Thanks mainly to a nationwide on-again-off-again relationship with Buddhism and vegetarianism, Japanese chefs have become adept at transforming soy beans into incredibly realistic mock-meat products. These are not just commercially made, industrial scaled foodstuffs though- even the smallest of farmsteads with minimal equipment and space can create tofu with the most delicate flavour and the silkiest of textures to rival the technologically advanced, multinational corporations, resulting in a wealth of artisanal and regional tofus across the country. Mount Kōya, in the Wakayama prefecture, has been the home of Shingon Buddhism in Japan for over a thousand years and according to legend, the birthplace of freeze-dried Kōyadofu. During the Edo period, a monk is said to have unintentionally left an offering of tofu outside overnight; being eight hundred metres up a mountain, the beancurd quickly froze in the night air and was forgotten about until the next morning. Upon discovering his mistake the monk allowed the frozen block of tofu to defrost before eating it as normal, which is when he noticed the structural changes and intensified flavour resulting from the overnight chilling.
By freezing and defrosting, you reduce the amount of water that it can hold within its gel-like structure, turning the tofu into a spongy, crumbly mass similar in texture to cooked minced pork. Fried lightly in a little oil to increase the fat content and with the addition of some finely chopped mushrooms to boost the savoury umami flavour, you end up with the perfect base for a vegan-friendly version of the classic gyoza that even the most tofu-phobic of people will enjoy.
For me, spring only truly starts when the first foods of the season are ready to harvest or forage, and one of the plants that I most eagerly look out for each year is wild garlic or ramsons. Ten minutes walk from our house is a small brook, its banks lined with a stretch of woodland that provides a welcome glimpse of nature among the noise and rush of the city. Within the dappled light of these woods lies a patch of ramson plants, carpeting the edges of pathways and giving off their distinctive pungent aroma whenever they’re lightly brushed by a passing bird or walker. The leaves of this shamefully overlooked and short-lived plant provide a powerful garlic hit along with a spring onion-like flavour that makes it perfect for mixing into dipping sauces and dumpling fillings, and if you’re lucky enough to find some plants with open flowers they offer up an edible garnish of such intense flavour you won’t believe it came from such a delicate looking thing.
Seasonality and the use of local produce are two of the main cornerstones of Japanese cuisine so these wild ramsons are the perfect ingredient to use in the kaiseki style dish of suimono or clear soup. A delicate, lightly seasoned broth that allows you to focus on the flavours of the individual elements that it contains, in this case a pile of carefully crimped duck and wild garlic gyoza and a scattering of flowers and leaves from both the foraged ramsons and some young chives.
Steaming hot crescent moons, an aromatic mixture of juicy pork, cabbage and garlic chives encased within a chewy skin, fried on one side until shatteringly crisp and served with a slightly sour dipping sauce. Gyoza have become an integral and hugely popular part of nearly every ramenya’s menu, finding their place as an almost essential accompaniment to the deep, nourishing bowls of noodles. When cooked poorly they can drag down a memorable dish of ramen, but if cooked well, with consideration and care, they have the power to raise a lacklustre meal to giddy heights, providing a contrasting texture to the silky noodles and soothing broth. High quality frozen gyoza wrappers are available in most oriental supermarkets these days, meaning that home-made dumplings are more achievable than ever before, and while the filling and pleating of the little parcels can take a while to get used to, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction to be had when you gaze upon a tray of your handiwork.
Hanetsuki gyoza are a recent variation of these classic pot-stickers, where a number of plump, steamed dumplings are fused together in a hot pan with a thin mixture of flour and water. This batter crisps and darkens to form lacey skirts or wings (hane) around the edges of each dumpling, creating more surface area for crunchy, brittle bubbles to form and when placed in the middle of the table, it makes a fantastic tear-and-share style dish, perfect for relaxed dining with friends.
Oyaki are delicious little fried filled parcels, usually with a buckwheat outer shell but can be made with pretty much anything that you can form into a dough, in this case leftover mashed potato. The filling of these oyaki is an attempt to recreate the flavours of some that we bought from a street vendor outside the Hachiman shrine in Tomioka, Tokyo- a mixture of chopped pork and prawns, similar to what you’d find inside everyone’s favourite little dumplings, gyoza.