Friday, October 22, 2010

Enlightenment Through Cooking

Kansha if you can! Via.
What is the difference between the American vegetarian and the Japanese vegetarian? In the West, people choose vegetarianism for several reasons: for health, for fad, for spirituality or for principle. But Japan has been following the vegetable path much longer than its arrival on American shores due to geography and the religious influence of Buddhism, and the concepts are more intrinsic.

In her latest book Kansha, tracing Japan’s vegan and vegetarian traditions to their Buddhist roots (and offering several mouthwatering recipes in the process), Elizabeth Andoh describes the very basics:
Japanese meals are organized around a core of three foods: rice (or noodles), soup (clear, miso enriched, or puréed), and pickles. Greater volume and complexity are usually achieved by adding small dishes to this trio to round out the menu. Classic meal planning follows guidelines associated with Japan’s native culinary culture, washoku. Such meals achieve culinary harmony by balancing colors, flavors, and preparation methods.
Of course, the ideology and practice goes much deeper. Traditionally Japanese rarely ate or completely abstained from eating meat, stemming from adherence to the Five Virtues and the principle of ahimsa (non-violence).  For some, eating animal meat is akin to cannibalism because all sentient life is instilled with the same dhutu (spiritual essence) that resides in people. Also, much Japanese cuisine follows the rules of shojin-ryori (devotion cuisine): avoid killing plant life like root vegetables (potatoes, carrots and onions) and strong-smelling plants, and use seitan (mock meat made from wheat gluten and soy).

The Western vegetarian is catching up on how the East wines and dines. Those who still think vegetarian cuisine is bland, boring and unappealing should heed Andoh and Masato Nishihara , executive chef at Kajitsu  restaurant , which just received another Michelin star.

Both appear in the Japan Society sponsored discussion, Field to Table: The Role of Vegetable in Japanese Diet, taking place Monday, October 25. In addition to history and practice, they highlight a surprising twofold sustainability within practicing shojin: preserving the environment and preventing unnecessary waste in preparation and consummation.  Using all parts of the vegetable, it turns out, can create not only a soundly nutritious meal but bold artful complexities in flavor and texture. We can't wait to learn how!

S.H.

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