One day the air takes a turn towards cold. We pull out sweaters, install a woolen throw on the arm of the couch, and there you have it, cold weather mode begins. As the days shorten we become reacquainted with darkness and senses other than sight engage. We grow more attuned to the the temperature of things. As evenings cross the fine line from cool to chilly, we build the first fire in the stove and pull the windows shut to hold in the heat. Sealed off from the sounds of the outside world, our nights are quieter. Like all animals this time of year, I notice a growing craving for richer foods, an instinctual drive to plump up for winter. The body craves a bit more oil, a bit more fat, and all things hot. Thoughts of grilling and frying come to mind when I consider the evening meal. Trips to the market take on a new tone. Gone are the summer delights like peppers and tomatoes. As winter moves in the selection turns towards starchier vegetables that ripen underground. The shelves are newly stocked with turnips, daikon, burdock, May Queens and sweet potatoes.
I put on some music, turn up the lights and set to making dinner. Often at this moment in the evening I’m touched by a certain sense of gratitude that I learned to cook in Japan, learned to treat ingredients and tools with particular care. You wouldn’t last a minute in a kitchen here if you let your knife sit in lemon juice on the cutting board and made the general mess that’s become so revered in the visual culture of food over the last decade. I learned to wet my cutting board before use, never let ingredients linger there, and most importantly to swiftly wipe my knife clean and dry. I do think food should be, on the whole, simple, but simple doesn’t inherently mean fast and easy. I owe it to Japan that I don’t ascribe to any philosophy that cooking should be simplistic. I see no reason not to invest time and effort into the one thing that most directly impacts health and well-being, that connects me to my home, to my family, to my season, that engages all of my senses and offers so much pleasure and intrigue in both the making and partaking. Kuniko inspired in me a willingness to work at something, to always take an extra step and invest that little extra effort that nudges a dish from good towards excellent. She also taught me to differentiate between effort and fuss. She used her efforts to intensify color, to refine and enhance flavor, but she never leaned toward decoration or embellishment. She taught me that meals should ride on the dedicated preparation of excellent ingredients that will require a bit of time and effort but certainly no fuss. Ganmodoki, deep-fried globes of tofu and jinenjo with seasonal ingredients cut in, embody these principles.
Any number of seasonal ingredients can be added to ganmodoki, but my favorite combination is ginan and kikurage. The ginan add a burst of lime green color to an otherwise pale palate while kikurage, wood ear mushrooms, though mellow in flavor, have a jelly-crisp bite that contrasts nicely with the soft, creamy center. Like warabi tororo in spring I scan the markets in anticipation of the short window when the ingredients of seasons overlap. The ginan harvest has ended, but the nuts keep in their shells and there are still bags of them to be found at the market. Outside the gingko leaves have turned a brilliant yellow and begun to fall, an indication that it is first winter and the jinenjo harvest has begun. Ganmodoki is a perfect food to indulge in on increasingly cold nights. They are eaten piping hot, rich and creamy inside, and crisply fried outside, with bites of savory nuts and mushrooms. Dipped in an umami rich sauce of katsuo dashi, soy, and ginger, all the necessary components of a late fall meal come together, salty, savory, aromatic, and warm. The key to excellent ganmodoki is jinenjo, the same as we drape over foraged warabi in spring for warabi tororo. Jinenjo is the oldest variety of mountain yam found in Japan. It was solely a foraged crop until a couple of generations ago. The Chinese name for jinenjo combines the characters of mountain and medicine and in dehydrated form it’s a valued remedy in Chinese medicine and it’s an extremely healthful food when eaten raw as well. Wild jinenjo grows in the hills all around, deep in the earth, tethered to the air above through the same vine from which we collect mukago. Their beautiful papery pods flutter like medallions in the cold winter wind. Like all foraged edibles, wild jinenjo excels in aroma and flavor but it contains so much aku that it quickly oxidizes to black when peeled and grated. A local star farmer, Tsutomu Saki specializes in growing jinenjo. His grandfather belonged to the first generation of farmers who sought to cultivate it and today he grows prize winning organic jinenjo on a hilltop near Kagami mountain. Sasaki’s jinenjo are fat, long tubers with pristine white meat inside and are a dream to cook with. When grated and stirred against the grooved walls of a suribachi with a wooden pestle the viscous pulp becomes thick, and creamy. Esteemed for its texture, it’s a valued component in a number of elegant Japanese dishes.
Ganmodoki are deep fried so any moisture left in the tofu will challenge the dough’s integrity when it hits hot oil. It must be wrapped it in kitchen towels and clean cloths to wick out the water. I grate a small section of peeled jinenjo, about ten percent by volume of the tofu, and swirl it around a suribachi with a wooden pestle until it is silken and smooth. I add the tofu and as a pot of oil heats on the stove, a few sprinkles of sea salt and the chopped up seasonal ingredients are cut into the thick batter until evenly distributed. Tablespoon sized portions are fried until golden brown on the outside and hot on the inside. The contrast between the crispy exterior and the supple interior dotted with ginan and kikurage makes for a truly delightful bite.