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Contemplating Lunch at a Buddhist Temple

<i> Thornbury is a free-lance writer living in Princeton, N.J</i>

When you’re in this city, have lunch at the Sanko-in, a small Zen temple that is famous for the Buddhist temple cuisine it has been serving for 25 years.

No, you don’t have to be Buddhist to enjoy temple cuisine. You just need a taste for traditional, all-vegetarian Japanese food that is imaginatively prepared from the freshest ingredients and beautifully served in an authentically Japanese setting.

I learned about the Sanko-in, which is run by women, when I read “Good Food From a Japanese Temple,” an excellent book by Soei Yoneda, who became the first abbess of the temple when it was established in the western part of Tokyo in the late 1930s.

Yoneda was originally from the Kyoto area, for the last six centuries the center in Japan of Buddhist temple cuisine, which she learned as part of her religious training at a temple with historic ties to the imperial court.

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By the 1960s the Sanko-in had fallen into financial trouble. Yoneda agreed with her assistant abbess, who suggested that meals be served to the Tokyo public to bring in funds. The plan was a success.

After Yoneda passed away several years ago, she was succeeded by her assistant, Koei Hoshino. Abbess Hoshino and one other woman, who has taken Buddhist vows, are the only nuns in residence at the Sanko-in.

Lay Women Cook

Most of the cooking, serving and daily chores are by experienced lay women, several of whom have been working there for about 10 years.

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Guests enter the temple precincts through a wooden gate and follow a stone pathway to the graceful main building, also of wood. As in a Japanese home, shoes are removed at the entrance.

The dining area is a tatami- mat room overlooking an inner garden. Everyone sits Japanese-style on cushions. Sliding paper doors create separate dining spaces. It isn’t a large place; 10 to 15 lunch guests can be accommodated at a time.

Buddhist temple cuisine is a relative of kaiseki, the so-called Japanese haute cuisine that evolved along with the tea ceremony--which itself grew out of the Zen Buddhist tradition. The special feature of temple cuisine is its strict adherence to the Buddhist prohibition against eating animal products.

At the outset of lunch at the Sanko-in, which is affiliated with the Rinzai sect of Zen, each guest is given a bowl of whisked green tea and a small sweet bean cake (eaten first to make the bitter tea palatable). The tea symbolizes the mood of refinement and contemplation epitomized in the tea ceremony.

Shortly after that the meal begins. A woman brings in food on individual lacquered trays that are placed in front of each guest. The tray holds dishes of various sizes, shapes and colors containing seasonal foods that, although all vegetarian, cover a remarkable range of delicious flavors, pleasing textures and varied cooking methods.

Culinary Balance

Traditionally, a temple meal should include at least one example each of boiled, grilled, fried, steamed and raw food and even prescribes the specific tastes and colors that should also be incorporated to achieve culinary balance.

In the summer you might find a crisp salad of shredded, lightly vinegared uri melon with tiny leaf-shaped garnishes cut from cucumber skin; a dish of cooled and seasoned steamed squash, snow peas, burdock root, cooked tofu and white mountain yam rolled in thin sheets of seaweed; fried robai (made from wheat) with pieces of soft, dark green kelp; silky chilled sesame pudding and a kind of sweetened and simmered green apricot.

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When finished, trays are cleared and bowls of white rice are served. Mine was flavored with chopped green perilla. Along with the rice, I had a bowl of clear soup with trefoil leaves, fresh shiitake mushrooms and a tender stalk of taro plant. I also was served three kinds of pickles--crunchy white radish slices, green radish leaves and pink ginger.

The meal, satisfying in every respect, ended with cups of green tea. Guests can linger and savor the meal and the surroundings.

Depending on the season, examples of other foods on the menu include eggplant, bamboo shoots, fiddlehead ferns, cabbage, lotus root and persimmons. Many varieties of mushrooms and seaweeds, as well as yams and other fruits and vegetables (fresh and pickled) are used throughout the year.

Staple ingredients include wheat, beans, starches, miso, soy sauce and other natural flavorings, rice and tofu.

Abbess Leads Classes

The abbess holds classes in temple cuisine each month at Sanko-in. English translations and background explanations are provided. In recent years there has been an upsurge of interest in the classical culinary arts among Japanese and non-Japanese.

I attended one of the sessions. To my surprise the cooking class (though not the regular lunch) begins with a brief period of group Zen meditation--the hardest part of which is to try to sit more than a few seconds in the stipulated cross-legged position. It’s voluntary, and no one says anything if you don’t do everything according to form.

I saw Abbess Hoshino for the first time when she led the meditation. I began to wonder just what was ahead when I set eyes on this formidable-looking woman with the shaved head and black robes that distinguish Buddhist nuns.

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As the cooking class got under way in the temple kitchen she proved to be a woman of warmth and humor. The purpose of Zen meditation is to encourage participants to think about the philosophical foundations of the cuisine.

Under the direction of the abbess, and with the aid of the regular cooks, we made four dishes, using eggplant, burdock root, yam and ingredients for clear noodles. We not only learned recipes but also practiced some of the methods of cutting and presenting food.

Arranging our own trays and helping ourselves to rice that had already been prepared, we ate the lunches we had prepared. Abbess Hoshino joined us, answering questions and chatting.

Sanko-in (3-1-36 Honmachi, Koganei-shi, Tokyo) is a five-minute taxi ride from the north exit of Musashi Koganei station on the Chuo train.

Lunch is the only meal served. There are two sittings every day except Thursday (when the Sanko-in is closed) at noon and 2 p.m. The temple also closes during August and from Dec. 25 through Jan. 10.

Reservations and menu choices must be made in advance. There are three preset menus that vary in price and the number of dishes served. Specific dishes are left to the cooks, who use seasonally available ingredients.

Menu Choices

Members of a party must choose the same menu. The tsuki menu (five dishes) is 2,600 yen (about $22 U.S.), the yuki menu (six dishes) 3,000 yen ($25) and the Zen menu (nine dishes) 5,000 yen ($42). All meals include soup, rice, pickles and tea. Sake is also available for an additional charge.

A class in Buddhist temple cuisine is generally given from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the third Wednesday of every month, but the schedule varies. Newcomers are welcome, and reservations are required.

The cost of the lesson, including lunch, is 1,000 yen ($8). Because the temple kitchen is used for instruction, regular lunch service is not offered on the days when classes are held.

For more information on travel to Japan, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 2640, Los Angeles 90017; (213) 623-1952.


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