The moment I spied the new book from Elizabeth Andoh, "Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions," I was intrigued. You’ll most likely find me looking at recipes for meat feasts, but the style and structure of this book made me stop and think, I should try that. If you’re looking for new vegan or vegetarian recipes, you’re in expert hands.
Andoh has been exploring and chronicling Japanese food since she moved there as a student from the U.S. in the 1960s. And for Japan enthusiasts who can't make it to her Tokyo cooking school, her latest book teaches different techniques and dishes that are rooted in Buddhist temple cooking. We recently spoke with Andoh via phone as she started her U.S. book tour in New York City.
What is the concept of kansha? Kansha is not really a culinary word. It's a word that is used when you appreciate something that has happened. A dictionary would translate it as appreciation and gratitude, but basically it's acknowledging what others have done. When it comes to food and kansha, you're talking about the bounty of nature and the clever transformation of what nature provides.
And how does that translate to the kitchen? Everyone's got to eat, so it's taking natural gifts and transforming that into good food. An underlying principle is not to create waste. Not wasting is respectful of what nature gives us and is mindful of the energy and effort of other people who have made it possible for you to be nourished.
Why did you decide to focus on vegan and vegetarian dishes? A lot of people think [the vegan or vegetarian diet] is limiting and all about abstinence, when it's really about abundance. It's nothing to do with what you can't do, and everything to do with making the most of what you have. You don't have to be a committed vegan or vegetarian to appreciate kansha. There are many recipes in the book that will be very appealing to people who have toyed with the idea but aren't ready to make a final commitment.
Are these recipes very traditional? The recipes themselves are Japanese, and my mission was to get people hooked on exploring unfamiliar ingredients and raise their comfort level. Kansha is an ancient concept in Japan; it's been practiced without being articulated until recently. In a prewar agricultural society with limited resources, you're going to practice kansha because that's the only way to feed yourself successfully. Today it isn't essential but it becomes a choice. You are mindful when you shop and are willing to expend the extra effort and energy to do that.
How did you decide which recipes to include? This book and my previous one, "Washoku," was written with what I consider a culinary advisory council. I put out a call for volunteers through my newsletter; I was looking for people with little or no experience in the Japanese kitchen and who were willling to take assignments. I was especially interested in two groups of people: 1) people who lived in mixed households and 2) people who lived in the Southern hemisphere.
By mixed, I mean if one person was vegan or vegetarian and perhaps the other wasn't, or someone who had lots of vegan or vegetarian friends and wanted to cook for them. I was very interested in getting feedback from people who had not already become vegan or vegetarian. I sought out people in places like Australia and New Zealand because I had a limited time for recipe testing and I wanted to do both seasons at once. Japan is in the Northern hemisphere, and I tried very hard to provide different seasonal versions of dishes so that people had various options. It was about trying to get as many people included in the process.
For more on kansha, Elizabeth Andoh invites you to visit www.kanshacooking.com, her free online culinary classroom. New recipes are posted every 5 to 6 weeks plus there are additional recipes and tips. And here's where you can buy "Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian traditions."