By Lam Kam Chuen
Charles E. Tuttle Co., 160 pp.
3 Bowls: Vegetarian Recipes From an American Zen Buddhist Monastery
By Seppo Ed Farrey
Houghton Mifflin Co., 224 pp.
Three Bowl Cookbook: The Secrets of Enlightened Cooking From the Zen Mountain
By David Scott and Tom Pappas
Charles E. Tuttle Co., 128 pp.
All three of these books of Eastern cooking--two from head cooks in American Zen Buddhist monasteries, and one from a feng shui master--have one unmistakable message: cooking, like anything else, can be performed with mindfulness, and cooking with mindfulness is cooking with love. They also make up an encyclopedic compendium of recipes, resources, and philosophy that are especially good at explaining ingredients and tools, while demystifying the Eastern ways of the kitchen.
Master Lam Kam Chuen, an authority on Chinese traditional medicine, and his wife, Lam Kai Sin, own and run Immortals, a restaurant in London. Their "Feng Shui Kitchen" is the most comprehensive of the three books, providing a strong grounding in the principles of feng shui and the Chinese culture that produced it. The Lams clearly lay out the principles of this ancient philosophy: chi (the fundamental energy) and yin and yang (the opposing energies that must be kept in balance). In the kitchen, that translates to balancing ingredients as well as the beneficial placement of equipment using the five energies of earth, water, metal, wood, and fire.
No one expects home-based chefs to tear out their kitchen walls to move stoves, but the book inspires one to think about the whole process of food preparation. "The entire world of food is regarded as an energy cycle, just as the home and kitchen are fields of energy which affect the quality of the meals prepared in them," say the authors. "You, the cook, are an energy field in your own right."
"Feng Shui Kitchen" covers the basics, from how to use chopsticks, cleavers, and chopping boards to the proper preparation and maintenance of the wok and the necessary ingredients for a well-stocked pantry.
The recipes, fortunately, are not so exotic that they are difficult to prepare. Dishes, vegetarian and meat, are organized according to the four seasons--scallion pancakes and steamed fish with ginger in the spring; stir-fried spinach in summer, and eggplant with black bean sauce for fall. Variations on the recipes are provided alongside the basic preparation, which are amply illustrated with color photographs and watercolors to augment our understanding.
The two Zen cookbooks center on the philosophy of oriyoki, or three bowls eating, a Zen monastery discipline whereby one eats from just that many bowls, cleans the bowls while still seated, then stacks and rewraps them for the next meal. This 1,000-year-old ritual, which also requires reciting sutras, or holy Buddhist texts, makes one vitally conscious of eating all the food one has placed in one's bowl, savoring its tastes, and feeling gratitude for the efforts it required. "This mealtime ritual taught me to pay attention," writes Myochi Nancy O'Hara, co-author with Seppo Ed Farrey of "3 Bowls: Vegetarian Recipes From an American Zen Buddhist Monastery."
The roster of gourmet vegetarian dishes is just the beginning of "3 Bowls": The book is a running commentary about life in the zendo itself--its practices, its philosophy. Reading these random notations on walking meditation, the daily routine in a monastery, or the cook's own thoughts about certain recipes provides a direct sense of monastic life, filled out by thoughts and calligraphy from Eido T. Shimano, head abbot of Dai Bosatsu Monastery. The Rinzai Zen monastery, a classically styled Japanese monastery patterned after Tofuku Ji in Kyoto, is located in New York's Catskill Mountains and serves delicious food to nourish its students and visitors.
The one I tried, spicy rice bake with black-eyed peas, collard greens, and sweet potatoes, was a hit--not only for my guests, but for my own sense of valuing each ingredient in a dish. Some ingredients can be a bit obscure, however: Visits to three different stores were necessary for this recipe.
The second Zen offering, "Three Bowl Cookbook," is by Tom Pappas, tenzo, or head cook, in Zen Mountain Center in Southern California, and David Scott. The idea here was clearly to provide an abundance of recipes, sorted again by season, with a minimum of text. There are some 80 pages of recipes, from white bean and roasted garlic puree to winter squash soup and unusual dishes like basmati rice with grilled eggplant chutney. The beauty of these dishes is in their straightforwardness, assuring that any of us can prepare them easily.
The difference between this book and most others is the idea that the cook should not toss the ingredients together or worry about impressing guests. The idea is to experience the process of cooking. "Anyone who has prepared a meal for someone they love," tenzo Pappas writes, "may have noticed a pleasant feeling as the meal comes together." For anyone who enjoys cooking, that's sufficient motivation to turn immediately to the recipes and begin.