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Japanese vegetable soups, from miso to noodle, complement every meal

miso soup 311 (photo credit: Legh Beisch)
miso soup 311
(photo credit: Legh Beisch)
Soups play a much more important role in Japan than in North America and Europe. Elizabeth Andoh, author of Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions and a long-time resident of Japan, quickly discovered this when she arrived. She learned that shirumono (literally “liquid foods,” or soups) were an essential part of all meals, even breakfast. In fact, soups are especially popular for breakfast, where soup enriched with miso (fermented soybean paste) is traditionally paired with rice and pickles.
Kansha, Andoh explains, means appreciation. “In a culinary context, the word acknowledges both nature’s bounty and the efforts and ingenuity of people who transform that abundance into marvelous food... kansha encourages us to prepare nutritionally sound and aesthetically satisfying meals that also... sustain our natural resources.”
In her latest newsletter, Andoh wrote that in the wake of the disaster that befell Japan, “I find myself more than ever wanting to share Japan’s culinary richness with the world. My immediate agenda: enabling anyone, anywhere to practice... kansha...learning to use food fully, with little or no waste. And the recent disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant prompts thorny questions regarding the excessive consumption of fuel and energy in feeding ourselves.”
Andoh, who teaches at her cooking school, A Taste of Culture, in Tokyo and Osaka, makes her vegetarian soup stock from kombu, or kelp, “perhaps the single most important sea vegetable in the Japanese pantry.” Sometimes she combines the nutritious sea vegetable with other sun-dried vegetables, such as radish or shiitake mushrooms, to make stocks of different flavors. Unlike long-simmered Western meat stocks, these stocks are made by soaking the dried vegetables in water.
To prepare a simple soup called sparkling broth, Andoh cooks dried shiitake mushrooms in vegetarian stock with carrots, snow pea strips and fresh bamboo shoots, adds fried tofu and seasons the soup with sake and soy sauce. She makes creamy soups from leeks, orange-fleshed squash or fava beans by blending the vegetables and their cooking liquid with miso.
There are two basic types of Japanese soups, wrote Shizuo Tsuji, who established the Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka to train professional chefs and was the author of Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art – clear soups and thick soups. Clear ones are usually served after the appetizer as a first course. Thick ones can be miso soups or can be “so full of meat or fish or poultry and vegetables that they are like Western stews.” Japanese cooks prefer to serve hot soups in soup bowls that come with lids to keep the contents hot.
For a substantial, chunky soup, Tsuji cooked potatoes, carrots, other root vegetables and fried tofu strips in stock flavored with paper-thin ginger slices, soy sauce and green onion. You can add spinach to this kind of soup, wrote Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz and Misuko Endo in The Complete Book of Japanese Cooking; they finish theirs with miso.
There’s much more to miso soup than the standard bowl one often gets at sushi restaurants.
“It is impossible for miso soup to be boring,” wrote Tsuji. There are many kinds of miso, and by combining them with different seasonings, produce and staples, in the course of a year “one can make a different miso soup nearly every day without repetition.”
Whether you make these light and flavorful vegetable soups with tofu, miso or noodles, they take only minutes to prepare. They are perfect when the weather has begun to warm up.
If you would like the soup to be more satisfying, heat shelled edamame (green soy beans) or cubes of soft tofu gently in the soup. You can use asparagus or zucchini instead of spinach. If you prefer, use chicken broth instead of vegetable. To flavor the broth for noodle soups like this one, Tsuji recommended using half light and half dark soy sauce.
30 gr. dried black Chinese mushrooms or shiitake mushrooms (about 10)
6 to 8 cups flavorful vegetable broth
4 to 6 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. mirin (sweet Japanese cooking wine)
170 to 225 gr. thin dried udon (linguine-shaped Japanese wheat noodles) or linguine
3 Tbsp. thinly sliced green onion
225 gr. spinach, stems discarded, leaves rinsed, torn in bite-size pieces (about 5 cups leaves)
salt to taste (optional)
hot red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
Soak mushrooms in hot water to cover in a medium bowl for 30 minutes. Remove from water, rinse and squeeze gently to remove excess water. Cut off and discard stems; quarter caps.
Bring broth just to a boil in a saucepan. Add mushrooms and simmer for 10 minutes or until just tender. Add soy sauce, sugar and mirin. Keep warm over low heat.
Cook noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat, stirring often with chopsticks or a fork, about 9 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well.
Divide noodles and green onion among 6 soup bowls.
Add spinach to broth and stir. Taste, and add salt and pepper flakes if desired. Ladle into bowls and serve hot.
Makes 6 servings
This recipe is adapted from from Elizabeth Andoh’s book, Kansha. Andoh wrote, “This elegant, celadon-colored soup captures the nutty, sweet essence of fava beans and sugar snap peas, a sure sign that springtime has arrived.”
Andoh called for 3 ounces of sugar snap peas in her recipe. Since they are not available in Israel, I have substituted snow peas, which are not as sweet as sugar snap peas, and added a small amount of cooked green peas. If you cannot get silken tofu, use soft or medium tofu. If you don’t have Japanese spicy mustard, use whatever mustard powder you have. To make the mustard for the soup, mix the powder with cold water, a few drops at a time, stirring to obtain a smooth paste.
1 generous cup shelled fresh fava beans, steamed until tender and tough skins removed
85 gr. snow peas, strings and stems removed and steamed until tender
3 Tbsp. cooked green peas
1⁄2 cup soy milk
1 tsp. white miso
11⁄2 cups vegetarian stock, preferably kelp stock
pinch of salt
About 170 gr. silken tofu, drained of packing liquid and cut into 4 small squares 1⁄2 tsp. Japanese spicy mustard
Fresh mint leaves, snipped fresh chives or minced fresh parsley
Place the fava beans, snow peas, green peas and soy milk in a food processor and pulse until the mixture is creamy and smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Add the miso and 1⁄2 cup of the stock. Pulse until completely smooth. The sweetness of light miso varies tremendously, so taste a bit and adjust with salt if necessary.
There are two methods you can use to heat the tofu: in a shallow saucepan or in the microwave. In both cases, have your soup bowls ready, preferably 4 deep, lidded Japanese soup bowls.
To heat the tofu in a saucepan: Place the remaining 1 cup stock in a shallow saucepan just large enough to hold the 4 tofu squares in a single layer. Cover the pan and heat slowly over low heat; it will take about 3 minutes for the tofu to heat through to the center. Jiggle the saucepan several times to make sure the tofu is not sticking. Use a broad, flexible spatula (a silicone spatula is especially good for this task) to lift the squares, placing 1 square in the bottom of each soup bowl. Cover to keep the tofu hot while you finish the soup. Reserve the stock in the pan.
To heat the tofu in the microwave: Place the 4 tofu squares on a microwave-safe plate lined with paper towels. Zap for 10 to 20 seconds 2 to 4 times (this is more effective than heating for a continuous 30 or 40 seconds). Using the paper towels or a flexible broad spatula, lift the squares, placing 1 square in the bottom of each soup bowl. Cover to keep the tofu hot while you finish the soup.
Pour the fava bean-pea puree into a small saucepan and add the stock remaining in the saucepan from heating the tofu, or the remaining 1 cup stock if the tofu was heated in the microwave. Place over medium-low heat and heat through, stirring constantly.
To serve, uncover the bowls and carefully pour the hot puree around the squares of tofu. The tofu will be higher than the level of puree. Place a dab of mustard at the center of each tofu square, then garnish with your herb of choice. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings
The writer is the author of the award-winning volume Faye Levy’s International Vegetable Cookbook.