Shōjin ryōri chefs offer vegetarian cooking classes in English

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

I had to do a double take when I arrived for my lesson with Tokyo Cook, a company offering Japanese cooking classes in English that launched in March. Although the website mentions that the kitchen studio is “hidden inside the newly opened restaurant Sougo” — the less-formal sibling of Daigo, Daisuke Nomura’s Michelin-starred shōjin ryōri (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) restaurant — I hadn’t expected it to be so well concealed. Finding no sign, I inquired at the bar and was led wordlessly through the dining area to a private room. Behind the sliding wooden door, a table had been set for three, and chef Shinichi Yoshida was already busy at the stove. The experience was oddly akin to walking into a speakeasy — albeit one serving healthy Japanese food instead of moonshine.

When the other guests came in, Yoshida greeted us warmly and described the menu he would be demonstrating: nasu dengaku (fried eggplant with sweet miso), shirotama zunda ae (rice dumplings with soybean paste) and homemade tofu. The lesson began with an introduction to dashi, the broth made from kelp and bonito flakes, which is the cornerstone of Japanese cooking. Passing around samples of the smoky stock, Yoshida explained the difference between ichiban-dashi, which is used for clear soups, and happo-dashi, which is added to stewed and braised dishes.

“We use more bonito flakes in happo-dashi to get a stronger flavor,” he says. The flash-fried eggplant would be simmered in happo-dashi spiked with soy sauce and mirin (sweet sake). The same stock would form the base of the thickened sauce for the tofu, as well as a dipping sauce to accompany the colorful soba (buckwheat noodle) dish at the end of the meal.

Yoshida has an avuncular charm and peppers his explanations with facts about the history of the dishes. Prior to becoming a cooking instructor, he had run an upscale soba restaurant for 28 years before closing the shop in 2012. Assisted by Yoko Goto, who provided English translations, the chef walked us through the preparation of each course.

Goto, who is a certified sommelier and food specialist, also gives lessons at Tokyo Cook. While Yoshida’s recipes require some advanced techniques (chef Nomura also plans to teach advanced shōjin ryōri courses later in the year), Goto’s classes, which are conducted in English, are geared toward beginners, particularly visitors and foreign residents. Her lessons showcase favorites such as rolled sushi and tempura in addition to seasonal menus that change monthly. For each class, Goto creates recipe sheets in English and Japanese with pictures of the ingredients so that students can easily find the products at the supermarket.

“It can be difficult for non-Japanese who are interested in the food culture to find a lot of useful information,” she says. “I want to show real Japanese home cooking, so I was happy when this opportunity came.”

Yoshida and Goto will hold a sake-pairing course in June, which I’ll likely be back for — and next time I’ll know where to find the kitchen.

For more info, visit www.tokyo-cook.com.