Tofu, it seems, isn’t just for eating…
Every year on February 8th, various temples and shrines around Japan have a memorial ceremony for worn out and broken sewing needles. People bring their old and broken needles to the temple and place them in a block of tofu or konnyaku. The soft bed is offered as the final resting place for the needles that have worked so hard. The pilgrims who bring their needles are offering their gratitude for the needles’ hard work and also praying to improve their skills in sewing. As well as being an act of gratitude, the pilgrims also pray that all the things that are broken in their lives are laid to rest in a bed of softness – taking away all the sharp pain in their lives.
The gentle soft taste of silken tofu is to be enjoyed perfectly unadorned, as it is. In Kyoto, the best tofu is prepared using the natural spring water that is so delicious in Kyoto. There are a number of famous temple restaurants in Kyoto that serve yudofu 湯豆腐, which is just plain cubes of tofu simmered in spring water, that you eat dipped into a light soy sauce and topped with spring onions and grated ginger. The texture and subtle favour is enjoyed in the meditative surroundings of an ancient garden, so that all of the senses are engaged in the simple act of eating this perfect humble food. It is a sublime culinary experience.
The key to this dish is to use only the highest quality tofu, spring water and konbu.
1 x 15cm piece of konbu
4 cups of spring or filtered water
Silken or regular tofu cut into cubes about 5cm
1 cup dashi
3 Tbsp shoyu
Sliced spring onion
Traditionally, this dish is prepared in a donabe clay pot on a small table burner, but you can use a regular saucepan and then transfer the tofu and water into a warmed casserole pot.
Place the konbu in the water and leave for about 5 hours. Put the saucepan on a low heat until the first bubbles appear, then turn off the heat and pour into a pre-warmed casserole dish with the tofu in it.
Each person takes a piece of tofu and puts it in their bowl, adding the dipping sauce and condiments to their own liking.
This is Genbo Nishikawa’s recipe for tofu & vegetable stuffed mini-pumpkins.
Recipe makes one stuffed pumpkin
Mini-pumpkin about 15cms diameter
3 dried shiitake mushrooms
Small amount of kikurage mushrooms
3 runner beans
Usukuchi shoyu [light soy]
250g firm tofu
Kuzu-an [Ankake] sauce:
1 1/2 cups of water
2 Tbsp konbu dashi [see “dashi” in the glossary page for details]
2 Tbsp usukuchi shoyu [light soy sauce]
(1) Remove the top portion of the pumpkin – to be used as a lid; Scoop out the seeds; Place the pumpkin in salted water for about 30 minutes
(2) Rehydrate the mushrooms in water and cut finely, reserving the soaking liquid for stock; Cut the carrots into sliced quarters [called icho in Japanese – see glossary for a video on how to slice “icho”]; Slice the gobo down the length into two halves, then thinly slice into “half moon” shapes; Slice the beans into 1cm pieces
(3) Take the ingredients in (2) and put them in the shoyu and chill in the refrigerator; Place the tofu in a muslin cloth or paper towel and allow to drain, then wring lightly to remove the water; Mix the tofu with the chilled ingredients
(4) Boil the pumpkin in the water for about 15 minutes; Stuff the pumpkin with the tofu and vegetables; Put on the pumpkin ‘lid’ and boil for a further 10 minutes
(5) Put the ingredients for the kuzu-an in a saucepan and heat to a gentle simmer, stirring constantly until it thickens
(6) Pour some of the warm kuzu-an sauce into the base of a bowl and then place the pumpkin on top.
Source: 禅寺のおばんざい四季の膳 by Genbo Nishikawa
This is a translation of part of an interview with Genbo Nishikawa, shojin-ryori chef and teacher, and abbot of Torin-in temple in the Myoshinji Zen temple complex in Kyoto. Nishikawa-sensei has also written many books on shojin cuisine.
Source: Sun Chorella
Q. When someone says “shojin cooking”, the image is of the simple food that Buddhist monks eat that doesn’t contain any meat or fish, but what does it really mean?
A. Originally, “shojin” was a Buddhist word that referred to a total commitment to the ascetic practices that would lead to enlightenment. Even though human beings have continued to survive, unless something gives us life, we cannot survive. And so, in the spirit of the Buddhist proscription against taking life, not only should we be aware of taking care of all living things but we must fully value those lives upon which we depend for life. That is the essence of shojin cooking.
Q. So you mean that everything related to food is also considered as “shojin” in the sense of being a spiritual practice?
A. In Zen training, preparing food or eating food is just the same spiritual practice as sitting on a cushion and meditating. In the 13th century, Dogen Zenji, who was the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan, adopted this way of practice. In recent times, we see athletes in much the same way, as being completely committed to their sports practice. When you are focussed on sport, be completely absorbed in sport, and so it should be with everything you do.
Q. In order to fully value the living things that we eat, isn’t it also taught that we should utilise everything and not waste anything?
A. Well, even though it is really important to make the best use of all the ingredients, you still have to peel the skin off some vegetables. But even so, not only do we tend to quite unconsciously and carelessly throw away the leaves and roots, but we don’t stop to think about how we might be able to fully utilise those vegetables skins as well.
Q. Well, it seems that this is all connected with the Buddhist precept of respecting life and not killing, isn’t it. So, what’s the basis upon which you choose what ingredients to use?
A. In Japan, the four seasons of summer, autumn, winter and spring are really clearly defined and with each season comes a variety of ingredients that are full of nourishment and which will appear in the marketplace quite cheaply when they are in season. It is these seasonal ingredients that I use. Nowadays, everything seems to be available all year round, but I think this is very strange. That’s really not making the best use of Japan’s climate and natural local features. But recently, because of the rising popularity of “local production for local consumption” and terms such as eco-friendly are becoming more widely used, the preciousness and importance of life seems to be talked about more often. But actually, Dogen Zenji was saying the same thing 850 years ago!
Q. Being aware of “local production for local consumption” and being eco-friendly is really important for the environment too, isn’t it?
A. Yes. Paying attention to the seasons, buying locally grown produce, making less rubbish, saving petrol by not driving too far – being aware of these kinds of things is what “eco-friendly” really means. I think that if we simply keep on preserving this traditional Japanese food culture that we already have had for centuries, such as only eating food that is in season, then we will not be contributing to the bigger issues now facing us such as global warming and the destruction of the environment.
Still spritely at 82 and with a constant twinkle in her eye, Ogino-san was a respected tea ceremony master who introduced me to the art of shojin ryori when I was living in a small rural village in the mountains of Japan. Carrying on the tradition of her family who had been in the village since ancient times, Ogino-san specialised in preparing the cuisine that accompanies tea ceremony called ‘cha-kaiseki,’ which is the cuisine that so influenced both the international macrobiotic movement and also French nouvelle cuisine. In the village there were always seasonal festivals and all of them were centred around the village temple and all of them involved elaborate preparations of appropriate seasonal foods.
On one particular day that made a deep impression on me, the ancient weeping cherry tree in front of the temple was a cascade of pale pink as the women of the village gathered to prepare the boxed lunches for the hundred or so villagers who would be coming for the Spring Festival that afternoon. It was a fresh sunny day and we were all laughing and chatting, eagerly looking forward to the day’s celebrations. But before we started, we stood in reverent silence as Ogino-san slowly and gracefully prepared five beautiful dishes of special treats and placed them carefully onto a red lacquer tray, all the while chanting prayers in a practiced melodic voice. On this tray was the food to be offered before the festivities began at the altar of Kannon, the deity of compassion and the principle deity enshrined in the temple.
After placing the tray on the altar, Ogino-san bowed low towards the image of Kannon, with her hands clasped in silent prayer, after a few minutes, she turned to us all and with a big smile and clap of her hands ordered our return to the kitchen to begin preparing the festival food under her watchful eye. Although the mood was very upbeat and rowdy, there was a calmness and a reverence about the way we proceeded that had been affected by witnessing Ogino-san’s ritual preparation of the altar tray. I suddenly became aware that preparing the food for the villagers and then offering it to them also formed a part of this ongoing sacred act of serving food. And the food really did taste so much better when prepared with this awareness!
This event made a deep impression on me and I began helping Ogino-san in the temple kitchen several times a week, even though at that time I wasn’t really interested in Buddhism in a religious way. As well as learning about the way that food is prepared for offering on the Kannon altar, I began to learn the principles of Zen cuisine that completely changed the way I viewed cooking and eating.
In later years, while training to becoming a Buddhist priest myself in the temple village of Koyasan, I spent a lot of time working in the temple kitchen, where continued to learn about shojin ryori under the guidance of the temple chef, Kinoshita-san. Shojin ryori is considered an important cultural heritage in the mountain village of Koyasan, a World Heritage listed site in the mountains south of Osaka, with several hundred temples, many of which provide accommodation for pilgrims and visitors to the village. The preparation, serving and eating of food is an important mediation practice that involves a deep awareness of all the elements that have combined to bring this moment of eating to fruition, including all the people who worked to get the ingredients to the temple kitchen and even the sunshine, earth, rain and bugs for helping the food to grow. It is a deep philosophy of living. The lessons I acquired from my teachers, and the knowledge I continue to gain by translating the books and websites of shojin ryori specialists in Japan is what I would like to share with you in this blog. Itadakimasu! Bon Appetit!