Monday, October 29, 2007

Food of Devotion

Earlier this year I traveled to San Francisco and had one of my favorite meals at a restaurant called Medicine, the "new shojin eatstation," which I had first heard about in the New York Times. The word "shojin" is short for shojin riyori, which in Japanese means "devotional cuisine." This makes sense because it was first developed by Buddhist monks living in Japanese monasteries, cooking wholesome vegan food that was both rustic and yet often delicate, based on seasonal vegetables, soy and whole grains. The restaurant is not strictly vegan, but my dining companion, Felix Hunger, persuaded me to order only vegan dishes.

One of the most attractive dishes was called the Medicine Roll, an inside-out maki roll filled with crisp raw vegetables.

Another interesting roll was filled with fried tofu and pickled mango. Very fresh, clean tastes.

Felix ordered Udon Curry, which had a rich spicy broth, thick noodles and shredded veggie fritters, dramatically plated.

For my main course, I ordered the artisanal tofu bowl, with steamed vegetables. I'm a sucker for the fresh, nutty taste of house-made tofu, much more interesting than the pre-packaged version.

Felix and I had a few well-made but more commonly available dishes, such as goma ae (spinach salad with sesame dressing) and nasu dengaku (eggplant broiled with miso). However these were soon followed by another unique dish featuring dried bean curd skin, called yuba, artfully rolled up. The yuba was paired with kind of seaweed called wakame, and a dollop of wasabi.
I washed this all down with a delicious glass of cold green tea flavored with soy milk and spirulina.

The dessert, a two-tone pair of treats, was truly a case of the best being saved for last. One was a kind of chocolate mousse. The other, made with coconut milk, was a delightfully odd kind of mushroom soup, of all things. Delicate, sponge-like "silver mushrooms" swam in the creamy liquid, topped off with toasted buckwheat groats. The groats provided a perfectly contrasting crunch, and stumped me for a while by reminding me of something I couldn't put my finger on. I finally figured out what I was associating it with: the familiar, unmistakable flavor of my Jewish childhood, kasha varnishkes (bow tie noodle casserole with buckwheat groats). I never particularly liked kasha varnishkes but I liked the special occasions it appeared at. Holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, when the whole extended family would gather. High Holy Days. Like Proust's beloved madeleines, something about the taste brings a host of involuntary memories. And for me, coming full circle with the theme of the restaurant, it's the taste of devotion.

1 comment:

Marc said...

You liked this a lot more than I did, or my dining companions. For me, the most memorable thing about the meal was the incongruity between how lovely the food was, and how much of it all tasted the same, in a bland kinda way.

Oh, one other memorable thing: Nest beer, especially the White one. That stuff's great.