You’d think ramen wouldn’t work without a golden yolked egg, snugly suspended in the rich Japanese broth atop a tangle of noodles.
But slurping up the ‘Ramen for Faye Wong’ – chef Tim Anderson’s edible ode to the vegetarian Chinese actress – it seems you can cope. Quite easily.
There are firm noodles, saffron-style strands of dried chilli, daikon, a bunch of otherworldly enoki mushrooms and a smattering of spring onions in a mushroom dashi that’s heady and deep. The egg you forget about. A slab of belly pork you realise could totally knock the balance.
It’s a swift lesson in the possibilities Japanese food offers for non-carnivores, which is the topic of Anderson’s new cookbook, Vegan Japaneasy.
A follow-up to the Wisconsin-born, London-based 35-year-old’s previous recipe collection, Japaneasy, it isn’t “strictly for vegans” but does wedge open the door on a cuisine often considered closed to those who steer clear of animal products.
“I’m not a vegan and I’m not trying to make anybody be vegan,” notes Anderson, who runs Japanese soul food restaurant Nanban. Meaning if you want to add a gooey ramen egg, no one will stop you, but the idea is to open up Japanese food to all taste buds.
“It was an interesting challenge, but it wasn’t a big challenge,” he says when pressed on how tricky it was to take traditional Japanese recipes and make them satisfyingly vegan.
What can be hard is actually visiting Japan itself if you’re vegan. “Fish is in a lot of things,” notes Anderson, plus, “there’s funny cultural differences between here and there in terms of what’s actually considered meat.” You might be presented with a bowl of fish-based dashi, even if you said you’re vegetarian. Also, “the word ‘meat’ is usually thought of as red meat, so chicken could turn up in a vegetarian order.”
Then there’s the fact “so many restaurants in Japan specialise in just one thing. And that one thing is usually a meat or fish thing.” Which means endless restaurants choices for omnivores, but far fewer for those who are plant-based. Yakitori and ramen shops might just be completely off limits, because “if you go to that kind of a restaurant, there aren’t options, you get the meat thing, or you get nothing.”
Anderson says it can be “tough” (unless you’re staying in Japanese Buddhist temples, where cooking is often vegan), but home cooked Japanese food – the kind of fare in Vegan Japaneasy – is a completely different, much more accessible beast. And that’s arguably down to Japanese seasonings, “which are so good”.
“I realised my own home cooking was skewing more vegetarian, and because I was using delicious Japanese seasonings, you don’t miss the meat,” says Anderson. Soy sauce, miso, rice vinegar, mirin, sake – “there are just so many great ingredients in Japanese cooking that can be meaty and savoury and satisfying, but without actually containing meat.”
And to be clear, Anderson loves meat. “I really, really do,” he admits. “But I also love vegetables. I think they’re perfectly satisfying – and they’re cheap too.”
In the book, you’ll find carrots turned fudgy with teriyaki sauce, celeriac ‘wafu’ steaks doused in ginger, onions, soy sauce, rice vinegar and sugar, and egg-free ramen. What you won’t find so much of are meat alternatives, like tofu.
“You can’t avoid it, and I’m not trying to avoid it,” says Anderson, holding his hands up placatingly against an invisible barrage of tofu-related outrage. “It is bland. For me, as a protein, a main thing in a dish, it doesn’t really tick the box. It doesn’t deliver that satisfaction.”
Vegetables though, do. “Vegetables are delicious, in and of themselves.” Season them right and you’re good to go.
Japan’s seasonings prowess Anderson puts down in large part to an accident of the country’s climate and environmental DNA. While we “have ketchup” and “have cheese cast as a seasoning”, Japan is home to an abundance of seaweeds and mushrooms, soybeans and its national fungus, koji (a mould spore). All of these, he explains, “just so happen to create a huge amount of umami compounds.”
At this point, the former MasterChef winner gets “a little bit nerdy” about the “flavour bombs” attainable when you combine umami rich ingredients. They amplify one another, which makes your dinner more aromatic, umami, and delicious. “Everything in Japanese cooking, and all of the seasonings, are about fortifying umami,” he buzzes.
Other countries have similar culinary circumstances, like Italy, which Anderson says “in terms of umami for money, that’s the best value outside of Japan because they’ll combine things like anchovies, Parmesan cheese, and tomatoes”. He calls it “another great cuisine for vegans. It’s all about umami.”
It’s also about not taking Japanese food too seriously. “People still think Japanese food has to be perfect and beautiful and made by very skilled craftspeople and artisans and highly trained chefs” – which is only true if you’re an actual Japanese chef, says Anderson, but “home cooking doesn’t have to be perfect.”
Take gyoza. They may seem like delicate, fiddly dumplings you’re bound to not pinch together properly, but although they take a little practice, but Anderson promises “it’s easier than origami, and you get into a zone with them. Once you start, you can almost do it without looking; it’s a muscle memory thing.”
He recommends roping family and friends into a gyoza-making session. “This is how I remember gyoza from Japan; you get together with a bunch of people and everybody would sit around like old ladies, making gyoza,” Anderson remembers, a little wistful. “And at the end of it, you have hundreds of gyoza. It’s a fun thing, and then you get to eat gyoza at the end – which is never not great.
“Your gyoza may not be perfectly folded, but they still will be delicious and that’s all that matters,” he adds with a laugh. “Just don’t be intimidated.”
Vegan Japaneasy by Tim Anderson, photography by Nassima Rothacker, is published by Hardie Grant.
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