Meat-free and gluten-free entertaining
|Image: N Markley|
Discovering Japanese cuisine, a few years ago, has been a Godsend to me. In Japan, tofu and vegetables are cooked to make the most of their natural properties. Soy and tamari, rice wine and vinegar, and salted, fermented or pickled fruit and veg give the cuisine a liveliness and refinement that makes it ideal for sophisticated dining. In addition, many of the ingredients, being rice-based, are free from gluten, too.
Japanese food culture places strong emphasis on the freshness of the ingredients: everything must be at its best. It uses no heavy sauces, employing great subtlety to compliment the flavours of those ingredients. There is also an emphasis on the visual element of dining: not just the food, but the table itself should be beautiful. Japanese culture does not value symmetry, though. Even numbers and matching crockery are considered uninteresting, so a good table would be laid with odd numbers of complimentary but not identical dishes.
Try this combination for a delicious and impressive dinner:
- A selection of sushi rolls filled with blanched asparagus, red peppers and pickled daikon radish;
- Fried tofu pouches stuffed with shredded carrot and spring onions
- Miso soup with wakame seaweed
- Fried aubergine & green peppers in miso and sweet mirin sauce
- Green beans dressed with sesame seeds
- Braised soya beans
- Finely sliced turnips pickled in salt & lemon juice
|Image: N Markley|
Although soy and miso are generally made with some wheat or barley and so contain gluten, you can buy gluten-free versions in specialist suppliers and higher-end supermarkets. Other east Asian cuisines, such as Vietnamese or Laotion, make extensive use of rice as their principal grain. That and tapioca are both free from gluten, so these cuisines are well worth exploring if you need to cook for someone who is gluten intolerant. A lovely, fresh starter you can make quickly and easily is spring rolls. Boil rice vermicelli until just cooked, then refresh under cold water. Dress with a little sesame oil and set aside. Use rice paper spring roll skins. Dip each one in cold water to soften it and fill it with a few strands of vermicelli, some shredded spring onion, fine juliennes of carrot, chopped garlic and coriander leaf (cilantro). The rolls can be fried if you like or - my preference - left just as they are and served with a chilli dip made from lime juice, water, fish sauce, chilli and garlic.
And what might I drink? Well, gluten-free beer is mercifully easy to find, in the bigger supermarkets and specialist beer shops (including online, of course). Many beers, though, are cleared using egg white or fish-derived isinglass. If gluten isn't a problem, better to go for one of the vegan beers. All wine is gluten-free, and many are produced without animal additives, but you might struggle to find a comfortable match for the bolder flavours of east Asian food. My suggestion would be to follow local custom and drink rice wine, sake or tea. Sake also mixes well with gin to make an interesting variation on a dry martini - a saketini. Serve it with a few rice crackers or wasabi peas.
Please be aware that gluten intolerance and coeliac disease are not the same thing. Even the smallest amount of gluten in food will make a coeliac very ill. If, like me, you cook regularly with wheat flour, your kitchen and any implements you use are going to need a really deep clean before you even start your shopping. Talk to your guest well in advance of any dinner to understand their needs thoroughly. For information about living with coeliac disease, go to https://www.coeliac.org.uk/home/
The following are reliable suppliers of high-quality Japanese foodstuffs in the UK.
Japan Centre: https://www.japancentre.com/en
Clearspring: https://www.clearspring.co.uk/ (includes a range of gluten-free products)
The Japanese Shop sells Japanese gifts and tableware worldwide: https://www.thejapaneseshop.co.uk/
Next time: Oscars night drinks