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Living and eating with appreciation

Author Elizabeth Andoh on her latest book and Japan's ancient vegetarian tradition

by Robbie Swinnerton

A writer, author and longtime authority on Japanese cuisine, Elizabeth Andoh has been even busier than usual since the publication of her latest work, “Kansha: Celebrating Japan’s Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions.” Beside the extra demands of promotional commitments, for the past several years she has also split her time between Tokyo and Osaka, where she now lives. She travels regularly between the two cities while continuing to teach and run other culinary programs through her A Taste of Culture organization.

Last week, The Japan Times caught up with Andoh to chat over lunch at Itosho, a restaurant specializing in shojin ryori (temple cuisine) in Tokyo’s Azabu-Juban district. This was absolutely appropriate, given that the precepts of Buddhism underscore the ancient tradition of vegetarian cooking in Japan — and that the concept of kansha, the sense of appreciation for life, is the central driving concept of Andoh’s new book.

Even after more than four decades living in Japan, cooking, eating out and writing about washoku (Japanese food culture), Andoh remains a student of the culinary arts. As Itosho’s chef, Hiroharu Ito, lays the first dishes on the low tables, she takes out a notebook to sketch each course, its composition and balance of ingredients. She also has a keen eye for the tableware on which the food is presented.

“I’m forever amazed at the truly infinite variety that’s possible from (just) a few ingredients,” she says. “A lot of (chef Ito’s ceramics) are really antique, wonderful. And his version of shojin ryori is a little different — there are many different styles — and Hida Takayama (Ito’s home town in mountainous Gifu Prefecture) is landlocked and very different from other places.”

Interestingly, Andoh reveals that the original concept for her book was not purely vegetarian or vegan. Rather, it was based on the age-old Japanese approach to cooking, eating and living in which meat and other animal foods played little or no part. It was a celebration of this mindset of appreciation — of the seasons, of the bounty of the fields and of life in general: “(The title) was purposefully not an exclusively culinary word, because I was talking about a much larger approach and this was the culinary take.”

It’s a way of life that has largely vanished now, even in rural Japan. But when Andoh first arrived in the mid-1960s it was still very much alive — as she discovered in the household of her future husband, in rural Shikoku.

“My mother-in-law, who was my kitchen role model, was vegetarian, in the sense that women born in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) were vegetarian,” she says. “She didn’t eat anything that lived and moved.”

Andoh explains that the book was originally to include a definitive discussion of the various styles of shojin cuisine, describing the regional differences and the specific cooking styles of each Zen sect. Unfortunately, the bean counters at her publisher ruled that the manuscript was too long, and that was one section that had to be cut.

“The paragraph that came out also talked about ‘mottainai,’ she says, citing a Japanese expression commonly used to mean “don’t be wasteful” but with older, deeper religious connotations. It actually has Buddhist roots and is very unique to Japan.

“I had so much material that didn’t end up in the book,” she says.

Is there a chance the excised text could end up in a future book? It’s possible, she grants. But in the meantime it — together with all her archives — forms the core of her new website at www.kanshacooking.com .