Some people go running, some people will go to a spa, but I’d rather chill out by the oven. Spending half an hour chopping vegetables or looking after a bubbling stew is probably my ideal form of relaxation. I suppose it’s the idea of making something nice from disparate ingredients that a find rewarding in a way. I have my limits though. I don’t object to the odd shortcut and I’m not too keen on exacting precision: no-one’s paying for my food so I can leave things a little rough around the edges when I want to. That disdain for intricacy and procedure in cooking is always what puts me off making the food from some cuisines. For example, I much prefer the gutsy flavours and rustic styles of Korean cookery than the delicate lightness and precise presentation associated with Japanese food.
Much of the intricacy of Japanese food though stems from an idea of cooking as a therapeutic, meditative process. Japan’s ryouri cuisine was developed by its vegetarian Buddhist monks as a means of meditation through the complex and precise preparation and presentation of dishes. Shoujin ryouri reflects Buddhist principles, adheres strictly to the seasons and is responsible for many of the more famous Japanese culinary exports, like tempura, matcha tea and the liberal use of salted, pickled vegetables. It’s a cuisine that I’d love to learn so much more about but, short of joining a monastery, any detailed resources on the subject seem few an far between. Some dishes have become staples of Japanese homes and restaurants like agedashi tofu.
Agedashi tofu is quite a simple affair, made from soft tofu cubes that a deep-fried in a coating of cornflour or potato starch that magically becomes a thin layer of batter by drawing moisture from the tofu itself. Served in a sauce made from Japanese dashi stock, soy sauce and mirin, a sweet rice wine used for cooking, the subtle sauce and mellow tofu accentuate the different textures in the dish: soft and crisp. Normally very fresh and soft tofu is used for this dish but I prefer the firmer stuff (the Dragonfly brand, produced in Devon, is the best I’ve had since it’s really firm-textured and has lots of beany flavour that most other brands have lacked entirely) which is also less prone to falling apart.
To be honest, this isn’t a dish that could convert a tofu skeptic by any stretch, but does make a nice vegetarian accompaniment to an Asian meal. I’ve left out the dried fish usually used in a dashi stock, for a completely vegan version, using just kombu seaweed for umami and depth. And if you aren’t a tofu fan, the sauce is simple enough to work as a dipping sauce for tempura or to stir into some noodles.
Soak the seaweed sheet in a pan filled with 350ml cold water for an hour. Meanwhile, wrap the tofu in kitchen paper and leave to sit under a heavy plate to draw out the excess water. After the seaweed has soaked, bring the pan to the boil before removing the seaweed from the stock and reducing the heat to a very low simmer. Heat the oil to a depth of 3-4cm in a sturdy pan.
Unwrap the tofu and cut into 2-3cm cubes and coat in the cornflour, reserving a teaspoonful for thickening the sauce later. Once the oil is hot, gently lower the tofu cubes (in batches if your pan is quite small) into the pan and fry for 3-4 minutes or until a pale golden crust has formed on the outside of the tofu. Remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl lined with kitchen paper to drain of excess oil while the sauce is finished.
Mix the remaining teaspoon of cornflour with the soy sauce and mirin until smooth, then add to the simmering stock with the ginger juice. Season with black pepper and once the sauce has thickened, serve the tofu on a plate, pouring the sauce around and topping with the spring onion.