On Being and Emptiness or There’s a Recipe in Here Somewhere

During my last professional gig as a cook, the highest, albeit most indirect, praise I received was via the irascible and wonderful headwaiter, Sudz. On one particularly busy night he became increasingly fussed by the incessant picture taking of plates as they landed on the tables. He went from amused, to annoyed, to enraged by the perpetual portraiture. His ire became especially acute when asked to twist or turn a plate a particular way for purposes of lighting or composition. Ultimately, carrying the remnants of a just bussed table, he lost it and railed, “Man, the really beautiful thing here is THIS!” He flashed a near clean, save for a smear of sauce, plate. “There’s your shot! EMPTY! I don’t even have to scrape it off…that’s how they’ve been coming back all night.”

He took out his phone, snapped the barren plate and sent it into the cyber-sphere. The image was received with much acclaim and perceived as proof positive of good food and good eating. I was amused and flattered. A seductively “plated” meal certainly holds a perceived promise of good things to come, but an empty plate is proof positive of that promise fulfilled.

Now retired from all this, I ply my trade with equal passion and pride (but less social networking profile) in the home kitchen.

The rains (fingers crossed) have abated, summer is really here. I have opened my private patio and chafe at the bit to make one of my seasonal favourites; Baby Bok Choy Kimchi. My spin on the Korean staple – a guaranteed plate clearer – is one of those things that you barely perceive anyone eating, but you blink and it has all vanished.

It sometimes seems to me that recipes have become more akin to “shopping lists” than recipes per se. Ideally a recipe should provide you with infinite options and new ideas for food you generally have or regularly use.

Some years ago I had a hankering for kimchi but didn’t have the prescribed Napa cabbage on tap. In fact, I rarely if ever stock Napa cabbage. I consider it a light-weight, frilly food and the Napa appellation reminds me of California, which I’m not a huge fan of. I did have some baby bok choy. Through trial and next to no error I discovered that the thick, bulbous base of this cabbage kin holds its “crunch” throughout the ferment and the leafy greens mop up and hold the flavour of the marinade like nobody’s business. Variations are infinite, but the core recipe is this:

1 bag (approx 1 1/2 lb.) baby bok choy
2 tablespoons coarse salt (sea or Kosher)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup rice wine vinegar
1/4 cup hot tap water
3 tablespoons Vietnamese fish sauce
2 inch hunk of fresh ginger (peeled and rough grated or rough chopped)
1 tablespoon paprika (sharp or mild, your call)
6 medium cloves of garlic chopped fine (try not to run them through a press)
1/2 teaspoon classic Tabasco (or Frank’s Red Hot. or whatever you have on hand)
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper flakes

Preparing the bok: trim the base of the bulbs, clean, and dry to the best of your ability. Then mix it up and cut some of it in the standard one or two inch squares (as you would with Napa) but, keep 1/3 to 1/2 of the batch “entire”. In the end, you can have fun plating these little forests to maximum advantage. Hmmm, maybe I do like having pictures taken of my food.

Place the clean, clipped bok in an equally clean bag (the plastic LCBO bags are ideal), add salt and 1 tablespoon of the sugar. Close up the bag so it balloons a little. Shake like mad to mix it all up. Let the bag exhale and allow the whole thing to settle for a few hours – two at least. Lightly shake and turn the bag every half hour.

When done, re-rinse the bok. Soaking in a salad spinner, draining, and re-soaking is a good path. Once soaked and drained, spin dry and shake off any excess liquid. I sometimes lay out a tea towel, evenly spread the bok on it and roll it up as you would a delicate wool sweater. No need to twist and squeeze just let the excess moisture absorb into the cloth.

In a nice big bowl mix the vinegar, water, fish sauce, ginger, paprika, garlic, tabasco, pepper flakes and the lingering tablespoon of sugar. Toss with the bok. Then toss some more. Let the whole mess sit around for at least 24 hours. At this stage, I usually put it all into a pickling pot I found somewhere. The pot has a vented insert that fits in to the opening and allows for some pressure to be put on whatever is below and keep the primary ingredient submerged in the transformative sauce. That said, just letting it all sit in the mixing bowl in your fridge will yield excellent results.

An ideal compliment to this homey (but not “comfort”) food is rice. More particularly, a little thing I call “Rice Ozu”. A culinary homage to one of my favourite filmmakers, Yasujiro Ozu (Dec. 12, 1903 – Dec 12, 1963 … talk about balance).

Ozu was master sans peer of a minimalist, austere cinematic style that he nailed in the days of the silents and stuck with through to the early ’60s. Valid comparisons in other fields of creative endeavour would include (but are not limited to) Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershoi (1864-1916) whose works were last seen, to great acclaim, in a 2016 AGO show titled “Painting Tranquility”. Add to these, jazz legend William “Count” Basie (1904-1984). Basie as pianist, and Basie as orchestra leader. One contemporary observed “he could rock the room with two notes.”

As a music-studying teen, I fondly remember listening to Basie and company with my saxophone teacher. In the midst of our mutual rapture, two of his comments loom large; “He does so much with so little” and, perhaps more relevant, “Listen to the notes he DOESN’T play.” Therein lies part of the genius of those cited here. What, in works of art and life, is implied? Much, so much, is implied in the filmmaking vision of Ozu. When an audience is given all the raw material by the creator to complete and connect to the human feeling in a work, they become complicit in acts of beauty.

Ozu turned his unblinking gaze, camera three feet from the floor, to the march of time as seen through generations within this or that family. The teens and young adults struggling through school (see his silent film I Flunked But…) or early career moves (Tokyo Chorus) gradually and graciously morph into the Japanese Salary Men (think Ray Davies and The Kinks “Well Respected Man”) and women in pre- and post-war Japan. Nowadays, when everyone seems to be taking care of aging parents, friends and of course, selves, Ozu’s most well known and lauded film, Tokyo Story, should be mandatory viewing for all of humanity. In humble homage to the simplicity and infinite resonance and relevance of maestro Ozu, I rip off the title of his film The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, to create Rice Ozu. Which is simply the flavour of brown rice cooked in green tea.

The title of the film The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice (Ochazuke in Japanese) was meant to evoke “simple and popular tastes”. A nostalgic essence and ideal sought after by many of Ozu’s salarymen (white collar workers) as they navigated their complicated, adult, urban, post-war Japan existences.

Full disclosure, this concoction was originally devised for my dog. Brown rice being recommended for canine stomach troubles, and green tea is supposedly good for inflammation in dogs. I usually throw in some turmeric, which also combats inflammation. For the purposes of human consumption let’s stick with the green tea.

Rice Ozu: pre make two cups of green tea. Let cool to room temperature. In a heated pan add one teaspoon of butter. When simmering, throw in a small, minced, onion. Sauté until the onion is clear. Toss is one cup of brown rice, mix until the rice is coated with butter and onion. Pour in the two cups green tea, bring to a boil, cover and simmer; a low, reverent, simmer, for 45 minutes … more or less. Brown rice is squirrelly – do check the instructions on the rice you’re using, and then watch it anyways. Stir/fluff with a fork. Done. In a pinch I just throw two green tea bags into the pot after putting in water. My dog has never complained.

To table: a whack of room temp Rice Ozu, with some strategically placed kimchi and a couple of tablespoons of the kimchi liquid over the rice and you have a great summer-y refresher. In the fall, you can place one cup of kimchi into six cups of broth and pulverize (think the “hammer fight” scene from Park Chan-wook’s Old Boy), reserve some of the whole pieces of kimchi (about 1/2 a cup, and cut it a little finer) and voilà… kimchi soup. Add to it what you will.

Kimchi goes well with anything eaten outdoors. Variations on the core recipe are infinite. If you want more heat, throw in a tablespoon of Sriracha… if you want more ferment (“all zee rage”) let the bok choy/cabbage sit for a day or more, tossing daily, before rinsing. If you want to use Napa cabbage, so be it.

Yasujiro Ozu died in 1963. On his tombstone was set the Japanese symbol mu. Mu is a zen/aesthetic/philosophical concept usually translated as “nothingness.” Nothing, yet “everything”. Let the emptiness of all plates infer the same sentiments.

– Ambrose Roche
Photos by Ambrose Roche and courtesy Wikipedia creative commons

This article is dedicated to Mariko Liliefeldt founding head librarian of the library of the Japan Foundation (now located above The Bay at Bloor and Yonge in downtown Toronto) retired in May of 2017. Mariko lovingly, thoughtfully and strategically, curated the impressive collection of books, magazines and DVDs that are the foundation of this formidable collection and remains one of the great cultural contributions to our very rich city. At this writing, The Japan Foundation library houses about 25 Ozu films on DVD and as many books on the man and his works. A library card is free. The benefits priceless and infinite.

This article can be found in STAYING IN in the section What We’re Making.
We are @livingtoronto2 on social media. Follow us on Facebook. instagram 1371778321_twitter-128-black


Wow! Recipe, minimalism, movie review, Japanese library in Toronto! I enjoyed all of it. Will try to get the movies from Netflix DVD. May even try the kimchi recipe; definitely will do the brown rice in green tea! Thanks Ambrose!
Hellena Smejda, Ocala, Florida

Thank  you for introducing us to Vilhelm Hammershoi and for reminding us of Ozu’s films, especially the heart-rending Tokyo Story, whose title is even understated. The theme of minimalism in art, film, food and music was a delight.
Robert L. Fisher, Toronto


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