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Food

Zen birthday lunch

Since we moved to Tokyo, every year around October, I plan a mystery dinner or lunch out for Te-chan’s birthday. Mystery in the sense that he has no idea where I am taking him. This year, I made a lunch reservation at Sankoin Temple in Musashi Koganei, famous for its Kyoto style shōjin ryōri and its monthly cooking classes. When I searched for shōjin ryōri served at a temple around Tokyo, I was quite surprised to find four temples: our mystery lunch temple, one with Chinese style, a temple in Kamakura, or one deep in the mountains where you can also go under the waterfall for your spiritual journey guided by a priest. I will not mention names of those other temples here, since I have to keep these in my back pocket for my future surprise lunches.

On one rainy Saturday in October, Te-chan was only told we would be going to a place that serves lunch only and to dress somewhat nice. After many “Are we going to this and that?” questions from him, we got off at JR Musashi Koganei station and started to walk through the pouring rain and got soaking wet after only a couple of minutes. After 15 minutes walk from the station, I said, “We are going to take a little tour of this temple before lunch.” at 11:30 am, which is still a bit early. Having little idea why we were strolling into a temple in the rain and still believing we were going to go to the French restaurant we saw on the way, Te-chan thought I was trying to buy time before the restaurant opened. After walking through a shady path covered with many Ginkgo trees, with golden fruits covering the ground after the heavy rain, we walked into a little house behind the main temple surrounded by the bamboo trees, where the wet wooden sign said “shojin ryori”. “Ah!” finally.

Seated at the low table with tatami like surface and waiting for other guests to arrive, we sat there quietly listening to the sound of rain and looking out the half fogged up windows. At Sankoin Temple, they serve lunch daily and the house where they host these meals seemed to serve as their kitchen to prepare food for nuns. I was also happy to spot a Webber BBQ in their back yard.

At noon sharp, a nun greeted the guests and they started to serve lunch. First, we were asked if we wanted to order a 300 ml bottle of sake. Sake or water was the only choice here for drinks. Needless to say, we had to purify ourselves with sake and to celebrate this special day. Here’s how the two hour course in October went…

Monaka with Daitokuji Natto

Puffy monaka dochi shell was made in Kyoto with embossed Sankoin logo in the middle. Sweet bean paste was made on that day and was stuffed in the shell right before the guests arrived. Daitokuji natto in the middle gave a little “salty” bite to the sweet monaka. This may sound odd to start a meal with sweets, but it was wonderful.

Matcha tea from Shimane

As soon as the foamed tea was served, we froze. Wait! Tea manners? We were relieved to be told there’s no formal tea manners and rituals to follow here, but just to enjoy the tea.

Assorted Vegetable

Mashed Yamatoimo wrapped in seaweed with a hint of wasabi. Burdock cooked for three hours with broth only from water, then mixed with sesame paste. Koyadofu and pumpkin cooked in broth. I especially liked the mashed Yamatoimo dish with very simple, but nice light flavor.

Gomadofu served with wasabi

Sesame seeds were ground in a mortar and pestle for a long time to make paste to make this nutty tofu. Then, water and kuzu starch made of root of the kuzu plant were added to shape it.

Satoimo-no-ankake

Very simple dish with cooked satoimo or taro with broth thickened with flour. Simple whole presentation is refreshing.

Nasu-no-miso-dengaku

Sweet Saikyo miso paste with hint of yuzu and sake flavor covering the top of deep fried eggplant with tea leaves from their garden on the side as decoration. This is the most elegant dengaku I have ever had!

Broth in a little cup

The broth from konbu seaweed was served in a beautiful tiny cup with hand painted red and green flower, specially made for Shankoin. Little tree shaped charm made from eggplant floated in the zen like simple broth.

Millet gluten oden

This is not your typical oden you see everywhere in Japan in the winter. I never thought this dish can be this elegant. Millet is formed into square and served with miso and spinach sauce, on a thin slice of daikon.

Konnyaku tempura

They make their own konnyaku at the temple from the yams they grow on site. You can always tell home made konnyaku from store bought one because of rather uneven texture. Lightly floured, then deep fired dish had nice nutty flavor. For me, this dish brought back some childhood memories of my mother making konnyaku at home in a big batch, grinding the yam, cooking it in a boiling pot then shaping it.

Rice cooked with roasted black soy bean

I loved this simple rice with nutty flavor with slight salt. Simple but very nice. I should be able to try this in our kitchen without going totally crazy to perfect it. Add roasted soy bean and salt to rice before cooking rice.

Susuri cha

To complete the meal, tea was served in a small cup with tea leaves in the cup, as susuri cha . We were told to slide the top and enjoy the aroma and tea. Nice bitter but sweet aroma.

Everything served on that day was quite simple and gracefully presented in small servings, yet at the end of the meal, we were completely full. Broth is occasionally used, but most of the dishes were cooked for a long time by itself to soak up their own flavor released in the cooking water, with occasional sake or miso flavor. I believe a lot of fresh ingredients came from the nun’s own garden. It’s mind-boggling to imagine how much time it took to prepare these simple, yet at the same time quite elaborate dishes! Once, I read somewhere that nuns there spend hours making sesame paste, which is actually their meditation practice.

On the way back, the rain turned into something more like a real typhoon. Even in such stormy weather, it was nice to be at such a special place to celebrate a special day.

Please visit tokyofoodcast on flickr to view beautifully presented dishes.

Discussion

6 Responses to “Zen birthday lunch”

  1. Sounds absolutely wonderful/magical. Thanks for this post!

    Posted by contemplationrose | December 16, 2007, 9:51 pm
  2. Hi! Thank you for stopping by.

    Posted by Et-chan | December 19, 2007, 6:45 pm
  3. Definitely a kind of cuisine that I would very much like to discover… but I might have to travel to Japan.

    I don’t think that in Europe, there is any place where I can enjoy “Shojin Ryori” cuisine.

    Anyway thanks indeed to that post. I’m looking forward having a “Shojin Ryori” bunch one day ^_^

    kristof

    Posted by kristof | January 18, 2008, 11:48 pm
  4. Hi Kristof,
    Thanks! Shojin Ryori is a perfect excuse to travel to Japan, right? We do have Tokyo Marathon, too.

    Posted by Et-chan | January 21, 2008, 11:28 am
  5. This sounds absolutely fantastic. I am visiting Tokyo in Julye–would you recommend this for a solo diner? If you have any tips on foodie “must dos,” I would love to get your advice. I’ve started a post on my own blog to compile everything.
    http://kristainlondon.typepad.com/dining/foodie-recs-in-tokyo-anyo.html
    I know it can be time consuming to respond to questions from total strangers, so thanks in advance for any tips.
    Krista

    Posted by Krista | April 18, 2008, 3:50 am
  6. Hi Krista, At this temple, they serve lunch only at 12:00. If it works with your schedule, I recommend this, definitely. I will see about other places to eat or to go for foodies.

    Posted by et-chan | April 20, 2008, 9:45 am

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