut into 8 rectangles

2tspb sake

100g cornflour

1tspb black sesame seeds

100ml plus 2tspb vegetable oil

1 sheet of nori, or 1tspb aonori flakes

Big pinch of salt

1.2 litres mushroom dashi (see below)

90ml soy sauce

4tspb mirin

About 1/2 daikon/mooli, peeled and cut into rounds about 2.5cm thick

80-100g enoki or shimeji mushrooms, roots removed and broken into small clusters

1/4 Chinese cabbage, cut into 2.5cm strips

4 portions of uncooked ramen noodles

4 shiitake mushrooms (this is a good use for the rehydrated ones from making dashi), destemmed and thinly sliced

2 spring onions, finely sliced

1/2 mild red chilli, deseeded and very thinly grated (shredded)

A few strips of lemon or yuzu zest

For the mushroom dashi:

(Makes about 350ml, plus the rehydrated mushrooms)

10g kombu (a piece about 10cm square)

15g dried shiitake mushrooms, or 10g dried shiitake plus 5g dried porcini mushrooms

500ml cold water


1. To make the mushroom dashi: Place the kombu and dried mushrooms in a saucepan with the water and set over a low heat. Slowly bring the water to a very low simmer - you should just see a few little bubbles breaking the surface. Remove from the heat, then leave to infuse for at least 1 hour - it will take a while for the shiitake to fully hydrate and release their flavour into the dashi. Remove the mushrooms and squeeze them out like a sponge, then pass through a sieve (fine-mesh strainer) and store in the refrigerator for up to one week. The mushrooms will keep in the refrigerator for about four days.

2. Put the tofu into a small bowl and pour the sake over the tofu. Mix together the cornflour and sesame seeds, then carefully dredge the tofu in the cornflour mixture, ensuring it is evenly coated. Heat the two tablespoons of oil in a non-stick frying pan (skillet) over a medium-high heat and cook for a few minutes on each side, until the tofu is golden brown and crisp. Drain on paper towels and set aside.

3. Puree the 100ml oil, nori and salt together in a food processor until the seaweed is completely pulverised. Leave the oil to settle while you prepare the rest of the dish.

3. Bring the dashi, soy sauce and mirin to the boil in a saucepan, then add the daikon rounds. Reduce the heat to a high simmer, place a lid on the pan and cook until the daikon are tender, about 10 minutes. Remove the daikon with a slotted spoon and reserve.

4. If you're using shimeji mushrooms, boil them in the dashi for a couple of minutes, then remove and reserve (the enoki don't need cooking). Keep the dashi at a low simmer with a lid on the pan.

5. Bring a large pan of water to the boil and blanch the cabbage for one minute, then remove with a slotted spoon and reserve. Let the water come back to the boil and cook the ramen until al dente, according to the packet instructions. Drain very well.

6. Divide the ramen among four deep bowls, pour over the mushroom dashi and toss the noodles with chopsticks to ensure they aren't stuck together. Top with the cabbage, daikon, mushrooms, tofu, spring onions, chilli shreds and lemon or yuzu zest.

7. Finally, add a generous spoonful or two of the nori oil to the surface of the broth. Enjoy immediately, while watching Chungking Express, my favourite Faye Wong film.

Jackfruit karaage


(Serves 2)

1 x 400g tin young green jackfruit

Drained cornflour or seasoned flour (see below), for dredging

At least 1 litre oil, for deep-frying

Salt and freshly ground black pepper (optional)

For the marinade:

4tspb sake

2tspb mirin

2tspb soy sauce

1tspb vinegar

juice of 1 lime

1tspb sesame oil

1tspb sriracha or similar hot chilli sauce

10garlic cloves, peeled

2 shallots or 1 banana shallot, roughly chopped

15g fresh root ginger (peeled weight), thinly sliced

1/2tsp salt

1/4tsp black pepper

1/4tsp dashi powder

For the seasoned flour (optional):

200g cornflour

1tspb sesame seeds

1tsp black pepper

1tsp salt

1/4tsp chilli powder

1/4tsp ground ginger


1. For the marinade, whizz all the ingredients together in a food processor until no big chunks remain (it doesn't have to be perfectly smooth). If there are any really big chunks of jackfruit, cut them a bit smaller - they shouldn't be bite-size, but probably not much bigger than two-bite size. Coat the jackfruit in the marinade and leave in the refrigerator for at least two hours, and up to three days. For the seasoned flour (if using), stir together all the ingredients until the seasonings are well distributed.

2. To cook, pour the oil into a very deep, wide saucepan, to come no higher than halfway up the sides and heat to 180°C (350°F).

3. Remove the jackfruit from the marinade, letting any excess drip off, and dredge in the cornflour or seasoned flour, ensuring that all the nooks and crannies are well coated - this will help maximise crunch and help keep the sugars in the marinade from burning.

4. Carefully lower the jackfruit into the oil in small batches, checking the temperature periodically to ensure it is still around 180°C (350°F), and fry for about five minutes, until the crust is golden brown. Remove the jackfruit with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towels; if you're not using the seasoned flour, finish with a few pinches of salt and pepper. Serve with Vegan Japanese Mayo, Ponzu, or just good old soy sauce and perhaps a wedge of lemon.

Teriyaki-roasted carrots


(Serves 4)

500-600g carrots (I like chantenay carrots for this because I am lazy and they require no prep, but any carrots will do)

2tbsp oil, plus a little extra for greasing

8tbsp Sweet Soy Sauce

Zest of 1/2 orange or lemon


1. If you're using little carrots like chantenay, preheat the oven to 220oC (430°F/Gas 9). If you're using big carrots, preheat it to 200oC (400°F/Gas 7). The sweet soy sauce has a tendency to stick to roasting pans, so if you haven't got a non-stick one, it's a good idea to line the pan with baking parchment. Toss the carrots in the oil, ensuring they are evenly coated, then use a little more to rub onto the roasting pan or parchment. Spread the carrots out in the pan and roast for 20 minutes (if they're small) or 30 (if they're big). Check to see if they're tender throughout with a fork or chopstick - if they're still too hard, keep roasting them in five-minute increments until they're soft.

2. Pour over six tablespoons of the sweet soy and add the citrus zest, and toss so that all the carrots are evenly coated. Place back in the oven for five to 10 minutes, checking them often to ensure they aren't burning. The carrots are done when the sauce has reduced to a very thick, dark, sticky glaze that clings to the carrots.

5. Remove from the oven, add the remaining two tablespoons of sweet soy sauce, and toss. Leave to cool slightly before serving.

Vegan Japaneasy by Tim Anderson, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Hardie Grant.


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