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Vegan Dining at Its Finest

Kyoko Nakayama speaks to two celebrated chefs championing vegan fine dining in Tokyo, Japan.

By W Tan | 24 December, 2019 | #featurefriday, Features, Food, Restaurants, Travel
2019-12-24 09:30:25 2019-12-23 17:53:16

Veganism is going mainstream. Conversations on veganism have taken the world by storm this year, thanks in no small part to a new wave of plant-based meatless meats by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. In reality, the vegan movement dates back decades earlier to 1944, when an animal rights advocate named Donald Watson and five others founded The Vegan Society in the UK.

Unlike vegetarianism, which is the dietary practice of not consuming meats, veganism is a way of living which rejects the exploitation of animals. Based on this philosophy, vegans eschew all animal-derived products, such as fur and leather, and embrace a fully plant-based diet sans dairy and eggs.

More and more people are turning vegan, not just for ethical reasons, but also for the reported benefits to health and the environment.

Chef Koji Shimomura of Édition Koji Shimomura

Vegan food can be hard to find in Japan, despite the country being rich in vegetables from the land and the sea. Fortunately, the scene is changing in bigger cities like Tokyo, where vegan options can now be found on supermarket shelves and at top-notch fine dining restaurants.

Koji Shimomura, chef of Édition Koji Shimomura, started his vegan menu as a healthy option for diners. His two Michelin-star establishment in Roppongi, easily one of the most vaunted French restaurants in Tokyo, is modelled after the finest restaurants in France, but Shimomura credits his culinary style to his mentor, celebrated chef Bernard Loiseau of La Côte d’Or (who tragically took his life in 2003 following rumours his restaurant might lose its third Michelin star).

Loiseau was a proponent of cuisine à l’eau – “water cooking” – and was known to add vegetable purée to sauces for bright, fresh flavours. His food was light and digestible, while still gloriously rich in taste, texture and aesthetics. Shimomura was under Loiseau’s tutelage for one-and-a-half years, after which he left to open his own restaurant in Tokyo, in 2007. Soon, his healthy and flavourful dishes began to gain acclaim amongst diners including Erica Angyal, the nutritionist for Miss Universe Japan.

When flavour is not compromised, a healthier, low-calorie dish is often preferred over the original. Especially so for image-conscious guests, such as pageant finalists and top models. Shimomura says he saw increasing requests for low-carb, gluten-free or vegetarian dishes; and the more he acceded, the more refined his dishes got.

Still, he wondered: how were international contemporaries serving plant-based dishes? Led by this curiosity, he brought his staff along to Michelin-starred restaurants across London, Paris, Milan and Frankfurt, to sample their vegetarian and/or vegan menus.

The results were a mixed bag. Some restaurants served up great vegetarian courses. Others simply omitted the meat and plated up vegetable side dishes in double portions. Either way, Shimomura was dissatisfied by the disparity in taste he found between vegetarian and regular menus.

Based on his experiences, he drew up a list of 10 guiding principles for vegan cuisine:

  1. The quality of the ingredients is important, more so than in non-vegetarian dishes.
  2. Consider more vivid and pleasant colours for the colour palette.
  3. Add a bit more salt to complement the flavours of protein and fat.
  4. Consider multiple layers of umami to create synergism.
  5. Add spices, such as chilli, to give a subtle kick and aroma.
  6. Serve ingredients which have a unique texture.
  7. Adopt emulsified sauces or purées to create creaminess.
  8. Use nuts and grains.
  9. Opt for a variety of vegetable oils.
  10. Use fresh herbs.

Shimomura is determined not to replicate meat in his vegan dishes. In his mind, “Since veganism espouses not exploiting animals, to serve something that tastes like or looks like meat is out of keeping with vegan philosophy.” He also shuns white sugar, because animal bones are used in the process of refining sugar.

So what exactly does Shimomura use? For the first main course, he takes broccoli, which is high in protein content, and pairs it with a medley of sweet vegetables in varying textures such as carrot, lotus root and makomodake (Manchurian wild rice stem). On the side, he adds gnocchi with sea buckthorn and salted koji (rice malt) sauce. The vegetables are grilled to perfection and dressed up with artistic dashes of a green broccoli sauce emulsified with kombu stock, to bring out their rich umami flavour.

Another main course is a thick shiitake mushroom stuffed with multi-grain risotto, accompanied by a slice of crunchy colinky pumpkin, a sprig of asparagus, and some leafy kale. For the risotto stock, Shimomura uses daitokuji natto (koji-fermented dried soya beans) together with kelp dashi and peanut oil. “There are different layers of umami in this dish,” he explains. “Guanylic acid from the shiitake, aspartic acid from the asparagus, glutamic acid from the kelp.” He finishes off with a sweet and sour plum sauce, which adds a refreshing note.

Most of the stocks and sauce bases Shimomura uses in his kitchen are vegan. He adds in cream or meat stocks after for his regular gastronomic course.

“Traditionally, Japanese food does not contain much meat or daily produce, and our palate is familiar with clean flavours. We have lots of fermented materials which give dishes plant-based umami. This is one advantage Japanese chefs have in creating vegan dishes,” concludes Shimomura.

Chef Kotaro Noda of FARO Shiseido

FARO is located in the heart of Tokyo, Ginza. An Italian restaurant with 18 years of history, it is owned by world-renowned cosmetic company, the Shiseido Group. In October 2018, FARO renewed its concept and style as an innovative, vegan-friendly Italian restaurant. Kotaro Noda, chef of Bistrot64, a one Michelin-starred ‘neo-bistrot’ in Rome, Italy, was appointed as the executive chef.

“I would like to bring in cutting-edge Italian cuisine, which rarely exists in Tokyo even though it is an international city,” he says.

He has a point. Other than vegan-specialty restaurants, not many restaurants in Tokyo serve vegan courses in their menu. Vegan courses are typically considered a special dietary request. Not so in Rome, where Noda notes, “Nowadays, it is normal to see vegan menus in restaurants in Italy.”

To showcase this stylistic difference, during his first few months at FARO, Noda served only the vegan menu for lunch. (Now he serves a non-vegan menu as well.) Noda explains that there is a reason for his insistence on pushing plant-based dishes. Before he took over the kitchen of FARO, he had visited many passionate producers all over Japan. Throughout the journey, he realised that agriculture in Japan is not sustainable, especially for the farmers. As he had grown up in Ehime prefecture, which is famous for its production of mandarin oranges, he knew full well the problems faced by the local farmers.

“Compared to animal protein, the price of vegetables is too cheap, even though farmers put in as much effort into growing vegetables as producing meat or fish,” he points out. Also, in Japan, sensuousness of the produce matters – sometimes too much so. “If the shape is not perfect, farmers cannot sell the vegetables. Japanese tend to think that everything needs to be in the same shape, the same size. But that is impossible. Nature isn’t something we can control.”

So Noda selected farmers whom he could rely on, and told them frankly, “Please send me whatever you have in the farm. I don’t care about the shape nor size.” He buys irregular products at regular prices, believing that to use such produce is the way to be sustainable.

Even though he was trained in Michelin-starred restaurants, Noda chose to open a casual bistro, because he was tired of the way many fine dining restaurants saw food. “Chefs tend to use only the finest parts of the produce, and throw away the rest,” he says. “We need to appreciate what nature gives us and not waste it. Otherwise, we cannot sustain our lives in the future, especially when the world population is growing so fast.”

Now Noda has started a new challenge: to elevate vegan dishes to fine dining elegance. “Salt plays an important role in satisfying the palate. In Asia, the amount of salt used in dishes is much less than in Italy.” He had cooked recently in Beijing, China, and found Chinese food flavourful despite the lower use of salt.

“In Beijing cuisine, there are nine types of expressions of flavours. The other varieties of flavours help to compliment saltiness.” He applies a similar concept in his zucchini dish. As Japanese zucchini is very light in flavour, he brushes a small amount of chilli oil all over the plate before laying on the zucchini slices, so as to enhance their delicate sweetness.

Noda feels deeply about promoting a vegan diet and eating sustainably. The father to a two-year-old boy adds, “If we continue eating the way we do, we might have nothing to eat maybe 30 years down the road, after our children’s era. I don’t mean everyone needs to eat vegan food every day. But it would be good if we could change our eating habits a little, and replace our dining out experiences with plant-based menus every once in a while.”

Flavourful, aromatic, satisfying and healthy, vegan dishes are here to stay, and fine dining restaurants like FARO and Édition Koji Shimomura are paving the way. By going vegan, we not only celebrate the pleasures of gastronomy, we also play a part in transforming the future of our planet.

A writer by profession, a gourmand by passion.