Shojin Ryori: “Better a dinner of herbs”

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by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog

I am lucky. I grew up with a mother and father who prided themselves on gifting myself and my siblings a discerning palate, one equally at home with a can of spaghetti hoops as a Persian tagine. Increasingly, as I grow older and meet more and more people whose upbringings differ from my own, I have become aware of the uniqueness of my parents’ decision. It is not an accident that I dedicate much of my daily life to cooking, nor that I chose to work in cooking professions during various times in my life. It is not an accident that when I see a vegetable that I do not recognise in a Korean grocery store, that I might pick it up and buy it to bring home out of curiosity for what it might taste like.

When I moved house about a year and a half ago, my boxes of pantry goods took up at least half of the load I carried to and from the underground station. When my housemate and I arrived at our new home, it was night, and I cooked us a meal that we ate from Tupperware on the floor of our new living room. It was the first thing I thought to do, to christen the home with the warmth of a good simple meal of vegetables.

I have been vegan for 8 years, and though it still remains a decision worthy of ridicule or pointed interrogation by some family members and acquaintances, I am happy with my way of life and how it has shaped my perception of food and cuisine. It has been an endless curiosity of mine to discover what a plate looks like without a ‘centrepiece’ – most commonly meat – and to discover the seemingly limitless versatility and variability of plant foods. During the last few years, I have also found my palate to have changed significantly. Where formerly I might have doused a vegetable in a cacophony of sauces and spices to make it more ‘interesting’, I now find myself yearning for the taste of the vegetable to remain most prominent when the cooking is complete.

I have owned a book for a while called the enlightened kitchen by Mari Fujii (translation by Richard Jeffrey). Its title refers to the vegetarian cuisine found in Buddhist temples throughout Japan. The author’s husband, alongside many of the tasks required of monks in training, worked regularly as tenzo, or temple cook. Fujii says that it brought her husband great joy to see his food being enjoyed by the monks at mealtimes.

The introduction to the enlightened kitchen is fairly short, discussing the health of such a cuisine and how inherently ‘natural’ such a way of eating is. I have made several of the recipes in the book, and they have tasted good, and I have not thought on it much more than that, despite my own continued personal study and practice of Zen Buddhism. To me, this book simply consolidated what I already knew; that to be Buddhist was, in part, to cause the least amount of suffering, and eating plants was a surefire way to avoid causing undue suffering.

But then I came across another book, which was sitting on a garden wall waiting to be taken. On its side, someone had written the word Satori in red ink, in English and then in Japanese script. Satori, in the simplest of terms, means awakening, particularly the sort of awakening that can be attained through Zen Buddhist practice.

The book smelled musty, and when I brought it home, I realised that its scent reminded me of my Mamie’s old house that she moved from many years ago. I extended the tome to my sister for her to smell. She smiled and said she too felt the smell evoked memories of that old French house.

The book’s name was The Heart of Zen Cuisine by Soei Yoneda, with an introduction by Robert Farrar Capon which tended to all the weeds untouched by the introduction to the enlightened kitchen.

I felt compelled to read part of Capon’s introduction to my sister while she drew pictures in purple and red ink, for I had never read such an interesting evaluation of the place of vegetables in western cuisines, and particularly in American kitchens (which I equate as similar to the general British kitchen). Capon speaks fervently on the morality enforced upon the poor vegetable in American and British society. He says that the vegetable is endowed with such great responsibility that it becomes a breeding ground for childhood scepticism – surely, if an adult speaks so highly of a food, and speaks only of it in nutritional terms – ‘it’s good for you’, ‘eat your veggies’, ‘it’s really healthy’, ‘it’s got less calories than ____’ – then the child will quickly learn that a certain amount of trickery is at hand, for why else would ‘significance [be] spooned over [vegetables] so liberally?’ (page 10). The child then learns that the only benefit or enjoyment he will get from eating the vegetable is praise by a parent, and perhaps a treat to reward him for eating something so healthy it must be revolting.

And what of the term? What of the word itself: vegetable? Or fruit, indeed? We must eat our vegetables, we are taught, purely because they are healthy, and in such we diminish the bountiful variety and distinctively disparate flavours of all the vegetables that exist. All we must do is eat a vegetable, any vegetable, and it will be healthy. We needn’t worry about the preparation, about how it tastes. We must simply get it down us so we can enjoy the ‘tastier’ parts of the meal; the meat, poultry, or fish, which, Capon states, are honoured by “recognizing, even of relishing their uniqueness. It’s rarely just “I want meat for supper.” Far more likely it will be “How about beef, or lamb, or veal, or pork – or turkey, chicken, goose, or duck?”” (page 9). The vegetable not only lacks distinction of its myriad variability, but it is also commonly done a terrible disservice in its preparation. It is served over-boiled to the point of mush or deep-fried within an inch of its life and served with copious condiments, or it is simply served plain as a garnish to be left on the side of a plate after its companion, a burger, perhaps, has been gallantly scoffed. It is no wonder that the vegetables and fruits we have readily to hand are so very limited, because we have made it a chore to eat them. We have forgotten how to forage, save more recently for a little wild garlic here and there (and sold for extortionate prices in organic grocery stores), and maybe a couple of blackberries hanging from a bush in mid-autumn. We (the white westerner) seem satisfied with our portion of boiled peas, carrots, and courgettes, maybe a bag of sliced lettuce and watery tomatoes, and an apple, orange, or banana, because that is what is offered to us at our grocery stores.

Things are changing. I have seen daikon and choi sum appear in larger commercial supermarkets, and, depending on the demographic around the supermarket on hand, one might find a few yams, a little lotus root, and some enoki mushrooms.

But the issue is not really in accessibility. There are countless small grocery stores offering such delicacies as okra, morning glory, plantain, Chinese chives, and burdock root, but the problem is deeper than whether we can grab a few blocks of tofu and some sake on the way home from work. I have come to realise that knowing how to cook, and to cook with joy and with creativity, is both and privilege and a gift. I am creative by nature, and this goes into my cooking. But without the firm but kind hand of my parents encouraging me to eat vegetables prepared in so many different ways, I doubt I would eat the way I do now. That is, with pleasure, giving time and care into the food I make. Sure – we have social media, and wonderful influencers who show us their native cuisines and teach us how to cook with flavours and ingredients that were previously foreign to us. But it’s one thing watching a video of someone preparing homemade mochi, and another to actually go forth and prepare the dish oneself. I think many of us are too lazy, and I think, apart from occasionally going to a chain Japanese restaurant every so often, we prefer to stick to what we know, because it is difficult to change. Of course it is. It is difficult, and it requires significant willpower.


Carl Kruse Blog - image of vegetables

Capon addresses the topic of vegetarianism in its belief that ‘any food can be forced into any mould’ (page 13). We see this in burgers marketed as tasting ‘exactly like the real thing!’ and in the tiresome attempts by food manufacturers to desperately turn tofu into something that tastes nothing like tofu, because surely no-one likes tofu – it is plain! It is flavourless! It needs to be marinated! It needs to be sauced-up or battered or blended into a sauce to mask its beany aftertaste!

I adore tofu. I find it has a delicate and satisfying flavour and texture, and I notice the nuances between the tofu I buy at my Korean grocery store and that which I buy at my commercial supermarket. I find tofu to be delicious enough to be consumed after a night of heavy drinking. I feel no compulsion to turn tofu into something that it is not, though, with a little imagination and knowledge of the sauces and spices I have on hand, I can turn a piece of tofu into something that tastes not dissimilar to white fish – with simply a sprinkling of kombu dashi and a small square of nori wrapped around its exterior after a gentle pan-fry.

Capon suggests that ‘As it is now, our taste buds are practically deaf to any food that is not the gustatory equivalent of the last eight measures of a Beethoven symphony,’ and wonders ‘How nice it would be if [we could learn to] admire food that knows how to lower its voice.’

I like that idea. I like the idea of softening our touch in the kitchen, whatever it is we choose to prepare, because – at least for myself – I have found that the tenderness with which I prepare a dish for myself and my sister extends to other parts of my life. I give my cooking all of my attention, if only for a good twenty minutes, and in that time I am in the quiet, with only a few vegetables and my imagination. And when the dish is served, and then gratefully eaten, I go back to work, and my work flows gently on like a stream, for I have given myself the gift of a beautiful plate of food, and all is well.
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Other articles by Hazel include:  Mars One, Single Mums, and Alcohol.
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Author: Carl Kruse

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