Before she took the stage at Japan Society with chef Masato Nishihara, chef at Kajitsu in NY for Field to Table: The Role of Vegetables in Japanese Diet, I am grateful I was able to have a Kansha kitchen conversation with Elizabeth Andoh.
Her new book Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions (Ten Speed Press) was published on October 19, 2010 (in the US).
Q: Elizabeth, could we say that ‘Kansha’ celebrates a tradition that was ‘green’ before concept even existed?
Kansha is not specifically about food. The word broadly means appreciation. As applied to food it translates in appreciation for what nature provides and how clever people are in turning things produced by the earth in edible treats.
Q: Are you a vegetarian yourself?
Not really, but vegetarian dishes are a big part of my daily diet.
Q: There is a sobriety in the look of the book that stands in contrast to many other food tomes, were it a deliberate choice?
The understated tone of the book is intentional and appropriate. It shows respect for the ‘Kansha’ mindset. It offers a different way to cook combining home feel, mindfulness and creativity.
Q: Are most of the recipes you share traditional?
70% of them are traditional; the remaining 30% were inspired by many sources from cooking shows to visual sources. The eggplant roll was inspired by saba sushi roll (mackerel)
Q: How far back in time do we have to go to get to the roots of this tradition?
In the case of Shojin ('earnest effort'), you could trace it back to indigenous 'Shinto' beliefs that preceded Buddhism's arrival in Japan in 7th and 8th century. What Buddhism did in cases such as Shojin was it helped give a label to previously existing ideas.
Q: In Japan, is this type of cooking practiced at home more in small towns and rural areas than big cities?
I would say the type of cooking I showcase in ‘Kansha’ has appeal in all parts of Japan. Few of the recipes I offer are challenging. The ‘Kansha’ ethic is rooted in society. The idea of smaller portions is associated with clean plates not just to prevent waste but also as a sign of respect for the person who produced the ingredients or in the case of processed food for the fact they made sure the product is safe.
The word 'mottainai' will be used in Japan to chide someone with wasteful ways.
In Japan there is a deep appreciation for nature and what it provides us with.
Q: Is it common in Japanese cooking to have summer and winter versions of dishes as offered for your pancake recipe?
Time and place is very important in Japanese cooking, whether it’s the seasonality of the produce or a link between a certain meal and a holiday. There is also a commercial side to things using wordplay. Such is the case with Nato pancakes on July 10. Many supermarkets use the fact that 'Na' can mean '7' and 'To' can sound like '10' (7th month, 10th day) to run a sale on Nato pancakes that day.
Q: Has the philosophical, Buddhist ethos that underlined vegetarian cuisine evolved with the times?
The vegetarian choice was informed by a respect for life. You don’t end an animal life in order to get nourishment. It extends to honey as it is taken away from bees.
As for the evolution over time, Modoki is a recent addition, evocative, playful, food trompe l’oeil as is the case with my eel lookalike dish.
Q: Since recipes in Kansha are vegan, how can small quantities of meat, dairy and poultry added to them? Would they have to be kept separate from basic dishes?
The vegan choice was made in the last 6 months of the book creation. It did not require many changes except for eggs (and honey). Butter does not play a role in traditional Japanese food.
There is no set rule in that matter. I asked my advisory board outside Japan to review recipes and give me objective feedback.
Q: If you were to pick 3 recipes from Kansha according to level of difficulty and time needed (from quick to time consuming) which would they be?
The eel-lookalike is not difficult but time consuming. It requires many steps. In the high skill range, I would put the flower sushi roll. The easiest would be carrots and enoki mushrooms often served over noodles.
Q: Do you have favorite ingredients and dishes?
Some call me a Kombu freak. Kombu is the essence of Dashi stock. Now that everyone quotes umami, it fits right there in that concept. Most Kombu comes from North of Japan yet reveals different flavors depending on place, water, saltiness…
Q: Could you suggest good places where first time visitors to Japan to experience this type of cooking?
The best place for the Shojin food would be in temples. They often serve lunch.
Q: Is there an easy way to identify these places (signage…)? Is this tradition stronger in some parts of the country than others?
You can find a cluster of them in the Kyoto-Nara area. An internet search for ‘temple vegetarian cuisine’ should fetch results.
Q: The last 40 to 50 pages of the book can be described as a how to guide to ‘kansha’ from tools and techniques to must have ingredients, would you suggest that anyone reads this thoroughly before tackling any recipe?
Definitely, to practice, read this section which is clearly indexed. Having the basic ingredients and cooking tools on hand is helpful.
Q: Can ritual of going through these steps be soothing by taking your mind off the day’s headaches?
In my case, in times of stress, I was known to have 3 soup days.
Q: Is your ‘Taste of Culture’ culinary program in Japan more popular with people from some countries than others?
I began in the 70’s with expats as my primary prospects. In the 80’s, I linked with tour operators offering half-day programs that paralleled the theme of the visit (say flowers or gardens).
Lately, I added tasting sessions with one offering 25 miso cups exposing attendees to a range of flavors.
I have also a program on sea vegetables.
Q: What is your relationship to the US after all these years in Japan?
Japan is my home. I visit the US regularly and the UK once a year for Food symposium at Oxford.
Q: What would be your closing words?
Kansha is about celebrating abundance and being happy for what you have.
Kansha is not based on location and ingredients. It is more an approach, a mindset.
Vegetable peels can be turned into stock.
Nothing goes to waste in the Kansha kitchen.
Let me thank Elizabeth for taking an hour of her time to enlighten us on the subject.
Thanks also to Kristin at Ten Speed Press who made it happen.
I hope this piece wet your appetite for more. In that case Elizabeth will keep the conversation going on her site Kansha Cooking. A new lesson will be posted every 5 to 6 weeks