Guest post: Five freaky and fantastic vegan Japanese foods you must eat now!  »

Japanese food is awesome. It’s light and healthy and after eating it, you usually feel pleasantly satiated rather than weighed down (unless it’s tempura, or okonomiyaki, or—let’s just move on, shall we?). But did you know that Japan is home to some seriously freaky shizzle? If your palate is begging for variety and you need your culinary world to be rocked, we invite you to check out some of these funky Japanese foods. You will not be disappointed.
1. Devil’s got your tongue? Check out crazy konyaku!

Sometimes translated as “devil’s tongue,” konyaku is a gelatinous paste made from yams. You can sometimes find it in big gray blocks with black flecks in them (which just may be one of the most unappetizing forms a food can take), and occasionally in little ribbon shapes that are tied into a bow. If you’re feeling brave enough to try the block, you can rinse it off, and then do whatever you like to do with weird gelatinous substances. You could throw some into a stir-fry or soup to make things more interesting, or even bread and deep-fry it for a batch of “down-home country-fried devil’s tongue.” It has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?

2. Can’t get enough of that jelly-like weirdness? Kick it with kanten!
Kanten is another freaky-deaky Japanese substance. Sometimes called agar, sometimes agar-agar (isn’t that the best?), this algae-derived white powder can be cooked up to solidify stuff and make some very interestingly textured jellies, custards, puddings, and aspics. This is also super-popular as a diet food in Japan because of its high-fiber, low-calorie content. So you can eat as much as you want! Just as long as you don’t mind, uh, going to the bathroom later.

3. It looks like a booger, but it’s snot. Yamaimo, y’all! 
Maybe it’s not polite to talk about boogers at the dinner table, but it’s really hard not to talk about snot when we’re talking yamaimo, or “mountain yam.” On the outside, it appears to be a long, thin, shaggy potato (picture Shaggy from Scooby Doo in potato form). However, once you start grating it, it turns into a white, gooey, mucous-like substance, which you can use to bind various things together, or you can just take it as is and throw it on top of a bowl of soba noodles for a dish called “tororo.” Which is probably more fun to say than it is to eat. Just sayin’.

4. Yes, it smells like feet, but it’s GOOD for you. Nasty natto!
Can you tell I’m not the biggest fan of the fermented soybeans known as natto? However, I’m adult enough to recognize that some people can actually get past the funky smell (like feet!), and texture (slimy, sticky, AND stringy!) and enjoy this stuff. Renowned for its probiotic properties, natto is said to help build a healthy digestive tract, and is even sometimes used to clean out bacteria-infested water. Well, like the old saying goes, “Good enough for bacteria-infested water, good enough for me!” If that describes your culinary philosophy, wrap some up with sushi rice in sheets of nori for nattomaki, or mix it with kimchee and rice (some people swear by this pungent combination).

5. Rockin’ renkon (a.k.a. lotus root)!

Compared to the other foods on this list, lotus root is rather mild. It doesn’t have a super-strange taste or texture, but just take a look at this and tell me it’s not freaky. Sure, the outside looks like a potato, but slice through it and you get a crazy cross-section that’s as beautiful as it is bizarre. Plus, lotus root is almost as versatile as its cousin, the potato (My apologies to any biologists who are shaking their heads in anger as they read this). You can deep-fry lotus roots for some kick-ass “potato-cousin” chips, toss them in the rice cooker along with whatever grain you’re cooking to add some variation to the mix, or chop them up into tiny pieces and put them in your rice for a crunchy and fun take on inari. Do you have any favorite recipes for these freaky foods? Feel free to share them here!

Melissa Feineman is a Japonophile writer and editor who is looking for work. You should totes hire her. Or just check out her shizzle on her rad website. You must especially read her AWESOME Japanese dating advice column, Let’s Dating!

[Renkon and kanten photos from author, natto from snowpea&bokchoy, konyaku from alecvuijlsteke!]


Guest recipe: Miyoko Schinner’s vegan mozzarella di bufala!  »

I miss cheese. Don’t get me wrong—I’m sure if I ate it now, I’d get queasy right away and it would feel heavy and cloying (you know, in addition to all the guilt). So I guess what I mean is that I miss the idea of cheese (I’m deep).

I haven’t found a vegan cheese I really like except Dr. Cow, but the stuff costs as much as gold, so I rarely indulge in it and would never even entertain the idea of using it as an ingredient in a recipe.

Daiya is a great development in the store-bought cheese arena, but I’m not a huge fan. To me it tastes too, I dunno, fake. A little like Cheez Wiz (please don’t hate me).

Homemade nut cheese (hee hee) always seemed to me like this mysterious and fancy thing that was unattainable by regular, non-professional folk. But last Thanksgiving I happened to sit with a few lovely people from Café Gratitude and Gracias Madre at the Farm Sanctuary Celebration for the Turkeys (cough, adopt a turkey, cough). I expressed my awe of cashew cheese and they all told me that it’s actually not as intimidating to make as one would think. That was the spark that got me going. My mission became saving up for a Vita-Mix blender as my present to myself for my next 5 birthdays (that thought makes me feel better about the price) and to learn some recipes. In October I attended a cheese-making session held at Veg Fest by Miyoko Schinner and it got me so inspired that I finally took a deep breath and bought my blender (and she’s beautiful guys!).

Miyoko made three cheeses—gruyère, brie, and mozzarella di bufala—all delicious. I mean far and away the closest I’ve had to real cheese. It has the sharpness coming from the fermentation process and the right mouthfeel (ugh, I hate that word). And it’s pure food. Nothing processed here.

For those of you who may be intimidated like I was, I wanted to share my experience with Miyoko’s recipe—which is below, as well as on her blog—and  show you that it’s not so scary to do.

Important note: Do everything as she says; I didn’t on my first attempt, and the whole thing bombed. Basically, make sure to ferment it long enough to have a sharpness but not so long that it loses the mildness of mozzarella. I only did six hours on the first try for fear of making it too sharp, and the cheese tasted like nothing. I would taste as the hours go by and stop fermenting* when it’s right for you. Because it had no tang, and in an effort to salvage it, I continued to further screw up by adding lemon juice. I’m no scientist, but apparently lemon juice doesn’t like agar agar. The balls didn’t firm up (hee hee) in the water and it was a mushy mess. So, no lemon juice!

The one thing I did change in my second attempt, which didn’t seem to ruin anything, is add a whole teaspoon of salt, because—well, I just really like salt.

The second batch came out beautifully. The cheese firming almost immediately in the ice water was very neat—like Magic Shell chocolate sauce (side note: You can totally make that stuff yourself!).

I made a stacked Caprese salad with a reduced balsamic drizzle (dudes, it’s just boiled vinegar) and also tried it on pizza. The Caprese salad is remarkably similar to the non-vegan version, and on pizza it’s much more satisfying than Daiya and melts into a smooth ricotta-like texture with a slightly sharper flavor. I plan to melt it onto pasta next. I did this with Miyoko’s gruyère and some store-bought pasta sauce and it was delicious!

I hope you guys try it. I don’t do math, but this is probably more affordable than buying Dr. Cow or Daiya all the time (true?). That’s probably not counting the blender though. But really, buy that blender if you can. If you don’t have the money now make your next birthday request from friends and family to be a contribution to your blender fund. And you can buy them refurbished, which saves you $100. Plus they’re like Volvos and last forever.

So get to it! Make some fancy cheese and have that fancy holiday wine and cheese party you’ve always dreamed of.

Fresh Mozzarella di Bufala (di cashews)
by Miyoko Schinner

2 cups raw cashews, soaked for several hours in water
½ cup Rejuvelac
pinch of sea salt
½ to ¾ tsp. Xanthan gum
optional: 4 Tbsp. canola or refined coconut oil (for meltability purposes—not needed if using for Caprese salad or otherwise serving cold)
2 Tbs. agar agar flakes
⅔ cup water

In the morning (or the day before)
Drain the cashews and place in a blender with the Rejuvelac and salt. Blend, stopping to push down and scrape as necessary, until absolutely creamy and smooth. Add ½ tsp. of the xanthan gum and reprocess until it thickens and looks gooey. Place in a bowl, cover, and allow to sit at room temperature for 8 to 24 hours, depending on the temperature of your room. Mozzarella has a mild flavor, so be careful not to let it sit out too long lest it develop a tang. You want it to develop some flavor and depth, but still be mild.

In the evening or the next day
Place the cheese back in the blender. Dissolve the agar agar flakes by mixing with the water in a small pot and bringing to a boil; allow to simmer, stirring with a whisk, for several minutes until completely dissolved. Pour the agar agar into the blender and blend until completely incorporated. To achieve a “stretchier” consistency, add an additional ¼ to ½ tsp. xanthan gum.

Forming the Balls
Have ready a bowl filled with a quart or so of cold water and 1 tsp. salt. Immediately after blending, use a small ice cream scoop to form little balls of the soft cheese; drop into the water. They will harden almost instantaneously. Refrigerate for up to one week.

*If you are celiac or wheat-allergic, try replacing the Rejuvelac with a probiotic mix of ¾ tsp. of New Chapter Probiotics dissolved in 1 cup warm water, and use half of that for this recipe. I have a theory that this may produce a more mild sharpness—so I plan to experiment with this change as well.

Vi Zahajszky, originally from Hungary, Boston, and New York, drove across the country to San Francisco two years ago with her husband Chris and a rescue pup named The Bandit. Here, among other things, she’s studying fashion design and pattern-making, and making many delicious vegan meals!

[photos by Vi and Chris]

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