When people think about Japanese soups, miso soup is about the only one that comes to mind for most. But with harsh winters and rampant poverty only a few generations ago, there’s a rich culinary history of soups and stews in Japan.
For vegans that are dismayed to find out that many Japanese soups contain fish based dashi, kenchinjiru should be a welcome addition to your kitchen repertoire. Even if the “v” word leaves a bad taste in your mouth, this humble earthy stew, packed with gut filling protein and fiber might be a welcome change to the grilled meat you’ve been eating all summer.
Kenchinjiru was originally a type of shojin ryori consumed by buddhist monks adhering to a vegan diet. The dashi is traditionally made without the use of fish, relying on mushrooms, vegetables, and kombu (kelp) for the flavor. Depending on what part of Japan you’re in, it’s seasoned with either miso or soy sauce, but personally I like using soy sauce due to its clean savory flavor. If you want a hardier stew, miso makes for a delicious addition that adds some richness and body.
Cooked with firm crumbled tofu until the vegetables have released some of their sweetness and all the flavors have had a chance to meld, it’s a soul soothing stew that leaves you feeling like you’ve done something good for your body without leaving you hungry.
As for the vegetables, it traditionally includes carrots, burdock (gobo), daikon, and edamame, but any vegetable that’s going to contribute texture, flavor, or umami makes for a good addition. You might be thinking that onions would make a tasty addition and I would tend to agree, but before you go and hack up a bulb, you should know that devout buddhists believe that members of the allium family incite anger and sexual mischief.
Since that would disturb the peacefulness of the mind that buddhists seek to attain, onions are one of the forbidden foods. Personally, I can’t say that eating onions has ever left me feeling randy, but I can say with some certainly that onion breath would put a damper on your chances for finding a parter to engage in lustful acts with!
- Lightly rinse the dried shiitake mushrooms and put them in a bowl with 2 1/2 cups of boiling water. Let them soak for 30 minutes. Save the soaking liquid, squeezing out the excess water from the shiitakes and chop them up for inclusion with your other vegetables.
- Roughly chop your vegetables into sizes that will take just about the same amount of time to cook. For instance carrots are harder than turnips so I cut them smaller. You want a mix of vegetables that have flavor otherwise your soup will be watery. I used a combination of carrots, baby turnips, burdock, edamame, and fresh shiitake mushrooms.
- Add the oil to a pot and heat over high heat. Add the vegetables along with the brown sugar and stir-fry the vegetables until very fragrant (5-10 minutes).
- Deglaze the pot with the sake, allowing the alcohol to burn off, then pour the reserved shiitake soaking liquid into the pot, but don't pour in the sediment at the bottom of the bowl in as it will probably contain sand.
- Add the tofu, kombu, soy sauce and salt to the pot and turn down the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook the kenchinjiru until the vegetables are tender and the soup is flavorful (about 20-30 minutes). Adjust salt to taste, garnish with mitsuba and serve.