Appropriate attitude when observing ingredients: having deep insights on food
Since I have been involved in Shojin-ryori program of Kyoto Cuisine Mebaekai Association, I have received requests of Shojin-ryori courses from customers and for providing Shojin-ryori at events of temples more and more. I'm really grateful for these requests.
In case of requests from temples, I have often been asked to serve my Shojin-ryori at important events at the temples, such as Shin San Shiki, an inauguration ceremony of the new abbot.
When my Ryotei receives reservations from customers, we will carefully ask their requests as the same as restaurants usually do and then we will make menu based on their requests, purposes, budgets, and preferences.
However, as I mentioned in the previous feature, making Shojin-ryori requires slightly different work after that. I would like to explain this difference in more detail.
For example, when looking at a white radish in front of me, I take my time to think of it including its background, such as where and how this radish grew in the field rather than what the farmer particularly considered when growing the radish. I have never thought of such things before.
I observe an ingredient regardless of its actual appearance and I fell into the habit of thinking until I found the best way to utilize the ingredient. By having such attitude, I was able to see something new about the ingredient that I could never see before.
For example, I used to first remove odd-colored or -shaped parts from food such as parts with bug holes. I thought of them as a negative part. Contrarily, I now think of them as a positive part like they are so healthy and delicious that bugs like to eat.
If you look at food differently like it has high-fiber content because it grew in hard soil, I came to be very interested in food and I want to have deeper relationship to them.
According to the basic principle of Shojin-ryori, food has to be consumed completely including parts with bug holes. When using such parts in a dish, I face new challenges like finding the way to make the dish delicious by using them. Creativity and ideas of new food combination and new cooking methods are sometimes derived from such challenges. After contemplating food in front of me, my appreciation towards it becomes much stronger than before like thank them for working hard until they grew up now.
With a significant change: from Shinto-style to Buddhist-style philosophy
For cooking, we usually try to find good food and say "Fish caught in a certain place is delicious" or "Leafy vegetables grown in a certain place are delicious". I think the ideas like these are based on Shinto-style philosophy. Run errands everywhere to collect food for making an offering feast to the God. Chefs like me have been cooking based on this Shinto-style philosophy. We strive to get as good food as possible and cook them to make the most delicious dish, which is very important as a professional chef. I always keep that in my mind when serving food to my customers. When looking at food in front of me, I used to only focus on finding how to cook them ingeniously. Now, I can think of objects confronting me more deeply such as where the food grew and what they are appealing for.
On the contrast of the feast based on Shinto-style philosophy, according to Buddhist-style philosophy, all foods are equal, neither superior nor inferior to another.Since each of them has their own lives, considering the best way to utilize each food is prioritized.
I somehow became deeply absorbed by food by repeatedly clarifying their characters with the deep thought. I believe that, as a result, Shojin-ryori keeps on evolving forever.
Following Tenzo's working manner: Pursue the reason for using each ingredient when cooking
After carefully observing each ingredient, you will decide menu. That is very challenging too.
For example, when making yuba (tofu skin) from soy milk, you must find the reason why you want to use this yuba for your menu like asking yourself why it is necessary to use this soft yuba at this timing. Don't you think this is like a Buddhist riddle?
However, I believe that with such deep thinking, I can completely utilize the yuba. Emphasizing the character, presentation, or life of each ingredient in my dish is quite big responsibility for me.
I neither thought deeply before nor knew such way of thinking towards food. It is like "knowing that I don't know anything", isn't it? I realized that I didn't know such way of thinking. Having such awareness by pursuing Shojin-ryori was very important for me. Deciding menu requires quite long time compared to when quickly determining it from my experience, including considering the season, seasonal food, presentation, and coloring, because I think of not only taste of each dish on the menu but also background of each ingredient and reasons for using each ingredient into a dish.
However, I never bother to do it. Don't you feel good if you can nicely utilize ingredients in a dish and consume them completely?
To put it nicely, the better skills you have, the more perfect Shojin-ryori you can make. Therefore, I continuously strive for pursuing the world of Shojin-ryori. I'm also hoping to practice it like a Tenzo as much as possible.After determining the menu, finally you are going to start cooking. Shojin-ryori should be made without including meat and fish and also refrain from the use of pungent flavors. Basically, it is made with vegetables, beans, grains, and seaweed.
Shojin-ryori is made by using basic five cooking methods called "Goho" including serving fresh, simmering, grilling, steaming, and frying. In addition, we always keep six flavors called "Rokumi" including bitter, sour, sweet, salty, mild and hot in mind when cooking.
As broth is essential for Japanese cuisine, it may also determine the taste of Shojin-ryori. I would like to talk about cooking methods including broth in the next feature.
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