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Zen and the Art of Good Cooking

- from The Vegetarian April 1992


A good meal should do more than fill an empty stomach; it should also feed your soul. David Scott discovered the spiritual aspects of Zen food from an inspiring Buddhist source in Japan.

Inside the temple gates of Sanko-in, a Zen Buddhist monastery for women, the earth under the pruned trees and shrubs of the front gardens had been carefully brushed clean.

Neat piles of fallen leaves, twigs and tiny ripe persimmons were collected along the pathway I took to the main monastery building.

I left my shoes at the sliding, wooden double door entrance, changed into the thonged slippers provided, and was led along a narrow corridor with a polished oak board floor to an almost bare ten tatami (woven straw) mat room. There were shoji (paper) screens on three sides and a wall with a tokonama (scroll) hanging alcove on the other.

I left my slippers in the corridor and sat on a cushion at a small red lacquered table in the rather cold and very silent room. I was told I would dine first and then meet the Abbess.

On an unusually warm and sunny day for a Japanese autumn I had travelled by bus, subway and finally taxi to Sanko-in which is tucked away in the outer suburbs of Tokyo. Here they have a reputation for serving the very best shojin-ryori food and the small number of public dining rooms are booked up months in advance.

Shojin-ryori may be simply translated as 'vegetable cooking' but it also carries with it the idea of cooking for spiritual growth since correct food preparation and good dietary practice form an integral part of traditional Japanese Zen training.

Koei Hoshino, the Abbess of the temple and a famous shojin cook, had kindly agreed to meet me to talk about herself, Zen food and the spiritual life.

The meal, which contained no meat, fish or dairy products, was served to me with a quiet reverence. It was exquisite. Green gunpowder whisked tea from Matsume in the Shimane Prefecture, the best in Japan, was served first accompanied by a round wafer biscuit filled with bean jam. In the centre was half a salted bean. Following this, served together on a single black lacquered tray, were a selection of dishes.

Sesame flavoured tofu (beancurd); soft creamy chawan mushi (a savoury custard filled with carefully patterned carrot slices) and shiitake (wood mushrooms): spinach, lightly parboiled, pressed and wrapped in nori seaweed; a plate of ginko nuts, fresh chestnut halves, slivers of gobo (vegetable) root, greenbeans and a wheel of okura (beancurd product) wrapped in seaweed. Rice, pickles and miso soup followed.

The Abbess came to join me, and a small pot of tea and tiny violet coloured sweets with the temple motif pressed into the top were served.

She is 57 years old, stout but not fat. Her head was shaved and she wore a black heavy cotton habit. She sat on the floor on her heels with her hands lightly folded in her lap, back straight but not stiff. Her eyes sparkled with humour and energy, she was composed, friendly and feminine. I asked the Abbess what shojin-ryori meant to her. She thought carefully and replied, "Shojin is my way of staying alive - that is all. There is nothing harmful in it, which is important. I eat the food to sustain me.

"Mind you, the food we eat ourselves on a daily basis is simpler than that served to our customers. After a hard day's work one does not long for delicacies. The simple yet delicious tastes of a bowl of rice gruel with pickled plums or of rice just off the stove accompanied by miso soup are unforgettable."

I asked her what basic advice she gave to the lay cooks who came to her for training. "Firstly and most importantly I tell them to concentrate fully on what they are doing", she told me, then smiled and said, "Secondly they must not make a mess!" and then, "Finally nothing should be wasted. For instance, here we use the peelings from carrots and other vegetables to make pickles for the next day's meal."

Koei Hoshino's teacher and the previous Abbess was Soei Yoneda who towards the end of her life wrote 'Food From a Zen Temple' (Kodensha International). Soei took tonsure and began a life of monastic discipline at the age of seven in the Bamboo Palace nunnery in Kyoto. At the age of 28 she took over Sanko-in.

Many years later, still naive in the ways of the world, she discovered that the temple land had been sold without her knowledge and that their financial reserves had also been drained. It seemed that Sanko-in would have to close. It was then that Koei Hoshino, assistant Abbess at the time, suggested the idea of offering their shojin dishes to the public.

In this way they would be able to survive and to propagate the teachings of the Buddha through their cooking. I asked Koei why, in retrospect, she thought the scheme had been such a success.

She told me after a long pause, "Since the beginning we have served our dishes with an eye to the colours of the seasons. We also prepare our ingredients with great care and love and the food is then presented on charming tableware which itself relates to the season at hand. For instance, the bowls may have a motif of chrysanthemums or peonies or maple leaves. Our patrons seem to enjoy these feminine touches. As well, they appreciate our emphasis on tradition.

"My old boss's view was that though our modern lives are full of comfort, we have gradually become distant from our natural environment. Living in homes with heaters and air conditioners has isolated us from the changes in the four seasons. We tend to forget the gentle breeze in the tree tops and the warm rays of the sun. Shojin cooking emphasises rather than hides these delights. On a cold and snowy day in winter, one sits hunched over warming the tips of one's fingers on a warming bowl of soup. And in the summer's heat there are cold noodles on a bed of ice and deep green leaves. Or one can enjoy cold, white tofu as it floats in clear water".

The motto of the temple, "chori ni kometa aijo", means cooking with love. I asked the Abbess who this love was for. She replied with a warm smile, "This love is for Buddha nature, for the people who eat our food, for the ingredients and for the pots and pans. In fact the essential flavour of the food comes from one's heart, from cooking with one's whole soul and from respecting the spirit of the kitchen.

"Also we love the crockery we use and try not to make a noise with it when we eat. It takes about three years of study to learn how to handle her eating bowls correctly. Only then will she be ready to start for a novice to learn shojin ryori".

What simple advice, I asked her, would the Abbess give to an ordinary person who wishes to lead a life of spiritual endeavours.

She sat very still for a few moments and then said, "Whatever you do you must put your whole heart into it. Practise this day after day. That is enough. Here for instance we believe that if we put all our energies into making the best possible food we can with the best possible taste, then we are pleasing Buddha. A meal reflects the gentle nature and warm heart of the cook. Of course some of us are more clever with our hands than others but if one does the best one can, a fine meal results almost as if by divine grace."

Finally I asked the Abbess for a Zen cook's tips. She told me, "In shojin cuisine we try to harmonise the five tastes; sweet, salty, vinegary, bitter and hot plus one more which is also very important. That is a soh taste, as of tofu for instance. "Once finished eating, one should be left with this perfect soh aftertaste. Remember if the first sip of a meal is perfect the aftertaste will not be, so one must strive for subtle, developing flavours rather than for those with a strong, immediate impact on the taste buds".


If you would like to eat at this temple then you can call and make a reservation

on 042 381 1116. Set menus are priced at 3,000 Yen, 4,000 Yen and 5,000 Yen.

Well worth the experience.

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