Thursday, January 10, 2008

Agedashi tofu and thoughts on Japanese food photography

I’m loving all things Japanese lately. I have always had a love of Asian food generally, and Japanese food in particular for the delicateness and complexity of the flavors and beauty of the presentation. We have a few special Japanese restaurants in our neighborhood that I never tire of, including one that makes the most unbelievable fresh, homemade tofu every hour. I often get a craving for the tofu which is presented in a lacquered box and is spooned into beautiful handmade bowls, into which you pour a light brown soy-based sauce and then enjoy the silky smooth tofu (almost custard-like in texture) in all its wonderful simplicity. I also love the aesthetics of modern Japanese art and design. There are quite a few on-line stores I love to check in on for both the beauty of the product design and for the merchandising / photography that has a certain wonderful sensual quality that is very hard to describe (see here and here and here).

Recently, I made a trip to a Japanese bookstore to browse food magazines and cookbooks. Not surprisingly, I found that the food photographs have many of the same wonderful qualities that I appreciate in the furnishings and design photos I look at. It’s so refreshing to see food photography that has a different (non-U.S.) perspective than what one is used to. The Japanese food photos have a certain simple elegance. They are mostly very reductive with only a few, well-chosen props (a pretty spoon, a lovely piece of pottery), and a lot of negative space. These photos are often shot on a textured fabric cloth or a wooden table and many of it is shot horizontally – an orientation I don’t often gravitate toward in my own photos. Interestingly, they have casualness about them, unlike a spread one might see in Saveur or MSL. There’s often a wrinkled tablecloth, a more casual setting or crumbs on the table. I’m sure they are all strategically placed and well considered but the overall image comes across as informal and relaxed and beautiful in an “everyday beauty” sort of way. I’ve been having fun recently experimenting with that style. I love Harumi’s (the “Martha Stewart of Japan”) magazine. Not only are the photos gorgeous but the paper is wonderful as well. Unfortunately I cannot read a word of what’s written but it’s such a pleasure to look through that I am very tempted to subscribe!

I also bought via Amazon a couple of Harumi’s English-language cookbooks. I found the overall presentation to be less wonderful than her Japanese-language magazines (geared toward the American market?) but was able to read and enjoy the recipes. One that stood out was for Agedashi tofu, a deep-fried tofu in a soy and dashi-based broth topped with grated daikon and scallions. It’s one of my favorite Japanese dishes and it looked easy enough to attempt. It turned out just as it should and was delicious! The Agedashi tofu pictures are mine, and the other two are from one of the Harumi magazines for you to see and enjoy. Would love your thoughts.

p.s. The mug in my photo is another of my father-in-law’s creations. My bowl is a recent acquisition from White Forest Pottery, appropriately made in the “wabi sabi aesthetic that honors the beauty of imperfection”.

Agedashi tofu (from Harumi's Japanese Cooking)
(serves 4)

2 (12.3 oz) boxes silken tofu
potato starch or cornstarch for dusting the tofu pieces
oil - enough to deep-fry the tofu
1 cup dashi stock or fish stock
2 tablespoons mirin
2 tablespoons soy sauce
a little superfine sugar
a little salt
grated daikon (mooli or Japanese white radish)
grated ginger to taste
shiso leaves, chopped into thin strips or a mix of fresh basil or mint leaves
myoga, minced (optional)
green onion or chives, minced

1. Drain the tofu and then wrap it in paper towels and place in a strainer for 30 minutes to remove excess moisture.

2. Cut the tofu into four pieces, dry again with paper towels, then coat with the potato starch

3. Heat the oil to a suitable temperature for deep-frying (around 340 degrees F). Carefully put the tofu pieces in to fry, and when they turn golden, remove and drain on paper towels to remove excess oil.

4. In a small pan, heat up the dashi stock, mirin, soy sauce, sugar and salt. bring to boil, ensuring that the sugar has dissolved.

5. Divide the tofu among four bowls. Pour a little of the hot sauce into each bowl and garnish with the grated daikon, a dab of grated ginger, shiso, myoga and green onion to taste.


Anonymous said...

There aren't enough superlatives for your latest post. Beautiful photo and very interesting information. I admit to favoring photos with more contrast than less. This is among my favorites for its composition and contrast.

Anonymous said...

This looks like it's to die for. I would unfortunately be the only one in my house (and maybe among my friends) to eat it, but, not to worry, I could count on myself to eat all 4 portions. Never heard of 3/4 of the ingredients. srz

Anonymous said...

wow - love this. I'm going to have to check out Harumi's magazines now -- thanks.

Anonymous said...

The chopsticks in the first picture are positioned in a way that would be crude and rude to Japanese. Chopsticks pointed toward the user? Come'on!

Anna Haight said...

What a lovely post, and interesting observations. The chopsticks pointing towards the person in the lead photo is jarring, was that on purpose?

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the chopsticks pointed toward the user is intentional, just due to not understanding.

The tea cup appears to have a tea bag in it and a string hanging out of it. No no no.

Japanese DO NOT drink Japanese tea made from a tea bag. (Japanese tea in a bag can be purchased but it would be used for a hospital stay or while traveling abroad where having a kyusu teapot would not be feasible.)

While Japanese do drink black tea (made from a tea bag) it would NEVER be drunk with Japanese food.

Sabra said...

Oh my goodness well of course the chopsticks aren't deliberately positioned to offend! I did not know, of course, that that would be an issue? Would it be ok if they were still vertically positioned but flipped so that the point was directed away from the front?

I shot many versions of this and had them up on flickr for several days before this post to get comments and feedback and chose this version because the feedback was that it had a better composition relative to others, thinking about the way the field was divided and how the eye is directed through the photo - no one commented from a cultural standpoint even though there was a diverse crowd visiting, so I simply didn't realize that there was chopstick issue. As for the tea bag - that's a another great catch - my own American rustic bent coming through and not authentic!

I'll put up one of the other versions with a different chopstick orientation but the teabag issue will have to remain something to change for the next time! Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

NOt being an expert on Japanese etiquette, I can enjoy these for their aesthetic value - They really are beautiful shots.

Very calming colours. Japanese food photography seems to have that quality naturally.

SteamyKitchen said...

Great recipe - I love her cookbooks as well.

Katia Mangham said...

I just finished reading the comments and wow! I think the photo is beautiful and graceful. (the way you handled the comments is graceful too!) I agree with you about the negative space and the simplicity, there are lessons for most of us to learn there. I plan on looking for her book. Inspiring post!

food makes me happy said...

Learned a lot from this blog entry!

Sabra said...

Thanks for your comments Graeme, Steamy Kitchen, Katia and Cindy. Also Jen: so nice to see you here! :)
Steamy Kitchen: I'm really enjoying the two I have - I only wish there were more in English. But I have lots of recipes to keep me busy for now. So glad Cindy, thank you for letting me know.

Anonymous said...

A perfect dish for a cold winter night. Great photos!

Elise said...

Agedashi dofu was one of my favorite dishes when I lived in Kyoto. Also the tofu dish that wasn't fried, that's good too, though the name escapes me at the moment. Interesting comment thread on the chopsticks. So many ways to be unintentionally rude in Japan. The only thing I remember about the chopsticks was to never stick them in the rice and leave them there.

Beautiful photos and composition!

~~louise~~ said...

Simply elegant...

I've been wanting to try a simple Japanese dish. Looks like you hit the jackpot and we all reap the rewards!

Great post!

Sabra said...

Thanks Elise for your comments!
Louise: I really love this one, and I just posted another you might like that's just as quick and easy here

Hollow Legs said...

Beautiful pictures and lovely post - i came across your blog after googling Agedashi Tofu as I have a craving for it. I'll be trying it out tonight.

Post a Comment

Thank you for submitting a comment. I love, love reading your comments - they motivate and inspire me. Typically I try to come back and respond to your comment. Forgive me if occasionally I don't. Thanks for dropping by! (p.s. please don't leave marketing messages here)