A move to Aichi Prefecture when I lived in Japan prompted a visit to Kikuso, one of the area’s most famous regional-food restaurants. Kikuso’s specialty is dengaku nameshi, a savory combination that has been served since the place opened sometime around 1820. Dengaku is a seductively simple, even primitive, dish, made of small squares of pressed tofu that have been grilled, topped with pungent miso, lightly grilled again, and then garnished with everything from spicy Japanese mustard to poppy seeds. Nameshi is vegetable rice; Kikuso’s is made with chopped, spicy daikon radish leaves, the perfect counterpoint to the dengaku. I have never forgotten Kikuso, nor its incomparable dengaku nameshi.
Dengaku has been around for centuries. It was already being mentioned in shrine diaries in the mid-fourteenth century, and by the Muromachi period (1392-1573) was a well-known dish throughout Japan. Dengaku takes its name from dengaku hoshi (Buddhist priests), who would dress up in colorful costumes and cavort and dance on single stilts during public entertainments and festivals to pray for a good harvest. Two-pronged skewers are traditionally used for grilling dengaku, and these are said to represent the stilts.
By the late seventeenth century, a variation of dengaku appeared that used a root, konnyaku (devil’s tongue), instead of tofu. By the eighteenth century, dengaku was being served throughout the nation at way stations for weary travellers, at tea shops in pleasure quarters, and at post stations. Although dengaku is not an expensive dish, it was considered a delicacy in the Edo period (1603-1867), and was often served with vegetable rice as is done at Kikuso.
By the Meiji era (1868-1912), however, the original version of dengaku had declined somewhat in popularity, and with each subsequent era contemporary variations of the dish were devised. Fish, eggplant, chicken, and sato-imo (field yams) are just a few of the ingredients that replaced tofu in dengaku. Although dengaku is usually eaten by itself as a snack or served as an hors d’oeuvre, the addition of soup, rice, and pickles can make it the main course in a filling lunch or dinner.
- 2 blocks fresh momen (cotton) tofu
Red miso topping:
- 1/2 cup red hatcho miso
- 2 tbsps white miso
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 tbsp sake
- 2 tbsps mirin (sweet sake)
- 4 tbsps white sugar
- 1/4 cup dashi fish stock
- 2 tbsps water
- 1/2 tsp grated ginger (or to taste)
Garnishes (choose any three):
- Japanese mustard (karashi)
- Ground Japanese pepper (sansho)
- Sprigs of fresh Japanese pepper (kinome)
- Slivers of fresh Japanese citron (yuzu)
- White poppy seeds
- Toasted white sesame seeds
- Toasted black sesame seeds
Pierce each piece of tofu with either a two-pronged skewer or two skewers so that it won’t fall apart when turned over. (The Japanese traditionally use bamboo skewers.)
2. Make the red miso topping by mixing all the ingredients, with the exception of the ginger. Place the mixture in the top section of a double boiler. Simmer over boiling water, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, which takes about 10 minutes. Stir in the ginger. Let the mixture cool prior to spreading it on the tofu.
3. Lightly grill or broil the tofu on both sides until it is slightly browned and hot. Spread a thin layer of miso on one side and grill for a minute or two to heat the miso up. Remove from heat, sprinkle with the desired toppings, and serve immediately, leaving the tofu on the skewers.
Photo attribution: Copyright: paylessimages / 123RF Stock Photo
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