Japanese Buddhist temple cuisine. Devotional cuisine.
Sydney CBD and Inner West has a range of places for Japanese cuisine, ranging from high end restaurants, sushi trains (remember when they were all the rage?), izakaya-style bars, to food court vendors famous for their ramen. Yet, I had not encountered Japanese Buddhist cuisine.
When I made a carrot and beet slaw a couple of weeks ago, I ended up with what seemed like a mountain of beet greens and carrot tops. Looking at the carrot tops, I remembered a recipe from Melissa Clark’s website for carrot greens with sesame dressing. The recipe stuck in my mind because it came from a book written by an Abbess from a Zen (Buddhist) temple, featuring vegan recipes in the Zen tradition.
Melissa described making this dish as an almost an act of devotion or meditation, because it took so long to prepare a small amount of vegetables. It was, indeed, an exercise in patience; along the way, it became also a revelation in finding the perfect balance of flavours in the simplest rituals.
The carrots were pulled from the ground that morning, so the carrot greens had hidden pockets of dirt – healthy, hearty dirt, that played hide-and-seek while I tried to wash them out of the carrot greens. After washing, came blanching. After blanching, a quick bath of iced water. After that, soaking in 2-3 changes of cold water overnight to rid the greens of some of their bitterness.
Finally, a simple dressing of white sesames, soy, sugar and mirin.
What began as a kitchen sink of carrot greens yielded barely a bowl of ready-to-eat carrot greens. This bowl became part of Sunday lunch, though I may have (like Melissa Clark) stood at the counter and sneaked a few bites before the bowl made it to the table.
After these preparations, the carrot greens retained some of their texture and bite, and still had a lingering mouthful of savoury, mild bitterness. It almost reminded me of watercress, or celery, or other slightly-bitter Chinese vegetables, like hong cai. But it was something more, or just something harder to describe.
The dressing also reminded me of a vegetable side dish from a childhood in China: morning glory (or water spinach, or kong xin cai) blanched or briefly stir fried, and served with a simple mixture of soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar. With a nod to this memory, I also drizzled a tiny amount of sesame oil over the carrot tops – which complemented the aroma of toasted white sesame.
The result may have strayed from the Zen tradition, but the flavours remained crisp, cleansing, and somehow thoughtful.
(Non-carrot greens photos from a recent trip to Berowra Waters, Sydney.)
Carrot Greens with Sesame Dressing
(from the book Good Food From a Japanese Temple by Soei Yoneda, also available on Melissa Clark’s blog)
1 bunch carrot greens, washed and stemmed (I discarded the toughest and thickest stems)
3 tbsp toasted and ground white sesame seeds (I ground mine in a small mortar and pestle)
1 1/2 tsp soy sauce (use Japanese soy sauce if you can find it, or ‘light’ Chinese soy sauce)
1 tbsp sake (I used mirin instead)
1/8 tsp sugar (I used castor/granulated sugar)
Optional: I also drizzled 1/2 tsp sesame oil over the greens
1. In a large pot of lightly salted boiling water, parboil carrot greens for 2 minutes. While the greens are parboiling, place ice cubes in a large bowl. Drain the carrot greens and put them into the ice water to ‘shock’ (this stops cooking and helps to retain a bright green colour). After a minute, drain the greens again and squeeze dry.
2. Place carrot greens in a bowl of cold water and refrigerate overnight (or for at least 8 hours). Change the water 2-3 times to eliminate the carrot greens’ bitter flavour.
3. Drain and squeeze dry again – wet carrot greens will dilute the dressing. Optional: cut the greens into 1/2 inch (just over 1 cm) lengths.
4. Mix sesame seeds, soy sauce, sake, and sugar, pour the mixture over the carrot greens. Drizzle a very small amount of sesame oil over the greens (be careful not to allow the sesame oil overpower the other ingredients, use less than you think you need). Allow the greens to sit and marinate for 30-60 minutes before serving; or if you are in a hurry, you could use a little more dressing.
Serve: cold or at room temperature.