This past week I tagged along with veteran New York Times food writer Elizabeth Andoh to Hakuun’an, a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant and teahouse associated with Manpukuji Temple near Uji City in Kyoto Prefecture. Manpukuji is the head temple of the Obaku sect of Zen Buddhism, Japan’s third largest after the Rinzai and Soto sects, and is named after Manpukuji (Wafuszu) Temple in Fujian, China, where the sect’s mid-17th-century founder, Ingen, was the abbot.

Along with Rinzai Buddhism, Ingen brought to Japan a more strict observance of Buddhist doctrine, including prohibitions on eating meat. The style of vegetarianism popular in Ingen’s Ming Dynasty China — called fucha ryori in Japanese — predated today’s comparatively modern shojin ryori temple food. Fucha, written with the characters “ordinary” and “tea,” grew out of senchado, the practice of whole-leaf tea ceremony. Senchado uses leaf tea, sencha, rather than the more delicate, powdered tea, matcha, in an attempt to make tea available to everyone, rich or poor, educated or illiterate. The Obaku sect is one of the few in Japan practicing this type of tea ceremony and also still preparing the fucha ryori that goes with it.

The simplest traditional Japanese meal consists of one soup and three vegetables — ichi-ju san-sai— in addition to hot rice. A fucha meal consists of two soups and six vegetables — Ni-ju roku-sai — and is supposed to be eaten in groups of four people seated around a brightly lacquered, crimson table.

The guidelines for the preparation of fucha, which have become the basis of all washoku (Japanese cuisine), were canonized by early monks and are easily grouped into five sets of five rules:

  • Goshiki (five colors): aka — red; kiiro — yellow; ao — green; kuro — black; shiro — white.
  • Goho (five methods): niru (simmer); musu (steam); yaku (grill); ageru (fry); tsukuru (create).
  • Gomi (five flavors): shiokarai (salty); suppai (sour); amai (sweet); Nigai (bitter); karai (spicy).
  • Gokan (five senses): miru (sight); kiku (hearing); kaku (smell); ajiwau (taste); fureru (touch).

The final set of fives is called the gokan no mon — the five viewpoints or outlooks — a Buddhist doctrine referring to the state of mind to be maintained while partaking of the food. The first tenet is to ponder deep gratitude for the people who prepared the meal. Second is to perform deeds and have thoughts worthy of receiving such nourishment. Third is to partake of the food with no ire. Fourth is to realize that eating this food is feeding the soul as well as the body. And finally, the fifth consideration is to be seriously engaged on the road to enlightenment.

Following the gokan no mon might help you sooner attain some kind of enlightenment, but the other rules are not just for show; they actually lend an important nutritional balance to the meal.

The two soups served at Hakuun’an were both simple, clear soups, based on konbu dashi (stock), one containing a single preserved orchid. The six vegetable dishes included a version of goma-dofu (sesame tofu), sauteed vegetables, a vegetable salad, a seasonal simmered vegetable, tempura and pickles. The meal ended with rice seasoned with chopped tea leaves and a jellied dessert.

The dish of sauteed vegetables was like a Chinese stir-fry in that it was thickened with a starch to hold the sauce together, in this case kudzu root starch — kuzu in Japanese. The best kuzu comes from Yoshino and therefore this dish is called Yasai no Yoshino-ni, vegetables simmered in the style of Yoshino.

Yasai no Yoshino-ni

This dish should change to reflect the vegetables in season. Here is a version with some late spring-early summer vegetables. In this style of cooking, flavors are supposed to remain delicate, and perhaps to the Western palate they may seem under-seasoned. Adjust with a bit of salt as needed.

  • 1/4 cup shiitake mushrooms
  • 1/4 cup carrots
  • 1/4 cup lotus root
  • 1/4 cup turnip
  • 1/4 cup cooked bamboo shoot
  • s1/4 cup green peas
  • 8 ginkgo nuts
  • 3 tablespoons pine nuts
  • 1 teaspoon keshi no mi (tiny poppy seeds)
  • 2 cups konbu dashi
  • 3 tablespoons usukuchi shoyu (light soy sauce)
  • 3 tablespoons mirin
  • 3-5 tablespoons kuzu starch, reconstituted salt
  • vegetable oil
  • 1) Wash and trim all vegetables to a suitable stir-fry size.

2) In a large pan or a wok place two tablespoons of vegetable oil and sautee the vegetables at a fairly high heat, beginning with the hardest (carrots, lotus root) and continuing until all the vegetables have been added.

3) Add the dashi and simmer for a minute before adding the soy sauce and mirin. Adjust the flavor with a pinch of salt as needed.

4) To the simmering broth and vegetables add the reconstituted kuzu and simmer until the broth becomes clear again, signaling that the starch has fully cooked.

5) Finally add the ginkgo and pine nuts and warm through.

6) Place on four serving dishes and garnish with a sprinkle of poppy seeds.

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