Saveur

TEMPLES OF THE SEASONS

ENJOYING a transcendent meal is a little like having a wedding or a car accident—time slows to a crawl. That’s the sensation I had in Kyoto while I negotiated biting into an umeboshi plum sheathed in translucent tempura batter, a dish so lovely that I nearly couldn’t bring myself to eat it. So many others arrived as part of this unforgettable three-hour lunch that I began to lose track: a perfect sphere of seafoam shiso sorbet; a clay teapot filled with a dark broth of shiitake mushrooms, gingko nuts, and custardlike tofu; pearly squares of wheat gluten fragrant with the aroma of yuzu. More memorable still was a cube with the color and consistency of the freshest buffalo-milk burrata. I pointed at it and the server spoke the words ebi imo. After fumbling with a translation app, I learned that I’d eaten a taro native to the Kansai Plain called a shrimp potato. Count me among its fans.

This, one of the most ravishing meals in my recent memory, didn’t take place in some hushed finedining pavilion but at Izusen, a chairless, bustling restaurant inside the Daitoku-ji temple complex. I could hear shouting from the kitchen. Behind me, a busload of visiting retirees noisily enjoyed their meal. I was unaccustomed to sitting on the floor and kept sliding off a growing stack of cushions. One of the women caught a glimpse of my ordeal and let out a delighted peal. She pointed at me and soon two dozen elderly tourists in sun visors and bucket hats were holding themselves with laughter.

Shojin ryori is Japan’s oldest codified cuisine but seldom encountered outside temples, religious festivals, and funerals. In accordance with the Buddhist prohibition against killing, shojin (which means “earnest effort”) eschews animal products and in retrospect appears to be eerily prophetic, having presaged a whole slew of contemporary food trends by about a millennium. It insists on produce that’s both local and in season, requires that it be prepared with simple hand tools, and allows no waste—instead of “nose to tail” you could call it “root to leaf.” And as I was discovering, despite a fairly limited ingredient list, shojin can produce textures and flavors limited only by the cook’s ability and imagination.

Another thing I was discovering: Writing about the food of Japanese monks and nuns for a magazine like this one presented several difficulties. From the Buddhist perspective, cooking is a form of spiritual practice that produces nourishment to prepare the body for hard work and meditation. Unlike, say, Memphis barbecue or the louche cuisine of Lyonnaise bouchons, doesn’t have a whole lot to has bigger fish to fry. Its goals are nothing less than permanent enlightenment, nirvana, the fundamental transformation of the human mind and society. It does not yield easily to an outsider’s explanation.

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