Book review: Appreciating Elizabeth Andoh’s “Kansha”

Photo of cover of Kansha by Elizabeth AndohElizabeth Andoh is a prominent figure in my cooking consciousness. Her 2005 book, Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, opened a new frontier to me: the deceptively simple and elegant world of home-style Japanese cuisine. By following the recipes and techniques in Washoku, the food I cooked was often able to bring me to Japan – the aromas just right, the flavors true.

So when I heard last summer that Andoh was releasing a new book on vegetarian cooking in Japan, I immediately marked the release date on my calendar and started an internal countdown.

That new book, released in October 2010, is Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions. Published by Ten Speed Press, Kansha is a big and beautiful hardcover with a pleasing and user-friendly design by Toni Tajima. Sublime photos by Leigh Beisch appear here and there to show completed recipes, equipment, and ingredients.

If you want to learn how to cook Japanese food, Kansha or Washoku would be an excellent place to begin. But which one? It is a tough call, even if the question came from a vegetarian, because in my years of using Washoku as a vegetarian, I have found it to have enough variety for vegetarians to be worthwhile. Even more valuable is Andoh's explanation of the "rule of five" approach to menu planning and her guide to Japanese ingredients and techniques.

I’ve been cooking from Kansha for a few months now with generally good success – some of my favorites have been Creamy Kabocha Soup, Eggplant Two Ways, Tofu-Tofu Burgers (though they stick like crazy even in my well-seasoned cast-iron skillet), Skillet-Scrambled Tofu with Leafy Greens, and Skillet-Seared Daikon with Yuzu. However, the book presents a challenge to my locavore sensibility. For example, burdock (gobo) seems to be everywhere, but is only available from Taiwan, as far as I know, so I just bought some seeds to grow my own.

Tips in abundance

Udon noodles by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr

In Japanese, "kansha" means appreciation, and the sentiment applies to all sorts of situations, not just at the dining table. Kansha is about “abundance…not abstinence,” Andoh writes in the introduction. “It is about nourishing ourselves with what nature provides, cleverly and respectfully applying human technique and technology in the process.” Consequently, it is also about appreciating and respecting those who grow, tend, harvest and process our food. One of the ways to respect our food producers is to waste as little as possible by using the whole plant, while also conserving energy while cooking. Throughout the book, Andoh offers lessons in all of these aspects of kansha.

The first three sections cover three foundations of Japanese cuisine – rice, noodles, and soups and stocks – beginning with detailed explanations of the basic techniques for each group. Rice, for example, gets a multipage description of washing and cooking techniques, noting in the kansha spirit that the cloudy water from the first rinse, known as togi-jiru, is an excellent medium for blanching vegetables because it neutralizes bitter enzymes in daikon and other vegetables. In each section, the basics are followed by a handful of varied recipes that use that section’s foundational ingredient. The recipes cover quite a range: the noodles chapter, for example, includes a highly adaptable and mainstream udon noodle soup and a far more daring “Slithery Somen Noodles,” which combines legendarily slippery natto, famously slimy okra, and slick, thin wheat noodles called somen.

The page layout for recipes follows a useful format. Each recipe is preceded by background notes and helpful hints. The ingredients are then listed, with call-outs to relevant pages when sub-preparations like a stock or special techniques like “cut ran-giri style” are needed. Andoh's instructions are quite thorough and specific, often providing a surprising level of detail. Her careful writing and the fact that all of the recipes were tested by a volunteer “advisory council” inside and outside of Japan, with varying skill levels and domestic situations, are quite helpful, as Japanese techniques can be somewhat unfamiliar to American cooks.

The next three chapters are based on themes instead of ingredients. "Fresh from the Market" is about enjoying nature’s bounty and experiencing food at the peak of its season. "The Well-Stocked Pantry" explores dishes built from shelf-stable ingredients like dried seaweeds (hijiki, wakamé). The pantry ingredients include forms of wheat gluten that were new to me and hard to find even in the San Francisco area. For example, I could only find kuruma-bu (“wheels of wheat gluten”) imported from Japan at Nijiya Market in S.F.’s Japan Center. With vegetarian eating on the rise, an opportunity exists for domestic production of this tasty and protein-rich food. "Mostly Soy" explores the many incarnations of the soybean in Japanese cuisine, both for home preparation – Andoh includes recipes for making your own soy milk, tofu, and soy-milk sheets called “yuba” – and using store-bought soy products like grilled tofu, tofu fried in sheet form, etc.

The savory sections wrap up with an extensive guide to the rich array of pickles (tsukémono) in Japanese cuisine. Andoh runs through a range of techniques, from quick pickles you can make in a few hours to the more significant commitment of nuka-zuké, vegetables pickled in good-bacteria-rich rice-bran medium. (Over at Wandering Spoon, Thy Tran has a funny commentary on her experiences with this process.)

Finally, Andoh provides some recipes for Japanese desserts, a genre that can be a bit challenging for Western tastes (one of the least-tasty dishes I ever made from Washoku was a fruit compote that included white miso). However, I can give a ringing endorsement to the candied sweet potato, a beguiling blend of sweet and savory, which I have made twice and plan to make again.

Not just tofu-ling around

The book concludes with almost 50 pages of reference materials on techniques and ingredients. As in Washoku, Andoh walks you through basic equipment, cutting techniques, cooking methods, and the often exotic and confusing ingredients. In addition, info boxes are scattered throughout the book to give tips and cultural background on such topics as using bamboo shoots in their entirety, clarifying the distinctions between Japanese wheat gluten and seitan, or explaining why thick fried tofu is cut into triangles in the Kansai region of Japan.

Although it would be easy for me to include an adapted recipe here, since this is a book review, I think it's better to point you to other sites that have verbatim copies of Andoh's recipes so you can get a sense of how she writes. Here are a few: Candied Sweet Potato at Epicurious, Heaven-and-Earth Tempura Pancakes at The Lisa Ekus Group and Crispy and Creamy Kabocha Croquettes at OregonLive.com.

With Kansha, Elizabeth Andoh has given us another superb cookbook about one of the world’s great cuisines — one that is underappreciated in the U.S. — showing that Japanese food is about far more than sushi and ramen. The skillfully written recipes and thoughtfully compiled reference material will help a dedicated home cook discover a vast new world of flavors and textures, while at the same time teaching some important principles of appreciation in the kitchen.

Additional notes

  • In mid-February, Andoh is visiting San Francisco and Portland and appearing at several public events (details at Kansha Cooking).
  • At her two websites, Kansha Cooking and Washoku Cooking, Andoh is trying to create an “open, on-line culinary classroom” about Japanese cooking, providing a new lesson every six or seven weeks, along with other helpful hints and background material.
  • I have an archive of almost a dozen posts at Mental Masala about my experiences with the “Washoku” cookbook and Elizabeth Andoh, as well as a few at Eat Local Challenge
  • Interview with Elizabeth Andoh by Serge the Concierge

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