Elizabeth Andoh: Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions

After spending half a year living on the east coast of China, my feelings towards meat have changed. Although I haven’t become a full-fledged vegetarian, I did stop thinking of meat as the centerpiece of a meal, or even a necessary part of all meals. Rather, I began to think of it as most Asian peoples, from India to Japan, do: an ingredient to be used sparingly, a seasoning to a meal of mostly vegetables and grains. As Michael Pollan said, “eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.

To put it another way, if you have been thinking about reducing your meat consumption, there are options out there. Entire cultures with tantalizing culinary traditions based around lower meat consumption. A good Indian buffet does not punish one for going vegetarian. In fact, you’ll likely find the vegetarian dishes are the best ones.

Elizabeth Andoh’s new cookbook, Kansha, aims to serve lovers of Japanese cuisine, specifically, who are looking to work some animal-free meals into their diets, offering both vegetarian and straight vegan fare. This one was a challenge for me, and the difficulties didn’t begin with the kitchen.

Having never done too much Asian cooking before (although I own a rice cooker and got a pretty good hot-and-sour soup recipe from a friend of mine), I had to hit Chinatown (no specialized Japanese grocers in my area) to supplement my pantry. Andoh smartly included a description of the less common items, with photos, Japanese names, aliases, and descriptions. She included shopping tips, like what kind of store was likely to carry a less obvious item, different ways it might be found (frozen or dried; powdered or whole), and even what section of the store it would be in. Also, whenever possible, her recipes themselves included alternate or optional ingredients, which helped a lot when I couldn’t find something.

Even so, it was a challenge. There’s no escaping it: buying a batch of wakame (dried brown algae) or kanten (a gelatinous seaweed derivative) amongst an entire aisle of very similar looking dried goods is never going to be easy the first time. Although I’m no biologist, I’m amazed that I was even able to confuse separate taxonomic kingdoms in the Chinese grocery. Fungi, plantae, protista . . . whatever. If you’re a complete novice, like me, a helpful store employee will come in very handy. Another tip, use the Japanese name and Google to find the Chinese name of certain items, at least if you will be shopping at a Chinese grocer. The non-animal nature of this cookbook does tend to result in more esoteric ingredients in most of the recipes. Try making sushi without fish, for example.

I selected three recipes from the book to make before writing this review. I know this is just a small sampling from a very complete cookbook, but it turned out I was already making a weekend of it. The dishes I made (with the aid of a cooking partner) were eggplant sushi rolls, nattō spring rolls, and jellied grapefruit wedges.

The sushi rolls required Japanese eggplant, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure if I actually got eggplant or if I ended up with something else. But whatever it was, it turned out wonderfully. The teriyaki-based sauce was delicious, and it would probably be just fine on its own. As a sushi filling, it competes with the finest Japanese-prepared fish. But of course, that was only part of the equation, and I discovered that my makeshift sushi equipment and amateur touch failed to make the sort of tight rolls I get from one of my favourite neighbourhood restaurants. I hate to quit after only one go at it, but I’m leaning towards the conclusion that sushi-making is best left to the professionals, at least unless you’re willing to invest in a real-life class and some basic equipment.

The nattō spring rolls were quite interesting. Nattō are sticky, fermented soy beans, though the recipe also called for wakamé and scallions. This is perhaps a bit surprising, because you would think a simple vegetable-based filling would do just fine for spring rolls, yet the rather exotic filling called for nothing beyond those three ingredients (no bean sprouts, no carrots, no cabbage). Though I did a poor job of wrapping, the cooking process resulted in something that actually looked like it was supposed to, unlike my faux sushi. As for taste, it was a split decision. It didn’t quite work for me, but my cooking partner was a big fan. Call it one thumbs up?

The jellied grapefruit wedges were actually the easiest. The recipe essentially only required scooping out the innards of a grapefruit, and combining the juice with hot water and the gelatinous kanten. Possibly the prettiest presentation, the jellied grapefruit (poured back into the grapefruit halves to set) was a pretty and relatively painless dessert recipe. It continued to taste grapefruity, with a gelatinous, yet light texture. A very nice and visually impressive dessert choice for me to keep up my sleeve the next time I want to show off. I’m already thinking how easy it would be to adapt the recipe to other fruits.

There’s a lot more in here that I would have loved to try, if only I could be spared the difficulty in making it. For example, there’s a whole section on rice-based dishes, which had me drooling. But one thing I’m learning about myself is that when it comes to cooking, I need to keep things simple. Of course that’s just me.

What we have here is a solid collection of recipes, each of them detailed and unambiguous, and potentially great, under a somewhat skilled hand. Certainly if you are vegan or planning to be, this is a great resource. But if you are looking to dive into a new style of cooking, be prepared to make an initial time investment until you get the hang of things.

(Ten Speed Press, 2010)

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