For someone who has been through three years of strict training in the art of shojin cuisine at a Zen Buddhist temple in Otsu, near Kyoto, Toshio Tanahashi is surprisingly warm and twinkly. And a bit of a showman too, if the lecture and demonstration on shojin cuisine I went to, organised by the Japan Society, is anything to go by.
The first thing I say to my students,’ he said, ‘is, are you willing to give up going to the Seven Eleven?’
Because shojin cuisine is all about fresh ingredients, ideally grown within ten kilometres of where they are eaten. Though Tanahashi accepts that would be hard to achieve nowadays – ‘everyone in Tokyo would die’.
It’s an all-vegetable cuisine, but Tanahashi isn’t a vegetarian and doesn’t support the strict ‘I won’t eat that’ approach of vegetarianism. Buddha asked for alms and ate whatever he was given; to refuse food is waste and shojin cooking hates waste.
‘Shojin’ means ‘devotional’ and shojin food is traditionally cooked and eaten by buddhist monks – it’s a form of traditional vegetarian cooking which dates back to the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th Century. What drew Tanahashi to it, and led him to give up his life as a ‘salary man’ at the age of twenty-seven to study it, was that it gave him the chance to ‘become Japanese’ by returning to one of the traditional ways of Japan.
Above all, shojin cuisine is healthy – the reason it’s good for you derives in part from traditional Japanese cooking which cooks with water, not oil as in the west. Plus it’s seasonal, it relies on local produce and it uses the whole of the vegetable with nothing thrown away.
Tanahashi cooked two main dishes for us, served with rice and a vegetable miso soup. (The soup exemplified his simple approach. How do you make vegetable miso soup? You put vegetables in miso soup).
Both dishes were based on sesame. The first used brown sesame which was ground for an hour by Tanahashi’s patient assistant before the demonstration started.
Tanahashi himself normally spends an hour each day grinding sesame, which also functions as a form of meditation. You can watch a seven-minute of video of him grinding sesame with meditation hints on the website of Schumacher College where he teaches.
To the sesame he added sieved tofu, brown sugar, salt, soy sauce, sansho pepper, sake and mustard. Not quite what I was expecting (sugar? alcohol?), especially as the locally bought mustard was a pot of Wilkinson’s.
He mixed it thoroughly then added the vegetables – apple, broad beans, spinach, beetroot.
Plus rhubarb, which he strained first.
Then he mixed it by hand, making a gentle swooshing sound. ‘It feels like ice-cream,’ he said, and it looked like it too.
And that was that. Here he shows us the finished product.
The second dish was based on white sesame which he soaked in water in a cloth and then squeezed out so he had a bowl of sesame milk.
To this he added salt, sake and kuzu starch which he had brought from Japan, with some trepidation about getting it through customs as it looks like this:
It was then stirred over heat for about ten minutes and left to cool and solidify.
The soup was made using kombu, a kind of thick seaweed that apparently has over seven times the calcium of milk, white and red miso and cauliflower and broccoli.
We all got a little plate to try. The point of shojin cuisine, Tanahashi explained, is not so much to gratify the appetite as to satisfy the body. At any rate, it went down well with his appreciative audience.
Oh, and one more thing. Tanahashi eats three meals of shojin cuisine a day. One of the healthy aspects of eating so many vegetables is that they pass through your system very quickly. Tanahashi goes to the loo three times a day – something he feels we should all be aiming for.