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A journey into the Zen kitchen with Chef Toshio Tanahashi

Vegetarian, local, seasonal - Shōjin cuisine was born in the Buddhist monasteries of Kyoto in the 6th century. A great Japanese chef revisits this thousand-year-old art...

Omakase. In other words, let the chef do it...

Depending on the market of the day and the inspiration of the vegetables, you could see anything from mushrooms or algae, young shoots or the roots. Or you could see an delicious raspberry, celery, peach and cauliflower salad, fig sauce spring rolls, a risotto with peas and ginger, a delicate cube of gomadofu (sesame tofu), citrus mousseline, pomelo cubes, fine flower mist, bamboo shoots enhanced with the first wild mountain herbs. Or maybe even a more unusual dessert; such as this emerald green sorbet with sansho pepper leaves and asparagus chips... 

Toshio Tanahashi is a vegetable listener.

Their breathing, their way of designating the best primer to channel them. Dubbed "The Veg Whisperer" or the man who speaks the language of plants, the shōjin chef is in Switzerland for a series of exceptional meals...

Vegetal, Local, Natural

Tanahashi's background is first and foremost that of a quest for meaning. Promised to a bright future after studies of Economics and Agronomy, he left his job in marketing - radically changing his life at the age of 27.

"I was born in Japan, in the district of Kumamoto, although I didn't know what it means to be Japanese, and what my identity was. During my studies, I knocked on the door of the monastery of Gesshinji, not far from Kyoto to train myself. Here I was taught by a nun and a Buddhist cook - I would wake up at 4 o'clock in the morning. For three years I was the only man in a world of women. Here I learned how to cook shōjin and its philosophy."

Both ideograms - sho ("purify") and jin ("to move forward") - refer in substance to the path of the heart pure (through feeding) to peace and light.

In 6th century Japan, Shōjin cuisine appeared via the monasteries of Kyoto, with Buddhism from China. By the 13th century, it was codified and formatted by Dôgen, one of the great thinkers of medieval Japan and Buddhist theorist Zen.

Vegetal, local, natural - Shōjin advocates absolute respect for the seasons and the rhythms of nature. The valorization integral of each ingredient (vegetables, cereals, sesame, wild herbs and mushrooms, fruits, algae, roots), the use of fermented products or dried, pure seasonings from konbu, sugar, salt, vinegar, miso, soya, sake....

Banned Electricity

At the end of his training as a tenzo, or monk-cooker, Toshio Tanahashi opened his own restaurant in Gesshinkyo, in Tokyo - a first in a country that failed to believe "his history and his heritage".

Gesshinkyo is an island of serenity and spirituality in the frenzy of the metropolis, similar to "a lotus flower emerging from a troubled pond", according to a critic from Japan Times. Toshio-san however, does not seem satisfied with drawing from the sources of this millennium vegetarian tradition, but "invents a real contemporary Zen cuisine, thanks to his astonishing creativity."

Meditative Cuisine

The menu inevitably begins following the appetizers of the moment - gomadofu - a marble cube with a delicate, discreet, sesame flavor, enhanced with seasonal ingredients. This emblematic dish also reflects the demanding, endless work of shōjin cuisine - the slow preparation and the refusal to use any electrical accessories, robot, mixer or even microwave oven.

Soaked in cold water for one night, the sesame is ground for a long time with suribachi and surikogi (mortar and rosewood pestle) until it turns into a paste; water is added and kudzu (a climbing plant with a root, which has always been used in Chinese medicine). The mass is cooked gently in a water bath, molded, then cooled to take its final shape - reminiscent of tofu, with a subtle, je ne sais quoi, evanescent, roasted hazelnut. 

"No gesture, no matter how repetitive it may be, is boring or tiring, because everything is part of a process of awakening, explains the Chef. Cooking is a form of meditation."

The following vegetarian dishes (for example, nems and condiments, spinach, cumin and piquillos, sweet potato croquettes or fricassee of shiitake, okra, tofu and rice noodles, sweet and sour sauce Chinese, strawberry jelly and matcha) are individual experiences, mostly visually stunning...

In 2007, after fifteen years, Toshio Tanahashi closes Gesshinkyo to become "a nomadic leader" and devote himself to his mission: "To transmit the spirit of the Shōjin cuisine."

Crucial Role

Toshio worked as a Consultant on films and documentaries for Japanese television, NHK. He also taught at the University of Kyoto for a while, creating his own cooking and travel academy and hosting many conferences and demonstrations.

He has hosted the Venice Biennale and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London; with the media devoting many reports to it (New York Times, Financial Times, Guardian, Vogue, etc.). Admired by the greatest chefs, he has also trained Alain Ducasse's team on 100% vegetable gastronomy.

Gastronomy as we know it, is dying.

Faced with the emergence of climatic and demographic challenges, to the waste of resources and the explosion of so-called civilization diseases - food now plays a more crucial role than ever. Shōjin cuisine is one of the solutions, Toshio Tanahashi is convinced of it. In addition to the hedonistic dimension and the pleasure of the senses, there are also spiritual and cultural dimensions. It is also good for well-being and health: a menu cooked by Toshio-san has benefits for the body and the soul: enough to give sleep to insomniacs and comfort the depressed... according to the chef.

Author: Véronique Zbinden, in the "Le Temps" Newspaper on October 26, 2019

Read the original article in French.