Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan & Vegetarian Traditions

Book Review 2011

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What is kansha? Author Elizabeth Andoh opens her introduction to this lovely new cookbook by explaining that kansha means 'appreciation' in Japanese, a way of looking at the world that recognizes abundance over abstinence and encourages a culinary approach that is beautiful, nutritious, and sustainable.

Read on for a full review.

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Title & Publisher: Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions, by Elizabeth Andoh. Published by 10 Speed Press, 2010.

The author: Elizabeth Andoh is a well-known cooking instructor and cookbook author. Her award-winning books include Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen and An Ocean of Flavor. She was born in New York but has made Japan her home since 1967 where she directs A Taste of Culture, a culinary program.

First impressions: In keeping with its name, Kansha is a beautiful yet practical cookbook, with a sturdy hardcover and plenty of full-color photographs. At almost 300 pages and over 110 recipes, it is a substantial book with additional material such as A Guide to the Kansha Kitchen, A Catalog of Tools and Techniques, A Catalog of Ingredients and an Index.

The angle: As mentioned, kansha is a way to approach food, cooking, the kitchen and indeed your whole life with respect and celebration of the natural world. With a foundation in Buddhist temple vegetarian cooking (shojin ryori), it is based on the principals of non-harming, harmony and respect for nature, no waste, and a diligent, wholehearted approach to preparing food. Ms. Andoh explains that this fosters an appreciation for long, slow and sometimes laborious cooking methods that eschew shortcuts. Thankfully, she offers both the traditional and the shorter, more practical, methods in her recipes.

Other aspects of kansha cooking are 'one food, used entirely' (ichi motsu zen shoku) which encourages the use of the all edible parts of a plant such as the peels, roots, stems, etc. and kondate-zukushi which is the notion of taking pleasure in making an entire meal from a single ingredient. This later practice comes from working with the cycles of nature when a plant may be in abundance for a short period of time. What this leads us to is a beautiful and delicious approach to cooking that is integrated with seasonal vegetables, grains and legumes with no, or very little, waste.

In Kansha, Ms. Andoh divides ingredients in to eight sections: Rice, Noodles, Stocks and Soups, Fresh from the Market, The Well-Stocked Pantry, Mostly Soy, Tsukemono (a form of raw pickle ) and Desserts, offering several recipes in each category.

Strengths: As mentioned above, this book is beautiful and well-thought out. It does more than just supply recipes, it encourages the reader to take up this approach of cooking and apply it to our particular life and culture. Her guide to the kitchen and catalog of ingredients are especially helpful and fascinating and are well worth a read even if you don't plan to run a full-time kansha kitchen.

Recipes for right now: I am really excited to try Pom-Pom Sushi (cute little balls of sushi rice pressed with ingredients like pickled radicchio leaves, shiitake mushrooms and avocado) and Creamy Kabocha Soup which is made with fresh-pressed soy milk, miso and fresh chives. Also, the Warm and Spicy Cabbage and Pepper Slaw looks simple and delicious, as well as Matcha Muffins. And the entire Tsukemono chapter will be in heavy rotation in my kitchen this winter.

Recommended? I recommend this book for anyone who is interested in exploring Japanese vegetarian/vegan cooking and the kansha approach to the kitchen. However, it might not be for people who are looking for quick shortcuts and slap-dash methods. Many recipes in Kansha reference other recipes (such as Basic Kelp Stock) which means you will have to plan ahead a little. But, in my opinion, this is one of the strengths and teachings of kansha: food and food preparation as something thoroughly integrated into your life and not just crammed in when convenient. The kansha lifestyle asks for us to slow down and be more deliberate, and to cultivate an awareness of our surroundings, the seasons and the nature of our own appetites. How refreshing and wise!

• Buy the book: Kansha by Elizabeth Andoh, $23.10 (Amazon).

• For more information, visit the Kansha website and A Taste of Culture.

• Attention West Coast dwellers! Elizabeth Andoh will be in San Francisco and Portland in mid-Feburary. For more information, check this listing.

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(Images: 10 Speed Press)