Shojin ryori 精進料理 class with Chagohan Tokyo
My journey into exploring / spreading shojin ryori included this fantastic hands-on cooking class in the heart of Asakusa / Kappabashi yesterday with Chagohan Tokyo's Shojin Ryori Buddhist Cuisine class. Several years ago, I purchased the excellent shojin ryori cookbook お寺ご飯 (also translated into French) by Reverend Kakuho Aoe 青江 覚峰, head priest at Ryokusenji 緑泉寺 in Asakusa. Aoe-san developed the menu for owner and culinary instructor Masa Hirano of Chagohan Tokyo, and students are led on a culinary journey that also embraces the Zen principles of mindfulness and 三心 (sanshin, or "three minds").
The two-hour hands-on menu includes a mock egg pressed sushi, tempura veggies on bamboo skewers, seared vegetable steaks with miso dengaku, and as a nod to the changing of seasons, daigaku imo 大学芋, or candied sweet potato with black sesame. True to the tenets of Buddhism and shojin ryori, everything used is vegan.
Chagohan owners Masa Hirano and his lovely wife Junko were my charming hosts; the welcoming Chagohan classroom space is filled with handicrafts from around Japan (kokeshi, colorful wooden horses 三春駒 and 八幡馬 from Fukushima / Hachinohe, gorgeous Kutani ceramics) as well as photography and paintings for sale.
Masa was kind enough to schedule a private class early on a Saturday morning (the shojin ryori class is normally offered on Wednesdays and Fridays at 1600) to accomodate my schedule, which was changed at the last minute.
We began by making kombu dashi, the "mother stock" of Japanese cuisine (normally dashi is made using shaved smoked bonito, katsuobushi, but the version served in temples around Japan sources its umami from kelp, shiitake, or a combination of the two). For today's kombu dashi, we used Hidaka kombu (日高昆布). Hokkaido produces all four types of kelp used in Japanese cuisine, which are hidaka, rishiri, raosu, and ma-kombu; the choice of kelp is regional, with Western Japan tending to use rishiri for shojin stocks and Hidaka kombu in Eastern Japan. After snipping and simmering the kombu (which can also be steeped overnight instead), we proceeded to make the scrambled "egg" topping.
After draining the water from a block of momen dofu, we pressed it through a strainer to obtain fine crumbles, which were then added to a skillet with gardenia pods (くちなし) soaked in water (the vibrant yellow hue is reminiscent of turmeric and is used to color pickles such as Takuan), mirin, and usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce; the color is lighter but it has a higher salt content). The tofu and seasonings were scrambled over medium-high heat until the moisture had evaporated and the crumbles had taken on a lovely golden color. These were then set aside while we assembled the pressed sushi.
Using a blend of nine parts white rice (short-grain koshihikari or similar) to one part black rice gives the rice a festive purple hue reminiscent of celebration dish sekihan. We layered the rice into a wooden oshizushi mold (which had previously been soaked in water), laid three steamed strips of asparagus on top, then covered and pressed with the remainder of the rice. Once cut, the mock egg is added on top then the whole is unmolded and topped with decorative herbs of choice.
The daigaku imo ("University potatoes") are a longtime favorite of children and college students alike. However, I find all too often that the prepared version sold in department and grocery stores is MUCH too sweet for my tastes, so I was happy to reduce the sugar a bit for this recipe and it was still perfectly sweet without being cloying. A base of sugar, sesame oil, and dark soy sauce is added to the pan at the same time as cubed and drained sweet potatoes and everything is fried in low heat until the sauce caramelizes and the potatoes become crispy, golden and tender.
Next, we tackled the seared seasonal vegetable steaks with dengaku sauce. Today's choice of vegetables were shishito, green bell pepper, daikon, renkon, and carrot, which were pan-fried in a small amount of oil. The dengaku sauce was a combination of awase miso, sugar, and mirin cooked down into a thick paste.
The final dish was tempura veggie skewers; normally egg is used, but as shojin abstains from animal products, we used a blend of water and potato starch instead and fresh panko. Our veggies of the day included bell pepper, shiitake, and okra. Once the oil was at the right temperature (160-180 C), the entire skewers were placed into the oil for 3-5 minutes until lightly golden. Drain on paper towels and then plate with tempura paper.
The final plating (Masa was kind enough to use antique Kutaniware and other gorgeous unique dishes!) was stunning and everything was incredibly fresh and delicious; this is a menu that I will look forward to making often and is easily adaptable to the seasons! (the meal was accompanied by a lovely smooth sake from Niigata).
Chagohan Tokyo (https://www.chagohan.tokyo) offers a wide range of cooking classes (including vegetarian and vegan options), tea ceremony and sake tasting, and also assistance with booking kimono dressing and rickshaw rides; please do give them a visit on your next trip to Tokyo!