Long before modern chefs began puttering about in their kitchen laboratories concocting faux caviar and the like, ancient Buddhist monks were already performing a form of delicious alchemy over crackling wood fires. The vegetarian diet of Buddhist monks prompted a smorgasbord of soy products made to resemble something that it is not. The tofurky – a discredit to both tofu and turkey – is a modern descendent of these inventions, which does not inspire much confidence in the genre of Buddhist cuisine. Well, every noble house has a few bastard children running about mucking up the family name.
Vegetarian temple cooking, know as shojin ryori in Japan, is one of the most elegant and exalted dining experiences that money can buy. Modern haute cuisine is greatly inspired by this temple tradition, from the minute but multitude of courses, the emphasis on seasonality, to the mischievous havoc it wreaks on one’s expectations. It is a cuisine that loves to play pretend. The game delves deeper than stringy tofu dressed up as meat. Allow me to introduce sesame tofu, the pretender of pretenders, a nutty savory confection that imitates the smooth tender texture of silken tofu that need not contain a molecule of soy.
Sesame tofu, or goma tofu, is a smooth wobbly block of roasted nuttiness sitting serenely in a shallow pool of subtly sweet and savory stock. There are only three main ingredients: water, sesame paste, and kuzu starch. You can grind your own toasted sesame to a smooth paste or you can get a jar of tahini or nerigoma in Japanese. Kuzu starch is a thickener extracted from the root of the kuzu plant that imparts a more elastic texture than corn or potato starch. All the ingredients are gluten-free and can be found at a Japanese grocer. Soy sauce is a common seasoning for goma tofu, so if you need to be strict about gluten, be sure to use a gluten-free soy sauce.
In the right proportions, the sesame and kuzu create a melt-in-your mouth experience, and flavor may hit you like spoonful of freshly ground peanut butter, but without the oiliness and the stickiness. Seeing the pale sesame mixture come together into a smooth lustrous cube is sort of magical, and as the summer heat is ebbing, it’s high time to play in the kitchen again.
If you have any comments, questions or other tasty tidbits, contact DuanDuan at SnackBar.Kitchen@gmail.com.
500ml water (or dashi for more umami)
100g sesame paste (tahini or nerigoma)
50g kuzu starch
Sugar, to taste
Soy sauce, a few drops
Salt, to taste
- Combine sesame paste and kuzu in small saucepan. Add water a little at a time to achieve a smooth homogenous mixture. Season with sugar, soy sauce, and salt to taste.
- Heat sesame mixture over medium-high heat mixing constantly with spatula. Lower heat once mixture begins to thicken (this will happen very suddenly, so watch out) and continue stirring vigorously. Treat the stirring like kneading dough to achieve a smoother and more elastic texture.
- Remove from heat once the mixture falls from the spatula with a cartoonish plop. Keep stirring violently for a minute, just for luck and texture.
- Dip a small rectangular pan in water and pour in sesame mixture. Smooth out the surface with spatula. Drop the tray on the counter a few times to remove air bubbles. Cover with plastic wrap so that it directly touches the mixture without any pockets of air. Chill in fridge till set, about 5 hours.
- Unmold by pouring a little water around the edge of the pan and invert onto cutting board. Slice in four with wetted knife.
- Serve in shallow bowl. Combine dressing ingredients to taste and pour over tofu. Add a dab of wasabi on top for the full taste of tradition.