December 6, 2009

I'll Die Happy: Japanese Zen Vegetarian Cuisine


I am probably winging my way back to the United States as you read this, but thanks to the wonders of blogging technology, I'm able to schedule this to post automatically while I'm indisposed.

It seems I've done little but eat while on vacation in Japan (typical), so I've got plenty to tell you about! I'm going to go ahead and play my trump card first, though, and share photos from my meal at Daigo, a Michelin-starred (!) vegetarian restaurant (located in my parents' Tokyo apartment building, incidentally).

The restaurant's shojin (Buddhist vegetarian) cuisine is served kaiseki-style; small portions of each course are brought separately. My parents and I were actually seated in a private room "carpeted" with tatami mats. At first glance, it looks as though you'll be sitting right on the floor, but a pit is cleverly constructed beneath the table so that you're postured just as you'd be if you were sitting in a chair.

Along with the requisite "moist towlette" (or warm washcloth, rather), we were served a tiny glass of sweet plum wine to begin.

This stuff is a little too delicious. It's a good thing they only give you a shot's worth--I could get nice and toasty on it a little too quickly!

I had to take a moment to appreciate the room's decor before I was distracted by the many courses to come. I love the traditional Japanese tatami rooms.

And of course Mama-san and Papa-san make the room just a little more good-looking.

I had to pay homage to the benefactors of the meal. :)

As for the eats, there was no menu to speak of, let alone a full description of the food in English--you select your set of courses prior to dining, to the effect of small/medium/large/etc. (or rather, expensive/more expensive/really expensive/obscene). In other words, I'll just have to take my best shot at describing the food to you, as I can only be sure of maybe 75% of its composition.

My first course contained what appeared to be some boiled or baked vegetables (kabocha squash, mushroom, gingko, eggplant, pepper) covered in a delicious, gooey sauce and wrapped in leaves. Perhaps they were baked in the leaves...? I fear my uneducated descriptions are going to detract from the amazingness of this meal. Please take my word for it that it was glorious from start to finish, which is why my rule when eating Japanese food is, "If it tastes good, eat it and don't ask what it is."

On the side there were some cold mushrooms in a rather lemony broth. Also delicious.

The second course was a clear soup with vegetables. Spring onions and mushrooms, if I'm not mistaken.

This was followed by homemade soba noodles in broth, accompanied by this mysteriously gooey yam froth as well as dabs of mustard and onion.

I stirred all that together with my chopsticks and slurped away happily.
Next, I was presented with a plate of all kinds of little nibbles...

Clockwise from top left: shiso leaf filled with a sweet soy crumble, avocado-rice roll, itty-bitty mushrooms, some sort of white root vegetable carved into a flower shape, tempura mushrooms, and in the center dish, spinach.

I should get some sort of award for vague food descriptions. Surely this is a food blogger fail.


The next course was one of my favorites. I believe it was simply a giant slab of turnip (wahoo!) that had been boiled in a really thick, tasty vegetable broth.

It was topped with pea pods and a bit of tofu. At first glance, I might have thought this was a jellyfish if I didn't know it was a vegetarian restaurant! Thankfully, I could eat with the confidence that there were no exotic (read: eyeballs/innards/slimythings) animal parts lurking in any of the food.

Indeed, this course was easily identified:

It was a fig topped with miso sauce and ginger root. Amazing. Sounds simple, and yet I'm sure I couldn't replicate it if I tried.

Lastly, we had a rice course. This was far more interesting than the traditional rice bowl that finishes many Japanese meals, though. The rice was served in broth with dozens of little mushrooms and ginger floating about.

As with the noodle course, we had little dabs of zingy things to stir in. I really liked this rice dish and have the burns down my throat to prove it.

For dessert, we were served fruit and tea. Ironically, I managed to take pictures of every single course I was served except for dessert. Considering the amount of sweets I consume on a daily basis, this seems particularly neglectful on my part, especially because I had a big slab of very expensive Kyoto melon in front of me! Ordinarily, fruit for dessert doesn't seem that exciting, and I'm sure you can imagine what the strawberries and pears might have looked like, but just know that I don't think I've ever had better fruit in my life. How they manage to pick the most perfect (tasting AND looking) strawberries to serve without tasting them first, I'll never know.

Clearly, my meal, nay, experience at Daigo bought me a post's worth of gorgeous food porn--nowhere else is the presentation as impeccable as it is in Japan! Hope you enjoyed looking at each course as much as I did, and I'm only sorry you couldn't taste it too. It was seriously a wonder to behold, from beginning to end.

Barring any jet lag-induced delirium, you'll be seeing some more lovely (or at least interesting) meal pics here again soon. Until then, sayonara!


Niki said...

Oh yum! Not many things are more exciting that crazy foreign veg food that you can't even recognise what it is!

katherine said...

Everything looks delicious! I believe the mystery sometimes adds to the excitement of eating in an environment you aren't very familiar with. Glad you enjoyed so many wonderful meals but can't wait to have you back in the States!

Marina said...

I absolutely LOVE asian vegetarian food. It's become one of my favorite things. Everything you had looks delicious!

elise said...

SO cool.

ps had a dream you quit blogging last night. random yes. sadness ensued. glad it was not real!

Gena said...

Oh. My. God. I think I just died and went to international food heaven.


Erica said...

What a freaking trip! How jealous am I? You got to experience so many fabulous foods! ah! Glad you're home safe