On March 11, 2011, Japan’s Tohoku region was shaken by a disastrous earthquake that killed several thousand and uprooted generations of people.
Elizabeth Andoh, who has lived in Japan for 47 years, studying Japanese cuisine and teaching culinary classes, remembers that day well.
“The first quake hit on Friday afternoon, and it was just very long – almost 3 minutes long, seemed like it would never, ever stop,” she recalled. “It was just surreal.”
Andoh, who was in Tokyo, had some damage to her home, but couldn’t imagine what people living a hundred miles away in Sendai, one of the hardest-hit cities, were going through. She wanted to help, even in some small way.
“I thought, ‘What can I do to affect long-term recovery?’ My skill bank is Japanese food and culture, so I decided I would pay tribute to the food traditions of the Tohoku.”
Andoh set out to recreate the comfort meals of the region, many of which didn’t have written recipes and were simply passed on from generation to generation, and document them in a book.
“Generations of people were and still are separated from where they grew up,” she said. “Nobody thought about how the food was emblematic of the area – that’s not usually talked about when disasters like this happen – but being totally removed from food that you were raised with is really stressful in a different sort of way.”
So she started researching and learning about the foods that were made on special occasions, like harako-meshi, a rice, salmon and roe dish or Tsuyuji, a celebratory hot pot made with straw-wrapped, brine-simmered tofu.
“I’d hear about people saying they were longing to eat these dishes, that it recalled to them happier days, and they wondered if they’d ever get to do that again,” she said.
After gathering several recipes, she found a group of 60 diverse volunteers to try them out, for two reasons. She wanted their feedback, and she wanted to choose recipes that would appeal to people around the world while still remaining true to Tohoku flavor and technique. And secondly, she wanted to make people feel a bit more connected to the struggle of those affected by the earthquake.
“Making rice balls, just like the ones that survivors first savored in emergency shelters, or making a bowl of steaming pinched-noodle soup, recalling it was the first warm food that comforted those who survived, changes the way you think about food and how it connects people.”
Andoh eventually settled on two dozen recipes that are now collected in her e-book, “Kibo,” which translates to “brimming with hope.” A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to nonprofits in the Tohoku region.
“One of the recipes that became an instant favorite with all who tried it was the pine nut andtōfu sauce,” she said. “Many of my testers assumed that pine nuts were exclusive to Mediterranean cuisines and were surprised to learn that many Tohoku dishes include them.”
Here, she pairs the sauce with fruit.
Pine nut tōfu sauce
Matsu no mi shira aé
Foods dressed with a creamy tōfu sauce are called shira aé — a classic dish in Japan’s culinary repertoire. To make the sauce, some cooks merely mash the tōfu and season it with a drizzle of mirin (sweet rice wine) and a drop of usukuchi shōyu (light-colored soy sauce); others will blend mashed tōfu with sweet, pale miso or a spoonful of rich sesame paste. In the Tohoku region, many cooks will add toasted, crushed pine nuts to enhance their rendition of shira aé.
The sauce goes marvelously well with fall fruit such as grapes, pears, and tart, crisp apples. Think of this dish as a Japanese Waldorf salad, minus the mayo. The fruit can be tossed in the sauce alone, or in combination with blanched leafy greens (slightly bitter ones, such as dandelion greens or watercress, are especially good).
Makes about 1 cup, 4 to 6 servings
1/4 to 1/3 large block firm tōfu, about 4 ounces, drained
1/4 to 1/3 cup pine nuts (matsu no mi), untoasted
Pinch of salt
Drop of mirin
Bring a pot of water to a vigorous boil, add the tōfu, and cook for 1 minute (boil for 2 to 3 minutes if the tōfu is left over from a previous use). With a slotted spoon, remove the tōfu, draining it well as you set it aside.
In a heavy skillet set over medium heat, dry roast the pine nuts, stirring them with a spatula or gently swirling the skillet to keep the nuts in motion. When the nuts are aromatic and very lightly colored, about 2 minutes, remove the skillet from the stove. The nuts will continue to roast with retained heat, so remove when the color is on the light side. While still warm, transfer the nuts to a suribachi (grooved mortar) to crush them the old-fashioned way or to the bowl of a mini-sized food processor to crush them the modern way.
If you are using a suribachi, grind the nuts until completely crushed and slightly oily. Then add the drained tōfu. Continue to grind until the mixture is smooth and thick. Sprinkle with the salt and grind further. Finally, drizzle in a few drops of mirin.
If you are using a mini-sized food processor, pulse the nuts until crushed and slightly oily. Scrape down the sides. Add the drained tōfu. Continue to pulse until the mixture is smooth and thick. Sprinkle with the salt, drizzle in a few drops of mirin, and pulse to blend.
If you made the sauce in a suribachi bowl, you can use the bowl for salad (add the greens to the bowl and mix). If you made the sauce in the food processor, scrape out the sauce and use immediately, or store in a covered glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Persimmons stuffed with fall fruits in pine nut–tōfu sauce
Matsu no mi shira aé, kaki utsuwa
4 small firm persimmons, preferably the boxy-shaped Fuyu variety
2 ounces seedless green or red grapes (about 10), sliced in quarters lengthwise
1 small Fuji apple, cored and diced
1 cup Matsu no mi shira aé (pine nut–tōfu Sauce)
Slice off the top of one of the persimmons to make a “lid” about 1/4 inch thick. With a curved serrated knife (the kind used to cut grapefruit segments), carefully trace a circle around the inner rim of each persimmon. Ideally, you will leave about 1/4- to 1/3-inch thick walls. Repeat to make four persimmon “cups,” each with its own lid.
Dice the flesh you removed from the persimmon cups and put the pieces in a bowl with the grapes and apple.
Just before serving, toss the mixed fruit with the tōfu sauce. Divide among the four persimmon cups, mounding the filling slightly. Set the lids at a jaunty angle to the side of each.