Miso soup is usually the first thing to come to mind when you’re thinking of Japanese soups, but the harsh winters in Japan created a culinary culture brimming with delicious soups and stews. Kenchinjiru (けんちん汁) is a hearty plant-based soup that’s loaded with vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu.
There are a couple of creation myths behind this dish, but the most common one is that Kenchinjiru was a type of Shōjin Ryōri created by monks at the Zen Buddhist temple Kenchō-ji (建長寺). The name Kenchō-ji-jiru (literally Kenchō temple soup) is thought to have been corrupted over the years, becoming Kenchinjiru.
Shōjin Ryōri(精進料理) is a plant-based sub-genre of Japanese cuisine developed by Buddhist monks. Unlike the traditional Japanese diet, which includes a lot of fish, the Buddhist diet is plant-based. It also avoids the use of ingredients that are said to stir emotion, such as chili peppers, onions, and garlic. Kenchinjiru is probably the most famous example of Shōjin Ryōri thanks to its widespread adoption as a healthy, filling soup.
Dashi simply means “soup stock” in Japanese, so it can refer to both plant-based and non-plant-based stocks. That being said, the most common stock in Japan is made with fish, so if you’re vegan, it’s important to check and see if the dashi being used is plant-based on not. The broth for this Kenchinjiru uses a shiitake mushroom and konbu (kelp) based stock, so it’s vegan-friendly. This easy stock can be used for other Japanese classics like Miso Soup, Agedashi Tofu, and Udon.
There’s no hard and fast list of vegetables that get added to Kenchinjiru, but it traditionally includes carrots, burdock (gobo), daikon, and taro. I also like to add edamame, which not only adds a pop of color; it boosts protein content and umami of the soup as well. That being said, it’s a very flexible dish, and you can add 400-500 grams (about a pound) of almost any combination of vegetables you like. Some ideas include butternut squash, potatoes, sweet potatoes, kabocha, turnips, or even Brussels sprouts. The one thing you should take into consideration is how long the vegetables will take to cook. Then you can either cut them accordingly (slower cooking smaller, faster cooking larger) or add them at different times, so that all the vegetables are tender around the same time. If you are using vegetables that tend to oxidize like burdock, be sure to soak them in acidified water (water with lemon or vinegar in it) to keep them from discoloring.
You might be thinking that onions would make a tasty addition to this soup, and I would tend to agree. One thing you should know is that devout Buddhists believe that members of the allium family incite anger and sexual mischief. Since that would disturb the mental clarity that Buddhists seek to attain, onions, scallions, and garlic are forbidden in a strict Buddhist diet. Personally, I can’t say that eating onions has ever left me feeling randy, but I can say with some certainty that onion breath would put a damper on your chances for finding a parter to engage in lustful acts with!
Once you have the process down, this is one of those dishes where you don’t need a recipe. In broad strokes, the method includes making the stock, sauteing the aromatic vegetables, seasoning and simmering the soup, and finishing it off with tofu and garnishes.
For the stock, I make my plant-based dashi with dried shiitake mushrooms and konbu, but you can use a different dried mushroom and kelp if you like. Technically, it’s better to cold brew the stock using cold water and an overnight soak in the fridge. This will give you the cleanest taste, but most of us don’t have time for that. You can cheat by steeping the ingredients in boiling water, which cuts the soaking time down to about 30 minutes (less if your mushrooms are small).
While the stock is steeping, I usually use the time to chop and prep the rest of the vegetables. Then, I sautee the aromatic vegetables in a bit of oil to bring out their sweetness and aroma. I also usually add a bit of brown sugar at this stage, which helps with caramelization.
Then the stock goes in, and the Kenchinjiru gets seasoned with soy sauce and salt. I usually use both as I don’t want the taste of the soy sauce to overpower the delicate flavor of the vegetables. You can also season it with miso if you’d like.
Once the veggies are tender, I finish the soup off by adding the tofu and edamame and garnishing it with mitsuba, a Japanese herb. Chili peppers are another ingredient forbidden in a strict Buddhist diet, but I really love the fragrance that a dash of shichimi togarashi adds.
- 30 grams dried shiitake mushrooms 3 large mushrooms
- 8 grams konbu
- 3 1/2 cups boiling water
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 140 grams carrots peeled, sliced
- 70 grams gobo peeled, shaved
- 140 grams daikon peeled, sliced
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1/3 cup sake
- 140 grams Japanese taro peeled, chopped
- 300 grams firm tofu squeezed and crumbled
- 2 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 100 grams shelled edamame
- mitsuba optional garnish
- Lightly rinse the dried shiitake mushrooms to remove dust or dirt and put them in a bowl along with the konbu and 3 1/2 cups of boiling water. Let these rehydrate for 30 minutes.
- Prepare the other vegetables while you wait for the mushrooms to rehydrate.
- When the shiitake has rehydrated, squeeze the extra liquid out of them, and reserve the liquid. Remove and discard the stems from the mushrooms and chop up the caps. Discard the konbu.
- Add the vegetable oil to a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat and saute the carrots, gobo, and daikon along with the brown sugar until they are fragrant (about 5 minutes).
- Add the sake and then allow the alcohol to burn off before proceeding.
- Add the reserved shiitake soaking liquid into the pot, but don’t pour in the sediment at the bottom of the bowl, as it may contain some grit.
- Add the taro, soy sauce, and salt, and let the Kenchinjiru simmer until the vegetables are tender and the soup is flavorful (about 20-30 minutes).
- Finish the soup by adding the tofu and edamame during the last few minutes of cooking. Adjust the salt to taste and garnish with mitsuba.