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.
Sea bream or Tai is without a doubt Japan’s most beloved fish. Being a symbol of good fortune it is traditionally served during celebrations, which is alluded to in the term ‘medetai’, a phrase used to congratulate people on auspicious events. During the Edo period tai was so prized that it was reserved almost exclusively for the tables of the wealthy and a market solely trading in this king of fish was even set up in Osaka. Lucky bream shaped sweets are a popular favour handed out at Japanese weddings, and the hot, sweet, bean-filled pancakes called taiyaki can be bought at stalls and cafés all over the country. Ebisu- one of the traditional seven gods of fortune, is portrayed holding a fishing rod in one hand and carrying a huge red tai in the other. It is the symbol of wealth, prosperity and high quality; it even spoils at a slower rate to other fish thanks to the high levels of inosinic acid present in its flesh, making it an excellent choice for sashimi.
One of the best ways to enjoy this luckiest of fish is in this ‘surf & turf’ inspired takikomi gohan; the sweet, succulent pearly flesh of the tai is paired with meaty, earthy mushrooms and the spicy freshness only ginger can provide, to create a deliciously savoury rice dish that borders on the decadent. We’ve used a selection of our favourite mushrooms in this recipe, some frilly, some dense and some tender, but feel free to use whatever is available locally to you. If you’re fortunate enough to have some of the highly sought after, distinctly flavoured, matsutake mushrooms, they would make a phenomenal addition to your tai-meshi, combining both the country’s favourite fish and fungus into one memorable dish that spells out what the Japanese value most in food.
The wonderfully rich, slightly gamey flesh of duck and the intense earthy, woodland flavour of mushrooms are one of the most natural and instinctive combinations in cookery. It’s a pairing you might expect to see in Italy, Russia, Sweden or France; countries that used to be blanketed with dense forests and vast lakes, countries that have a deep folklore and long history of woodsmen, making their living from what nature provides. All of these features are equally true of Japan, and unsurprisingly the Japanese made the same discovery early on, that marrying wild duck with foraged mushrooms was a union worth remembering. The other classic Japanese accompaniment to duck are the buckwheat noodles known as soba. Deliciously nutty in flavour and with a slightly toothsome texture, soba are one of the oldest known types of noodle in Japanese cuisine, dating back over 2500 years to the Jōmon period and even further in Chinese cookery where they probably originated.
We’ve combined all three of these ingredients in a classic Kamo Nanban Soba- a dish that smells and tastes like a stroll through an ancient forest; with rich, life giving soil and a wealth of fungus sprouting from the crumbling trunks of fallen trees. It wouldn’t be a kamo nanban without some sweet, charred spring onions, and to lift the earthy flavours slightly we’ve added a tiny hint of orange zest, perfect for cutting through the richness of the duck fat.