Kenchinjiru, Japanese Zen Buddhist vegetable soup

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It's been a cold and snowy winter so far around these parts, which usually means soups and stews for dinner. This classic Japanese soup is hearty yet low in calories, full of fiber, and just all around good for you. It helps to counteract all the cookies and sweets you might be indulging in at this time of year.

The name kenchinjiru (けんちん汁)derives from the Zen Buddhist temple where it was first made (or so it's claimed), Kencho-ji (建長寺)in the historical feudal town of Kamakura. Since kenchinjiru is a shojin ryouri or temple cuisine dish, the basic version given here is vegan. It's still very filling because of all the high fiber vegetables used. You could make a very satisfying vegan meal just from this soup and some brown rice.

While you could vary the root vegetables, one vegetable that is key to this soup is burdock root or gobo. Without its earthy flavor, the soup just isn't kenchinjiru to me. Burdock root is sold at most Asian supermarkets. Here's a photo of how they look, packaged:

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I got the ones in the photo some time ago from Nara Foods in Port Washington, NY, but I spotted three huge roots sold at H Mart for a mere 3 dollars (it may be called "u-eong", which is its name in Korean). Burdock root is supposed to make your body warm according to macrobiotic principles. I am not sure about the science of that, but who knows - it may account for why this low-calorie soup is as warming to me on a cold winter's day as a hearty beef bourgignon.

Recipe: Kenchinjiru

6 to 8 hearty servings

  • 8 cups (2l) vegan dashi stock, or 8 cups of water with vegan (konbu seaweed based) dashi granules
  • 3 medium carrots
  • 12 inch/ 30 cm length of burdock root or gobo
  • 8 inch / 25 cm piece of daikon radish
  • 6 to 8 raw shiitake mushrooms
  • 3 large or 4 medium taro root (satoimo) or 3 medium potatoes
  • 1 block (10 oz / 250g) firm tofu
  • 1 small block konnyaku (optional)
  • 1 tbs. dark sesame oil
  • 2 tsp. sea salt
  • 2 tbs. soy sauce
  • sansho or black pepper

Put the dashi stock in a large pot and heat it up as you prep the vegetables and so on.

Peel the burdock root (a peeler is the most handy thing for this) and slice on the diagonal as thinly as you can manage. Put into a bowl of cold water to get rid of any bitterness, and to stop it from turning black.

Peel the carrots and daikon radish, and cut lengthwise into half. Slice fairly thinly (thicker than the burdock, around 1/8 inch / 1/4 cm thickness).

Cut the stems off the shiitake mushrooms, and slice the caps into halves or quarters. Alternatively, leave them whole and make a crisscross decorative cut on the top of the caps, as shown in the photo.

Take the konnyaku out of the packaging and drain off the smelly water, Cut in half lengthwise, then slice thinly. Blanch in boiling water for a few minutes, then drain into a colander.

Peel the taro root or potatoes, and cut into chunks. Note that taro root is slimy, so leave this task until you've cut everything else up, since your cutting board will have to be washed afterwards anyway!

Drain the tofu well in a colander, then put it in the middle of a clean kitchen towel or a few layers of paper towel. Gather the towel around the tofu, and squeeze gently to get rid of excess water. Open up the towel, and crumble the tofu up with your hands, so that it looks like scrambled egg.

Heat up a large frying pan or wok with the sesame oil over high heat. Add the drained burdock root and stir fry for 2-3 minutes, then add the other vegetables, konnyaku and tofu. Stir fry for 4-5 minutes, put it all in the pot with the heated dashi stock. Add 1 tsp. salt, and lower the heat so that the soup is just very gently bubbling. simmer for 15 to 20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Periodically skim off any scum that forms on top of the soup as it cooks. Top up with more dashi or water if there seems to be too little.

Add the soy sauce, and taste; it may or may not need more salt or soy sauce. Add some if you think it needs it.

Serve in large soup bowls rather than small Japanese miso soup bowls. My mother used to have a set of extra-large bowls just for kenchinjiru. Optionally sprinkle on a little sansho or black pepper.

Variations

Miso soup variation

As you can see, this is a clear soup, not a miso soup (not all Japanese soups have miso!) You can add miso if you like. Add about 3/4 cup of miso to start, and add more if you think it's needed. Omit the salt and reduce the soy sauce to 2 tablespoons.

Pork version

If you add about 3 oz / 100 g of thinly sliced pork, cut into 1/2 inch / 1 cm pieces, to this dish instead of the tofu, it becomes tonjiru or butajiru (豚汁), which literally means 'pork soup'. Tonjiru is usually a miso soup, (follow the miso variation above) but it can be clear too. Add the white part of a leek, sliced, to the vegetable mix.

Fish paste products

Many people like to add sliced chikuwa or other fish paste products. See my oden post for more about these fish paste products, called nerimono. If you do use chikuwa or similar fish product, use a traditional bonito flakes based dashi stock instead of the vegan dashi.

Other things you could add or substitute

  • You can use turnips instead of the daikon radish, and sweet potatoes instead of the potato or taro root. Sliced onions can be a sweet addition, or use finely chopped green onions as a garnish.
  • Add ground or chopped up chicken instead of or in addition to the tofu.

Another way to cut the burdock root

The traditional way of cutting burdock root for this dish is to shave it into thin slivers, rather as you would sharpen a pencil (this is called sasagaki; burdock cut like this is called sasagaki gobo). This can be a bit tricky to do unless you have a very sharp knife, so I just slice it thinly instead.

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