Soul food: How the Japanese mastered meatless cuisine

The tatami-floored dining room at Daigo looks out to private garden – Pictures by CK Lim
The tatami-floored dining room at Daigo looks out to private garden – Pictures by CK Lim

TOKYO, July 14 – This isn’t meat.

Certainly what is served before me is savoury enough – one could argue almost meaty – but nothing can disguise the fact it’s a platter of mushrooms, marinated in miso for (non-dairy) cheesy notes, and given some extra bite thanks to the accompaniment of water chestnuts and wheat gluten.

From old-school, gluten-centric mock meats (the zai ngor or vegetarian goose was a guilty favourite of my childhood) to technology-driven, plant-based meat substitutes such as Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat – faux meat is here to stay.

While these aim to replicate the real thing, the dish in front of me is unabashedly meatless and proudly proclaims: Enjoy me as I am.

No, this is clearly not meat.

There’s something to be said for meatless cuisine (whether vegetarian or vegan depends on how strict one’s diet is; the former may include dairy and eggs) that revels in drawing out the natural flavours of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds without having to mimic the very thing it leaves out.

Few cultures have mastered the art of meatless cuisine the way the Japanese have. The pinnacle of Japanese vegetarian dining is known as shojin ryori (translated as “devotion cuisine”), which was started by Buddhist monks.

Rather than enduring days-long treks to distant mountains to reach a Zen sanctuary, however, we are fortunate enough to snag a reservation at Daigo, a shojin ryori restaurant founded in 1950 by Nomura Yoshikawa.

Situated near the foot of Mount Atago (home to the Seisho-ji temple) in Tokyo’s Shimbashi neighbourhood, the restaurant has a stately veneer.

Elegant and minimalist: Japanese calligraphy and an 'ikebana' flower arrangement
Elegant and minimalist: Japanese calligraphy and an 'ikebana' flower arrangement

We are greeted at the door by a staff member and brought to a tatami-floored room. The space is elegant and minimalist: here a requisite scroll of Japanese calligraphy hanging on one of the walls, there an ikebana flower arrangement branching out like a brush stroke.

We take in the view of the private garden outside: a thoughtfully curated scene of green shrubs and bamboo, large stones atop a bed of gravel.

The warm glow of the yellow lamps completes the ambience. Everything is meant to prepare us for the simple and season-based meal that is to come.

Of course, simplicity here is part of the shojin ryori philosophy – why mess with Nature’s best? But what we experience is complex in flavours, textures and moods.

It begins, perhaps to counter any worries that the cuisine will be too austere, with an aperitif of very strong umeshu plum wine chilled with ice. What a way to kick any expectations out the window!

Our first two courses appear basic but the basics are beguiling if you do it right. The zensai starter of miso-grilled eggplant, sweet potato and sticky nameko mushrooms with okra refresh our jaded palates.

Smooth and silky – a clear soup of 'yuba' (tofu skin) topped with sweet 'kaki' (persimmon)
Smooth and silky – a clear soup of 'yuba' (tofu skin) topped with sweet 'kaki' (persimmon)

Then the osuimono course arrives, a clear soup of yuba (tofu skin) topped with sweet kaki (persimmon). We’re instructed to first drink only the soup, then mix it all together, allowing the yuba to dissolve into the hot liquid manna.

Smooth, silky, subtle – a million miles away from overly seasoned dishes we’ve become accustomed to. This is soul food.

Texture plays a big part in shojin ryori. Daigo, which was awarded two Michelin stars in 2009, displays an impeccable command of this element with a dish of soba, crowned with grated naga-imo (mountain yams) for a contrast of slurp-worthy and sticky.

We detect hints of Japanese mustard and seaweed, mild and minor notes to broaden the symphony.

'Hassun' course (left to right): 'kuri' chestnut; miso-marinated mushrooms with water chestnuts and wheat gluten; “mountain peach” ('yamamomo') inside a Japanese lantern ('hozuki'); and stewed spinach with grated candied ginger
'Hassun' course (left to right): 'kuri' chestnut; miso-marinated mushrooms with water chestnuts and wheat gluten; “mountain peach” ('yamamomo') inside a Japanese lantern ('hozuki'); and stewed spinach with grated candied ginger

The aforementioned miso mushroom is part of the hassun course, a celebration of different textures and flavours.

The savoury nugget is accompanied by a trio of bites to complete the hassun assortment: kuri paste covered with deep-fried potato noodle sticks to mimic the raw chestnut; a crimson orb of “mountain peach” (also known as Chinese bayberry or yamamomo) caged in the fragile, skeletal leaves of a Japanese lantern (hozuki); and the simple pleasures of stewed spinach garnished with grated candied ginger.

Together they make for a delicate dance of shapes and colours, seasons and seasoning. Simultaneously contrasting and complementary, the hassun course at Daigo is proof no meat is required to create culinary marvels.

There is a brief lull between the succession of courses, as though to allow us time and space to ponder upon what we have experienced thus far. Then our servers return with a trio of courses , one after the other, like a crescendo.

Tempura selection of lightly battered mushrooms, tofu and Chinese spinach
Tempura selection of lightly battered mushrooms, tofu and Chinese spinach

First, the simmered nimono is goma tofu (sesame beancurd) with mashed seaweed. Next comes the agemono course: a tempura selection of lightly battered mushrooms, tofu and Chinese spinach.

Flavours of the forest: 'maitake' (hen-of-the-woods mushroom) and 'matsutake' (pine mushroom)
Flavours of the forest: 'maitake' (hen-of-the-woods mushroom) and 'matsutake' (pine mushroom)

To enjoy with sake, the shiizakana course: maitake (hen-of-the-woods mushroom) to dip in salt, and matsutake (pine mushroom) with a squeeze of citrus.

Every tastebud is firing, albeit in a most gentle fashion. Shojin ryori, originally brought to Japan by the Zen Buddhist monk Dogen from China, may abstain from using meat but still manages to exhibit the five key flavours of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami.

This is achieved by embracing the rule of five colours – white, green, yellow, black and red – in selecting ingredients to use in every meal.

It’s all about balance. At Daigo, we reckon this balance becomes a dance.

A palate cleanser of ginger soup laced with gluey naga-imo arrives, announcing that our meal will soon be over. Soon – far too soon! – a sweet ending with a pair of seasonal mizumono desserts: first slivers of Japanese nashi pear, then chilled adzuki bean soup with grilled mochi (glutinous rice dumpling). But before that, we have one final savoury dish.

The restaurant’s signature 'nameko zousui' – rice congee made with gelatinous 'nameko' mushrooms
The restaurant’s signature 'nameko zousui' – rice congee made with gelatinous 'nameko' mushrooms

Every good kaiseki meal has a gohan or rice course, and it’s no different for shojin ryori, at least at Daigo. The restaurant’s signature nameko zousui is a testament to how a single ingredient – in this case, the tiny nameko mushrooms – can make an entire dish, lending its earthy flavour to the concentrated broth and its caps a gelatinous texture to the rice congee.

As advised by our server, we mix in some finely diced sainome daikon (radish pickle), yamagobou (mountain burdock) and plum-based bainiku. Every spoonful deeply satisfying, a reminder we’re worlds away from overly processed mock goose or a grilled faux-beef burger.

With this fine, meatless meal of shojin ryori, we pause and reflect, and devote ourselves to every sip and every bite.

Daigo

2-3-1 Atago, Minato-ku, Tokyo, Japan

Tel: +81-3-3431-0811

Open daily 11:30am-2pm & 5pm-8pm; closed for New Year’s break only

www.atago-daigo.jp