There is a way of cooking vegetables that I call “sauna”.
The Japanese term, which you will find in macrobiotic books, is nishime. The Chinese term, in Teochew / Hokkien dialect, sounds like “heep”. Sorry I don’t know what it’s called in Mandarin or Cantonese – if any of you know, please tell me.
I don’t think there is an English term for it. (Again, if there is and you know, please tell me.) So I call it “sauna” – because the vegetables are just left sitting in a pot to “sweat it out”.
Steambath might be a more accurate term, since there is steam involved. But whilst regular steaming involves cooking food quickly over high heat, this is just the opposite – slowly over low heat.
But I prefer the term “sauna”. Somehow, it sounds more sexy.
This form of cooking imparts peaceful, yet strengthening energy. It is peaceful because the vegetables cook slowly and are not “disturbed” – as opposed to stir frying, for example. Yet the long cooking time imparts considerable qi or energy to the vegetables.
The long slow cooking converts the starch in vegetables into sugar – and, if you cook longer, into caramel. Vegetables like onion, for example, become very sweet and delicious.
“Sauna” cooking is particularly beneficial for those who are weak from illness. However, all people would benefit from eating both well-cooked and lightly cooked vegetables. One provides strength and warmth, the other provides openness and lightness.
Don’t worry about loss of nutrition through long cooking. Vitamin C is the main nutrient lost. Most other vitamins and minerals remain intact. If overall you are eating a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables, you will get more than enough of vitamin C.
Moreover, there is more to food than just vitamins. Other factors, such as the qi or energy, are also important.
For this way of cooking, you will need a cooking pot that retains heat well, rather than one that dissipates heat. Use clay, enamel-coated cast iron or good quality stainless steel with thick base.
Do not use glass or corning ware. The heat will not be well distributed and you might get the part just above the fire burnt. Such pots, however, are good for soups.
For any type of cooking, do not use aluminium or “non-stick” teflon. Aluminium affects brain function and is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Teflon is a type of plastic. It comes off easily and it is never healthy to eat plastic!
- Cut vegetables into large chunks. Place them in separate sections of the pot. Do not mix them.
- Add just enough water to prevent burning – the water rising 2 or 3 mm.
- Cover and cook over a small fire for 20 to 30 minutes.
- Season lightly with soy sauce or miso. Mix the vegetables if you wish or keep them separate. Cook another 3 minutes before serving.
Practically all types of vegetables can be cooked this way. Only green leafy vegetables don’t work well but some of the harder types of green vegetables are okay – like celery and mustard green.
Feel free to experiment.
Starchy root vegetables are particularly suitable and you might want to experiment with vegetables that you might not be familiar with – arrowroot, burdock, celeriac (celery root) and various roots and yams sold in Japanese supermarkets.
- Sweet potato, tapioca or yam: Season with a pinch of sea salt at the start of the cooking period. Cook until a thick, brown sauce appears. This is caramel, or burnt sugar. It’s delicious.
- Onions: Cut into halves, or cut a cross slit at the top. Add a dab of miso over each piece. Cook until onion is soft enough to “melt in your mouth”.
- Eggplant: Cut into halves, or smaller pieces if the eggplant is really large. Simmer in a mixture of water with soy sauce or miso – about 1 cup water with 1/4 cup soy sauce / miso. Cook until almost dry.