Story of how our vegan cheese is made…
What to use as base?
There are various kinds of vegan cheese or cheese-like foods that are not made of dairy. Actually, there is no clear definition or guideline as to what it is or what it should be. In Japan, most are soy-based, and there are also tofu products that are pickled in soy sauce, miso, etc. overtime or smoked.
TOKYO VEG LIFE faux-mage uses cashew nuts as the base and doesn’t use soy.
Biggest reason is the taste. Soy has a distinct flavor, and particularly for Japanese who have been used to eating various soy-based foods since childhood, it’s quite easy to tell if something is made with soy.
Also, being vegan in Japan, we tend to consume a lot of soy products, such as soy milk, tofu, natto, fried tofu and tofu pouch, as a source of protein on a daily basis. So rather than increasing the amount of soy consumption even more, I wanted to introduce something else that would add diversity to daily diet.
Lastly, consuming soy-based foods almost daily, we tend to forget, but a large of portion of okara or soy pulp, which is a byproduct of manufacturing soy milk and tofu, is discarded as waste or goes into processing as livestock feed. In that sense, you could say that soy-based foods (except for whole soy foods like natto and tempeh) are unfortunately not great for the environment.
Cashew nuts have this creamy and rich flavor without any distinct smell. They are quite soft, so once soaked in water, they can be blended with water into milk without producing any pulp like soy or almonds.
Cashew nuts are not grown in Japan, so I need to depend on imports, which do have a large carbon footprint. But nothing is perfect… Considering the taste, ease of processing and potential damage to the environment, for now, I see cashew nuts as the best choice for TOKYO VEG LIFE faux-mage.
How to form into “cheese-like” shape?
How is real cheese made? Milk from cow, goat or sheep is curdled using acid like lemon juice for fresh cheese or coagulated using enzyme like rennet for others, then curd is separated from the liquid (whey) to form into a shape.
So how do you go about forming solid cashew nuts into a new shape?
There are two main ways to process cashew nuts into vegan cheese. One is to process them with some liquid and/or oil in a food processor into paste then dry it to form a shape. The other is to make milk (liquid) by blending with water then add acid to curdle it just like when making real fresh cheese or use solidifying agent like agar to form a shape.
Different method would result in a different texture. Trying out different methods and noting the results then adjusting the recipe is like a science experiment, and I really enjoy the process!
In particular, solidifying liquid (cashew milk) using agar takes quite a technique. If you simply solidify it, it will create a texture that’s similar to hard jello – not something remotely close to real cheese texture.
Coincidentally, Suwa area of Nagano, where I live, has traditionally been known as the main and in a sense the only manufacturer of agar products in Japan. Its climate is suitable for making delicious agar products, but let’s save that story for another time…
How to ferment?
A lot of vegan cheese products or cheese-like products are not fermented at all. Some ingredients like lemon juice is added to mimic the acidic flavor of cheese, but the flavor created through fermentation is actually quite different from that of fresh acidity like fruit juice.
When trying to ferment food made with cashew nuts, since cashew nuts don’t contain bacteria suitable for fermentation, you need to add some starter.
Vegan cheese recipes abroad often times call for rejuvelac, which is fermented drink made from grains, or capsuled probiotics as a starter of fermentation.
In my case, I had a strong desire to create something that can be only created here as I wrote about in my last post, so I use local pickled vegetables that have been a traditional staple in the region for generations.
SUNKI is a rare kind of pickled local turnip leaves which have been fermented without using any salt. People are still making it by traditional methods and there is even a local competition yearly to decide whose SUNKI tastes the greatest in that year.
NOZAWANA is a popular kind of pickled local green leafy vegetables and is not just consumed in Nagano locally but is often sold as souvenir for tourists. Due to its popularity though, it’s hard to find NOZAWANA sold at stores that doesn’t contain any additive. I was able to source some that is made by locals only for local consumption.
At first, I wasn’t sure if lactic acid bacteria on vegetable leaves can work to ferment cashew nuts, but my attempt turned out successfully.
Both NOZAWANA and SUNKI were developed as a way to preserve food during long and cold winters. Even in low temperature, food ferments slowly and deepens the flavor along the way. This means that the fermentation process doesn’t require any incubator or electric warmer, which was also a big plus for me as I wanted to manufacture my products with least amount of energy possible.
It’s actually truly remarkable to witness the ancient wisdom in the working.
Tasting event in April!
I’ll be hosting a small, closed tasting event in April in Tokyo, and unfortunately the tickets are already sold out, but I plan on doing an open tasting event again in May in Tokyo.
If you live in Tokyo and are interested in trying out my vegan cheese, please follow my Instagram account @tvlfauxmage to get updates and event information.
Thank you and looking forward to seeing you at a tasting event in the future!
With much love,
TOKYO VEG LIFE