The Art Gallery or Ontario (AGO) is the place to see a wonderful collection of Canadian art as well as some of the best travelling exhibits in the world. And ships. Model ships. They’re in the basement of the place though not exactly obscure, and once you float through the gently-lit room with spotlights shining silently onto still, perfectly crafted, intricate ships of varying sizes, thin masts of gold and miniature sails, you will never visit the gallery without paying homage to this permanent collection. I go to the gallery with the premise of seeing exciting, inspiring, grand displays, but I look forward to the comfort found on that lower floor as much as I do the main attraction.
I weave one other comfort into almost every visit to the AGO as well. In the food court across the street, there’s a small Japanese cafe, Manpuku that serves fresh onigiri in a tea broth, rice bowls, udon soups. It’s one of the only places I can get an order of slightly stinky, very gooey natto: fermented soy beans, gummy and stringy like okra can be, seasoned with soy sauce–an acquired taste and texture which since acquiring I can’t get enough of. I almost always order the onigiri in broth with a side of natto but I tore myself from my favourites on my last visit and ordered a bowl of spicy minced pork on rice. Not quite sure what I would get, it’s minimalism on arrival surprised me. Frankly, it looked dry, a little boring despite a generous smattering of raw chopped scallions over top. And then it was love at first bite. The pork was salty and the texture was so pleasing against the rice–only a slight contrast, not a substantial bite, just enough to keep it from being boring. The scallions cut through the richness and the only spice on offer, the shichimi togarashi, is subtle too. It’s served with a spoon and I firmly believe there is a huge difference in experience, if not taste too, in spooning warm rice and accompaniments into your mouth versus using chopsticks or a fork. It was exciting because it was delicious but nothing about it was hard, no crunch, nothing to chew terribly long, no ingredients to peel, de-bone or otherwise wrestle with. That did not make this bowl boring in the least, rather incredibly welcoming. Easy. Comfort food, served up, in a bowl–nothing more and nothing less.
As I was eating, the way to make this meat-free at home (I’m still cooking primarily vegetarian meals) came to me as easily as the next mouthful. The minced and fried king mushrooms in my Vegetarian Mapo Tofu was made to replace the ground pork in that recipe and they are the perfect stand-in here too. This is a ten-minute recipe if you have your rice on the go already. You can dress this up with soy sauce, hot sauce, bean sprouts or a side of vegetables if you want to but I actually encourage you not to. Uncomplicated, you can better enjoy the texture mushrooms and rice. Dry and un-sauced, it remains a simple rice bowl, delicious and comforting.
Fried Mushroom Rice Bowl
150 g (2 large) king mushrooms, chopped into smaller pieces but rather roughly
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 tbs soy sauce
1 tsp Chinese red vinegar
3 tbs flour (or more, as needed)
1/4 c peanut, vegetable or canola oil
2 cups of freshly cookied Jasmine rice (prefarrably), kept warm
3 scallions, dark and light green parts only, sliced crosswise Shichimi togarashi (or Korean chili flakes or cayenne pepper) to taste
Add mushrooms and 3/4 tsp salt to a small bowl and mix well with your hands, pressing the salt into the mushrooms well. Add soy sauce and red vinegar and mix to combine. Let marinate for 5 minutes, then squeeze out as much liquid as you can by pressing mushrooms firmly against a fine mesh strainer or through two pieces of cheese cloth. Add flour to a medium bowl, add the mushrooms and coat them thoroughly and evenly in flour; dust with a little more flour if needed.
Heat a wok or a large, wide-bottomed heavy pan over high heat, add the oil and when hot, add the mushrooms carefully. Try to separate the pieces so they don’t clump together. Once they are golden brown, remove using a slotted spoon and plate over a small bowl of freshly cooked Jasmine rice. Top with scallions and Shichimi togarashi and serve immediately.