A few years ago, a Barcelona chef named Miguel Sánchez Romera invited a reporter from the Wall Street Journal to dinner. At this dinner, he offered nothing but brilliant-colored waters infused with aromatics (star anise, bonito flakes, mint) that he served at blood temperature. Did his guest leave the table hungry and plotting retribution? No, she departed as utterly content as if she’d had a proper meal.
Without revealing the mechanism behind this illusion, the chef, a working neurologist who describes his cooking as “neurogastronomy,” hinted that to awaken the brain’s satiety center from its torpor, one must prepare food that engages all of the senses. He contended that our reptile selves are particularly receptive to warm or hot preparations in bright colors from nature and earthen hues.
Throughout the fall and winter, I subsist on a soup I like to think has much in common with Sánchez Romera’s magic waters. Though I never make it the same way twice, the basic recipe is inspired by the traditional Japanese practice and philosophy of washoku, or “harmony of food.” As Elizabeth Andoh explains in her marvelous Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen—where I got the idea for this dish—a washoku meal is an expression of the seasons, and of the uniqueness of this-very-moment in all its contrasting colors, textures, and tastes. (These principles, you will note, are of a piece with Sánchez Romera’s neurogastronomic ideals.) Frugality and Buddhism shaped Washoku culture, which is why not so much as a vegetable scrap goes to waste in a Japanese kitchen. And every meal is eaten in a spirit of gratitude and appreciation.
Making the Soup
While the soup’s ingredients are hardly as esoteric as those in Sánchez Romera’s creations, they have to be sought out at a Japanese grocery shop or a health food store. Dashi, the seaweed stock that’s the backbone of Japanese cookery, is flavored with soy sauce and mirin and enlivened with aburage, or thin fried tofu, shaved carrots, noodles, and big fistfuls of winter greens. Keeping a jar of dashi in the fridge ensures that preparation can be finished in minutes.
Start by making the dashi. I say “making” loosely, since this particular method requires no skill whatsoever. For two servings, place a square of kombu—kelp—the size of a playing card in four cups of good-tasting water and leave it overnight, By the following day, the water will have turned itself into supper. Almost.
Bring the dashi to a simmer, remove it from the heat, then toss in about a cup of shaved bonito flakes and forget about the whole thing for ten minutes. (For a vegetarian broth, add to the dashi a handful of dried reconstituted shiitake mushrooms, caps removed, along with a splash of their strained liquid). Meanwhile, cook four ounces of noodles according to the package instructions and set them aside. If you have procured aburage—which freezes beautifully and needn’t be thawed before use—blanch two pieces of it in boiling water for about a minute, and when they are cool, wring them dry and cut them into strips. (You may substitute homemade fried tofu.) Now pour the bonito flakes through a fine mesh strainer into a clean pot. Return the dashi to a simmer, then season it with equal quantities of mirin and soy sauce, about ¼ cup combined in a small bowl, and an optional ¼ teaspoon of red chili paste (I like yuzu kosho).
Next, add to the stockpot the green top of a finely minced spring onion, two shredded carrots, the fried tofu, the noodles, and finally, at the last minute, the greens. Immediately ladle noodles, vegetables, and broth into bowls together with strands of nori seaweed (keeping in mind that such a hot liquid can’t be gulped without burning the roof of your mouth, nor can it be eaten in front of the TV without risk of sloshing it on your lap). While waiting for supper to cool a bit, simply breathe in.