I have been lurking on the Chowhound France boards in anticipation of our upcoming eating and drinking trip in early April. In general, things seldom get very heated (partly because CH boards are heavily moderated); however, a recent Parisian restaurant thread got a little intense. The bone of contention, of all things, was vegetarian menu offerings: their sheer availability, excitement-worthiness, and overall chef attitudes towards vegetarians.
People eat vegetarian for a number of reasons, and have very different expectations of a worthy meal. If we were to put all socio-political agendas aside for a moment, and just focused on balance, flavor intensity, texture, etc., we would see that relatively few chefs cater to discerning vegetarians. For them, it is not enough for the meal to be meat-free, organic, local, sustainable, etc. They are looking for overall execution quality, inventiveness, and the kind of deliciousness that would excite vegetarians and omnivores alike.
I have found that in general, ethnic restaurants do a much better job turning out great vegetarian dishes. The most recent example was our experience with modern and traditional Japanese cuisine in the East Village involving yuba.
Yuba is tofu skin which forms during the process of making tofu and is obtained by skimming the top of the curding vat as the soymilk cools down. Yuba is ubiquitous in Japan and China, and is served as sashimi, enjoyed fresh in a rice bowl, used like nori or spring roll skin (for example, as a wrapper for Cantonese dim sum); it can also be deep-fried, dried for later use, etc. Its texture and appearance run the whole spectrum from “old shriveled linen” to custard, such as in homestyle fresh yuba, which is supposed to give one’s complexion a satiny quality, according to Japanese grandmothers:
The eponymous restaurant in East Village does a fantastic job showcasing this fascinating ingredient; it was amazing to observe the chef produce such a wide range of experiences for a discerning foodie, starting with yuba sashimi and uni (sea urchin) with yuba, where it appears to be silky, creamy and almost milky, not unlike fresh silken tofu.
Other delectable variations were grilled miso yuba and yuba roll, and our favorite turned out to be layered yuba pouch with slow-braised yuba with mixed mushrooms. Here, it was rich and luxurious, with an amazing juxtaposition of sweetness and earthiness.
Besides the eponymous Yuba, we have discovered a whole “Yubaland” in the East Village (Cocoron, Sobaya, etc.). This is the kind of eating experience that is sure to excite any foodie, vegetarian or not. It sends even a lazy amateur chef like myself to the Japanese grocery store Hana here in DC, and then running to the kitchen. This time, the owners of Hana were out of yuba 😦 , but still provided me with plenty inspiration to put together a fun impromptu meal.
- Assorted Japanese pickles (pickled plums, sesame pickled cucumbers, and eggplant)
- Udon noodles with braised enoki mushrooms, nori, scallions, and miso grilled tofu in a dashi broth
- Green Tea flavored Mochi Ice-Cream bonbons