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A week of cooking from The Enlightened Kitchen

The path to enlightenment is paved with soup. Like this soup:

This is Sesame Flavoured Eggplant Soup, and you can find it in the front of The Enlightened Kitchen, a cookbook whose subtitle is 'fresh vegetable dishes from the temples of Japan'.

The recipes in The Enlightened Kitchen are a type of cooking called shojin ryori - vegan cooking practised by Buddhist temples in Japan. Its author, Mari Fuji, occasionally teaches in London and is well worth checking out if you're nearby (Atsuko's Kitchen is the place she'll be next time she's over).

I bought the Mari Fuij's book after I first went to her class, but haven't often cooked with it. I don't know why: everything looks beautiful, I've been blown away by her food whenever I've tried it, it's fun, it's inventive, and it's Japanese - my favourite food of all time.

Maybe I was put off by the simplicity of the cooking? Everything is pared back, with just a few ingredients. It's very different to the chuck-it-all-in, George's Marvellous Medicine, stick-a-bit-of-Worcestershire-sauce-or-liquid-smoke-in-for-good-measure type cooking I normally do.

The five-ingredient sesame-flavoured eggplant didn't seem to mind though. No-one told it it needed to be gussied up with all the weird crap at the back of my store cupboard.

So I moved on to Turnip Rikyu Soup with much optimism. My optimism was ill-founded; the soup was not a favourite. Turns out I don't like turnips. Also turns out the broth - not much more than konbu with veggies cooked in, salt and sake - was surprisingly good. A voyage of discovery? Yes. But a voyage I'd more happily take with no turnips as fellow passengers!

More discovery came in the form of Spicy Stir Fried Potato. Spicy from the dried chilli, stir fried from the stir-frying, potatoes from being potatoes.

Ignore the chilli though - that's not the main event. The main event is, in fact, a sauce made of sugar, sake, and red miso. I'm always leery of sugar or other sweetness in savoury food, but sometimes it just works like freaking magic. This was indeed one of those times.

And for a follow-up, Mushrooms and Spinach with Yuzu Dressing. Yeah, I picked this one basically as an excuse to use the bottle of yuzu juice I'd acquired for Vegan MoFo. The recipe involves grilling some shiitakes, then marinating them in yuzu. Once they're done sucking up the yuzu glory, they get mixed with some spinach, and more yuzu gets involved. Yuzu's light and full flavour seems to disappear with heating, so salads like this one are where it's at. Note: other half alleges a hatred of mushrooms and all their works. Other half ate all of this, and did not complain.

Here's the spinach and potato dishes side by side, in perfect union:

For my next enlightened trick, it was time to turn to that venerable Japanese and vegan staple, tofu in the form of Tofu and Carrot Croquettes.

It's basically tofu and carrot (you guessed that already? You're a smart cookie) with nuts and breadcrumbs fried in a little oil. The amount of salt was faintly terrifying - I could feel cardiologists and slugs wincing at the amount of NaCl that went into the croquettes - but if you can look past that, it's the sort of gently comforting food that would win over kids (and the young at heart. It did me, anyway).

The veggies on the side were Eggplant with Dengaku Sauce - here's an extreme close-up:

Aubergine in dengaku sauce (yes, that's an aubergine. You think eggs look like that, you need some glasses) is one of my favourite Japanese dishes, so I was relieved this turned out all thick and miso-y and sweet. There's also some New Potatoes with Peanut-Miso Dressing up there. You can guess how good that was.

You know what wasn't good? Carrot and Mushroom Soymilk Soup. You're disappointed? I could have wept. How far wrong should I have been able to go with those things, especially when we're talking shiitakes?

This one was so far off course, I don't think even a GPS, a compass and a boy scout orienteering badge could bring it back to the path of righteousness. It was bland, yet salty. Not nice.

Luckily, my last dish of this experiment carried on the almost-unbroken path of Rather Nice Food: Asaparagus and Carrot with Walnut Dressing. It was simple, it was tasty, and it needed just some fresh veggies and a couple of Japanese seasonings to make it really clean and wonderful.

That's kind of the book's selling point, and it's a winner as a result. Expect more shojin ryori experiments to come.

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  1. This is the sort of cooking I need to get into! I haven't eaten much Japanese food and definitely haven't attempted to make much at home. The simplicity of the ingredients scares me a little as I prefer food to be either spicy or very flavoursome.

    I like the sound of the mushrooms and spinach even though I have no idea what yuzu tastes like. The eggplant and tofu/carrot burgers sound great too!

  2. A lot of beautiful dishes! I especially love the tofu and carrot croquettes and the stir fried potatoes - yum! I love the asparagus and carrots with walnut dressing, it looks like a professional kitchen shot. I wish I liked eggplant, as I bet your creations would make it delicious.

  3. I know just what you mean about being scared by a cookbook that seems too simple. I have a Japanese cookbook like that, and every time I cook from it I'm amazed at how such a simple combination of foods can be so wonderful. Everything — even the turnip soup — looks good. Everything except maybe the carrot and mushroom soymilk soup. That may be an acquired taste.

  4. Yum, this all sounds delicious. I believe I've had something like tha carrot/asparagus with a salty nutty sauce from one of Terry Walters books and I really enjoyed it. Everything looks fantastic but especially the yuzu shiitakes. FA RILL.

  5. Usually I'm fine with simple as long as the ingredients are really good. I'm not a fan of turnips either but everything else looks great! :-)

  6. You've hit the nail on the head with the simple thing! I've 2 Japanese cookbooks and I've never cooked from either, probably for that reason as I'm quite happy to faff about for half a morning making sushi! This post is very inspiring though and I know I would definitely love the aubergine dishes.

  7. I'm definitely guilty of overlooking simple recipes, which is a shame since there are a lot of really basic recipes that are mindblowingly good. Japanese food is something I'm not really familiar with, the extent of my experimentation is going out of sushi. I need to get off my arse and start trying new things.

  8. Yummy! Your dish reminds me of home!


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