The most difficult aspect of writing a blog post, or anything I suppose, is starting. I’ve been working full time on the internet for 12 years now, and engaging in blogging side projects for nearly as long. I know the rules and I know I don’t play by them. Catchy headlines, clever opening sentence. Start with a question! Engage people! It all sounds false. Who walks into a room and bursts into a conversation with “tell me, does anyone want to know about nine pictures of food I posted in 2015 that people liked and by the way did I get a chance to tell you I’m popular on the internet?”
And then when people turn around to ignore you, you shuffle quickly to meet their gaze once again. “Because I am. Take a look.”
So anyway I’m trying to start writing about Kyoto, but I can’t figure out how to begin. Maybe because writing about something already covered a thousand times by the saturated vegan travel blogger community feels unnecessary and tedious (why do we pretend we discovered so many places by ourselves?), or maybe because by the time I arrived I was nearly comatose (more than 30 hours had passed without sleep).
No matter, Kyoto is a special place, a walking wanderer’s dream, a tofu lover’s paradise. Keep reading to find a tofu recipe inspired by a temple meal I enjoyed. But first you just have to get through the next 70 paragraphs of me pretending to be a real writer, and view scads of photos I will desperately try to justify, only some of the links will be tenuous at best. Like the bamboo forest up there toward the top of this post.
I’m that jerk who wakes up at the crack of dawn while on holiday, so day two saw me at Fushimi Inari Temple by 7am, where I meandered aimlessly along unmarked forest paths, past farmland, hidden temples tucked behind homes and trees, and many, many spiders. So many that I believed I conquered my fear by bravely photographing them, until, that is, I looked up and saw 17,827 webs above my head. At that point I ran back to civilisation so they didn’t drop onto my face and devour me whole. Devious life-ruining creatures. I returned to the main temple areas and took my chances with the human crowds instead. It was fine.
Nattō is a Japanese speciality, arguably the Marmite of Japan (you either love it or hate it), and is made by a short fermentation of cooked soybeans with a culture called bacillus subtilis nattō, followed by a longer refrigeration time. The process generates a mass of soybeans glued together by a viscous and stringy slime. Sounds appealing, yes? Okay, no, but the fermentation breaks some of the proteins down into glutamates, and that’s one process that lends the magical umami flavour we're all so keen on. Plus I just love the pungency of any fermented soy product.
For dessert, a matcha milkshake with soft serve ice cream. I don’t know why I like matcha so much because it reminds me of toasted grass clippings (no, I’ve never actually tasted toasted grass clippings), but I do.
Soy miso ramen at Padma for dinner. A lot of noodle dishes are made with a thin stock, or a thin stock bulked up with oil. Atypically, the noodles at Padma were served in a creamy, almost stew-like liquid, which was welcome on a cool autumn night. The bowl included plentiful chunky vegetables and trimmed mizuna leaves (crisp and peppery with a mild mustard-like flavour).
After four days I decided to venture beyond Kyoto, but returned later to dine at Hale Restaurant, a traditional wood townhouse dishing up vegan Japanese fare. Hidden in the maze of Nishiki Market, Hale operates in a tiny space hosting only a few tables. During my visit the soundtrack was seagulls, which made me smile because it was like a subdued version of mother’s Three Stooges sound effects after a few glasses of iced Manischewitz.
My knowledge of Japanese cuisine is incredibly limited, so pardon my preschool descriptions. Lunch at Hale included the following:
- Yuba (soy milk skin) and mushroom rice bowl with starch-thickened gravy on rice, served with a spicy green pepper paste as a condiment
- Salty sesame sliced lotus root
- Mixed plate of onion-y okara, chargrilled flat fried tofu, julienned carrot with cumin, greens with sesame, and seaweed
- Fresh tofu with sesame sauce
- Steamer basket of seasonal produce with sesame sauce, soy sauce, and salt for dipping (I never thought I could be wowed by something as simple as steamed onion and radish)
- Smoky tea with refills
Plentiful vegan options at Kyoto tofu restaurants
I had more luck at tofu restaurants than I believed I would (Japanese cuisine is strongly fish based, with bonito featuring in many dishes). Seizansodo tofu restaurant in Arashiyama, in West Kyoto, was heavenly. The highlight: a fried tofu dough puff stuffed with onion, carrot, and seaweed in a sweet umami broth. Runners up: gomadofu (sesame ‘tofu’ made from kudzu starch and sesame paste) in salty shoyu with grated ginger, and fried nori-wrapped tofu parcels (the inspiration for the recipe at the bottom of this post).
Yudofu is commonly found in tofu restaurants. Squares of tofu are simmered in a light dashi (water + kombu seaweed) hotpot, served with condiments (like spring onion, ginger, Japanese pepper, and shredded daikon) and a dipping sauce. To eat, diners spoon individual pieces of the curd into a separate bowl and dress with a choice of toppings. An alternative way to eat yudofu is to consistently drop the tofu from a height into the dipping sauce so that you can wear your meal home.
Other dishes I enjoyed at tofu restaurants included tempura kabocha squash that tasted like bubble gum, shiso leaves and nori also tempura fried, skewered tofu grilled with ginger, pepper, and soy glaze, and an array of pickles and rice.
Nishiki Market, a food enthusiast’s dream shopping destination, is a busy (but not oppressively so) multi block arcade aptly named “Kyoto’s Kitchen.” Stacks of pickles, sweet candied nuts and beans, grilled snacks, and more mushrooms than I’ve ever seen in one place before. Tiny bars big enough to hold just a handful of drinks at a counter, bustling restaurants, fresh bean curd and yuba vendors, wagashi (Japanese sweets), and local in-season produce. Hours can be lost here.
But mostly just LOOK AT THAT CAT PICTURE.
A drinking destination for introverts
Speaking of bars, one aspect of Japanese culture that stood out was how socially acceptable it felt to do things by myself. One night I treated myself to a few crafts brews at a bar called Bungalow, stood at a narrow counter where punters drank solo and didn’t try to engage with each other. I love taking myself and a book out for a drink, but in London the risk of being approached by someone is high (because women who are alone ALWAYS want to talk to men, teehee, and people who are reading are ALWAYS just bored and waiting for conversation). In Japan? Not so much. My fellow drinkers and I enjoyed our beers quietly and went merrily into the evening without speaking to a soul, save short exchanges with bar staff to order refills.
Well, almost. I enjoyed a solid hour or more of solitude, but the entire evening I was distracted by something. Someone. To my left was a man wearing a white suit and what appeared to be enough gold to back the country’s economy. White suit. Gold bangles. White suit! The second I glanced at the character, he began to chat me up (if I’ve worked out someone is flirting with me, it’s got to be pretty full on). Where am I from and what do I do. Incidentally, a friend told me the best response to that question is to say you’re a bus driver, because nobody ever asks for details.
Blah, blah, blah. My turn to ask him. “I work in the diamond and gem industry,” he said, along with a firm offer to buy me a drink.
“NO, I mean I… nothankyoubye.” I paid immediately so I could run around the corner and piss myself laughing. And yes, curly chest hair was visible beneath his not entirely buttoned up white shirt.
Fried nori wrapped tofu parcels
While this recipe only makes four small pieces, you can easily double it for more. Frying oil can be recycled a few times by straining it through muslin once cooled and then storing it in a sealed container until next use.
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon sake
- ½ teaspoon sugar
- 100 grams firm tofu
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped spring onion
- ¾ teaspoons soy sauce
- ¼ teaspoon sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon potato starch
- 1 teaspoon glutinous rice flour
- pinch black pepper
- pinch salt
- pinch sugar
- 1 sheet nori paper
- carrot (optional)
- First make the dipping sauce by simmering the mirin, soy sauce, sake, and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Tip into a small serving receptacle and set aside.
- Release some of the added water from the tofu by bundling it in a tea towel and squeezing it firmly. The tofu will collapse and crumble a little, but you’re going to mash it anyway. The tofu should weigh about 75 grams after squeezing.
- Tip the tofu into a bowl and mash it. Add spring onion, soy sauce, sesame oil, potato starch, glutinous rice flour, pepper, salt, and sugar, mixing to combine.
- Cut a sheet of nori paper into four squares. Place a heaped tablespoon of tofu mash into the centre of each square and press it down with your fingers, spreading it to around a centimetre from the nori edges. Bring the corners in toward the centre and press to secure. Press a thin slice of carrot in the centre, if desired.
- Heat at least 1 inch oil to medium heat for deep frying. Fry for 1-2 minutes on each side, until the tofu begins to brown slightly. Drain on kitchen roll and serve with the dipping sauce.
- Author: Kip Dorrell
- Makes: 4
- Cuisine: Japanese