What is kenchinjiru?
Kenchinjiru is said to be named for the temple Kenchou-ji, found in Kamakura, an area not far from Tokyo. This was the first Zen Buddhist Temple in Japan and was built around 800 years ago. Since kenchinjiru is a part of shoujin ryouri, or Buddhist cuisine, it is primarily a vegetarian dish, though some people add pork or chicken.
This is a quiet sort of dish that doesn’t typically show up at the top of the “traditional Japanese food” list. It’s something I eat almost every week at school without ever really noticing it — it’s simple but hearty and tasty as heck. I’m absolutely sure that ten years from now, when I reminisce about my time here, kenchinjiru will surely be one of those foods I miss.
Other variations of kenchinjiru are:
- miso (with miso paste replacing the salt)
- pork or chicken (with thinly sliced pork or chicken to add protein)
- fish paste (with fish paste and/or nerimono, white fish that has been ground up and pressed into a cake or ball)
Kenchinjiru definitely has some ingredients that might be hard to find outside of Asia. Kombu should be easily found in any Asian grocery store; daikon can be substituted with radish, and taro with potatoes. Like the lady who runs my favourite Thai restaurant in town, who incorporates Japanese vegetables like daikon into her Thai soups, I simply suggest trying your best to make your own style of kenchinjiru.
One of the defining flavours of Japanese cuisine is umami, or savoury. In many Japanese recipes you will often see dashi mentioned — it is a type of broth that is used in almost every Japanese soup. It can be bought at the grocery store in instant packets in either granulated or liquid form, but it has a less subtle flavour than homemade dashi. The simplest and commonest form of dashi comes from heating kombu, edible kelp, and kezurikatsuo, shavings of preserved and fermented skipjack tuna, to near-boiling and using the liquid as broth. I’m not the biggest fan of fish, so I made a simple kombu broth for this recipe. (I highly recommend reading Sarah Lohman’s Eight Flavours: the Untold Story of American Cuisine. The chapter concerning umami and MSG is fascinating!)
Burdock root, or gobou, is a very important ingredient in kenchinjiru. While a radish might be substituted for a daikon and carrots and potatoes are common enough, burdock root is the key kenchinjiru’s slightly-sweet, pungent flavour. In Japan it’s used in soups and salads.
Make sure to immediately set the burdock to soak in a bowl of water after peeling and cutting to prevent discolouration and to tone down the strong flavour.
Daikon radishes are also a staple of many Japanese dishes. I eat it mostly in tsukemono, but it is a very versatile ingredient that can be found in soups and salads and is even used as garnishing for sushi and tempura. These root vegetables can be found in many Japanese gardens and can grow to be over a foot long — the name, daikon, literally means “big root.”
Before rice, the staple food for many Japanese was satoimo, or taro root; in Japanese, satoimo translates to “village potato.” Nowadays this seems to be used mostly in soups. This ingredient took me a little getting used to. The first time I had it in kenchinjiru, I had no idea what it was — it was soft with very little taste and slightly slimy.
The sliminess can be eliminated by first soaking the peeled root in cold water for about 10-15 minutes, boiling it for another 5 minutes, then rinsing it in cool water.
konnyaku (excluded from this recipe)
Konnyaku, called konjac in English, is made by mixing konjac flour with water and limewater. It is boiled and then solidifies as it cools, and it looks a bit like grey or purple gelatin with black specks. It has been eaten in Japan since the 6th century and is prized for its medicinal properties (though not for its taste, let me tell you!) It is probably one of my least favourite Japanese foods. To me, the texture is strange and it has absolutely no flavour. Because of this, I have not included it in my kenchinjiru — but if you feel adventurous, please feel free to add it in!
Tofu is a good vegetarian source of protein in kenchinjiru. It this recipe, it is important to press the tofu between a layer of paper towels and some plates for a time before tearing it into pieces with your fingers. Another type of tofu sometimes used in kenchinjiru that I love but didn’t use in this recipe is aburaage — deep-fried tofu!
In kenchinjiru, shiitake mushrooms are soaked in water for a time and then removed to create a second dashi. I honestly completely forgot to do this in my recipe, because my husband hates mushrooms and I just kind of forget about them now! (A shame!)
Makes 5-6 servings.
Recipe adapted from Just One Cookbook’s Kenchinjiru.
For the dashi:
- 1 piece of kombu (about 4”x4”)
- 5 cups of water
For the soup:
- 1 block of firm tofu
- 1/2 large daikon, thinly sliced
- 2 carrots, thinly sliced
- 3 satoimo (taro root), thinly sliced
- 1 gobou (burdock root), thinly sliced
- 1 or 2 ounces pork, thinly sliced
- green onions (for garnish), chopped
- 1 tbsp sesame oil
- 3 tbsp sake
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 2 tbsp soy sauce
- aburaage (fried tofu)
- shiitake mushrooms
- miso (instead of kosher salt)
- The morning before cooking, wipe the kombu down with a damp paper towel and soak it in 5 cups of water until you are ready to begin cooking; then remove the kombu. (If you forget to soak it, place the kombu and water in a pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat just before boiling and remove the kombu.) Set the dashi aside.
- Wrap the tofu in paper towels and press between two plates while you prepare the other ingredients.
- Scrub and peel the taro roots. Cut them into 1/4” slices and soak in cold water for 10-15 minutes. Transfer the taro to a pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes, then drain and rinse in cool water.
- Peel and thinly slice daikon and carrots. (I like to cut them into half-moons!)
- Peel the burdock root beneath running water. Slice thinly and soak in cold water for 5 minutes.
- Heat sesame oil in a large pot. Sauté daikon, carrots, taro, and burdock until coated with oil. Add the dashi. Tear the tofu into pieces with your hands and add it to the pot. Finally, add pork.
- Bring the soup to a boil, then turn down the heat to simmer. Cook for 10 minutes, skimming occasionally.
- Add sake and salt. Cook until the vegetables are tender. Finally, add the soy sauce.
- Serve garnished with green onions. You can sprinkle it with shichimi togarashi and sansho pepper if you prefer it spicy.
Just One Cookbook, Kenchinjiru
La Fuji Mama, Lazy Mama’s Kenchinjiru
Lovely Beeings, Kenchinjiru Makings
Just Hungry, Kenchinjiru, Japanese Zen Buddhist Vegetable Soup
Sarah Lohman, Eight Flavours: the Untold Story of American Cuisine. (MSG Chapter.)