This story originally appeared in the spring 2014 Harker Quarterly.
The Harker Speaker Series brought renowned Shojin cuisine master Toshio Tanahashi to Nichols Hall on Feb. 20 to share his wisdom on the Zen Buddhism-inspired cooking philosophy. Brought to monasteries in Kyoto from China in the seventh and eighth centuries, principles of Shojin cooking were further codified by the writings of Dogen Zenji. The form greatly matured by the 13th century.
Tanahashi trained as a Shojin chef and opened the acclaimed Shojin restaurant Gesshinkyo in 1992, and went on to oversee food preparation for the Japanese TV series “The Real Thing.” He has been featured in Vogue Japan, The New York Times and other publications.
A purely vegetarian cuisine, food made in the Shojin tradition uses authentic ingredients cultivated locally and without the use of industrial methods. Ingredients include vegetables, fruits, sesame seeds, nuts, fermented foods and other organic elements.
Shojin adherents hold these ingredients and the methods used to craft them into Shojin foods in high regard. As Tanahashi began solemnly grinding sesame seeds with a mortar and pestle at the foot of the stage, he kindly asked the members of the audience to close their eyes and breathe deeply. This practice, he later said, could take up to two hours.
Tanahashi discussed how he communes with his ingredients, studying the vegetables to see what he believes are the “many messages” they are telling him. He uses this, he said, to decide what to make with them.
One example of the reverence for the ingredients used in Shojin cooking is the vinegar he prefers, which takes six months or longer to ferment. By contrast, the fermentation process for store-bought vinegar takes a mere eight hours.
Tanahashi invited attendees to grind sesame seeds the Shojin way. Trying to use proper mortal and pestle technique, audience members traded off slowly grinding the seeds into a paste. As they worked, Tanahashi instructed them to keep their backs straight, shoulders relaxed and eyes closed. “It’s not just finishing the job,” he said, “It’s the process, the journey.”
After volunteers ground the sesame seeds, Tanahashi added salt, vinegar, sugar, ginger and sake. “I’m sorry, but I do not measure,” he joked as he added and mixed ingredients. The audience did not seem to mind, as they exuberantly consumed the resultant paste as it was passed around the room with a variety of vegetables.