This month we feature two books that explore the Buddhist influence on vegetarian cuisine.
The Monastery Cookbook
Compiled by the Monks at the Zen Monastery Practice Center
Keep it Simple Books, 2003
Trade Paper $16.00
At the monastery, all beings, whether two-footed, four-footed, multi-footed, walker, crawler, hopper, slitherer or flyer are accepted as part of the special environment and are embraced with compassion. If you've ever wondered what Zen monks eat, you'll find the book's dedication clearly expresses the philosophy practiced at the monastery: "We offer this book in lovingkindness [sic] to all the creatures who will benefit from any effort we make toward harmless living."
Part of monastery life includes growing their own foods and preparing them the same day they are harvested. While food preparation at the center is mostly focused on vegan ingredients, The Monastery Cookbook contains several lacto-ovo recipes to offer a stepping stone for those transitioning from a meat-based diet. Many people who come to a monastery retreat encounter vegetarian food for the first time and gain new insight into the philosophy of not killing other creatures in order to eat.
The monastery's humble beginnings consisted of an army tent, a propane refrigerator, a two-burner Coleman camp stove, and a series of five-gallon jugs carried from a generous neighbor's well. It was in this rustic environment that a reluctant monk took on the task of preparing meals, sometimes for retreats that attracted as many as 25 people. Early attempts at baking resulted in hockey puck biscuits, burnt corn bread, and cake that refused to rise. But that didn't discourage the monk chef or the resident monks who appreciated his flops just the same. The monastery now has permanent buildings and a well-equipped kitchen.
The How To section is an informative primer on Cooking Without Oil or Butter, Substituting for Eggs and Dairy Products, Cooking Grains, Cooking Dry Beans and Other Legumes, Cooking with Tofu, Steaming and Roasting Vegetables, Thickening Liquids, and Toasting Nuts and Seeds. Each of these topics is covered in great detail. For example, before beginning to cook dry beans, sort them carefully to avoid any tiny stones or clods of dirt that survived the commercial cleaning process. Do this by spreading the beans out on a cookie sheet so any debris will be clearly visible.
Before preparing any of the soup recipes, begin by reading the introduction to the Soups for inspiration and quick and tasty methods of creating a vegetable stock from vegetable peelings and onion skins. The monk chefs suggest saving the cooking water from beans and vegetables to create a flavorful stock. Other stock ideas begin with pureeing cooked winter squashes or using miso or soymilk.
Many meals at the monastery start off with a steaming bowl of soup and thickly sliced home-baked bread, both of which have earned some enthusiastic kudos from retreat visitors. Rather than relying on daunting, lengthy, and detailed instructions to make good soup, the monks turn to the highest quality foods created by nature, resulting in easy-to- prepare delicious soups. Recipes like Corn and Baby Lima Bean Chowder, Cream of Tomato, and Red Lentil and Squash Soup are excellent examples of uncomplicated, from-scratch offerings. Slightly more complexity goes into Tofu Pot Pie with Dumplings but pays off in an exceptionally tasty dining experience.
Because they enjoy salads with a mixture of greens, the monks combine a variety of seeds when they plant their vegetable garden to harvest a grand selection for the salad course. This same variety extends to other ingredients that comprise their salads, such as sunflower seeds, toasted nuts, raisins or other dried fruits, and marinated steamed vegetables. Careful attention is even given to cutting vegetables attractively to bring visual pleasure to the table.
One of the special salads at the monastery is Waldorf Salad. Though it sounds old-fashioned and stodgy, the salad is composed with so many creative variations it takes on today's nuance. The original began with chopped apples, celery, walnuts, and mayonnaise. However, the innovative monk chefs turn to seasonal fruits and vegetables that result in a very different version of the old standard. With fruits and vegetables like banana, mango, grapes, carrots, cabbage, pears, pineapple, peaches, and nectarines, the salad becomes extraordinary.
What makes this book so appealing is that between the salads and the muffins or main dishes and the side dishes is the sprinkling of Zen philosophy and tidbits about monastery life. The personal story of one monk's struggle with self-doubt that eventually blossoms into rays of confidence gives the reader some encouragement that even monks in a cloistered environment experience the same life's challenges we all face. One of those pages tells a particularly heartwarming kitchen story about a blind monk.
Appealing main dishes range from Tofu Croquettes to Curried Mushrooms and Chickpeas, while side dishes include tempting Tuscan Beans, Yams with Cranberries and Apples, and a giant section on preparing Gravy.
While some have the mistaken image that Zen monks live a life of total deprivation, this book reveals the opposite. Monastery life is focused on spiritual growth, but Cheri, the monks' guide at the monastery, says, "We all need a little sweetness in our lives." Proof of her belief in life's sweet rewards is the dessert chapter that features a host of sweet treats from Strawberry Rhubarb Pudding and Carmel Cookies to Banana Dream Pie, Walnut Crumb Cake and Apricot Upside-Down Cake.
Many monks' hands have contributed vegetarian recipes and adaptations of mainstream foods to further the compassionate environment at the Zen Buddhist Monastery. Special credit is given to Jennifer Raymond, author of The Peaceful Palate, a book that inspired many of the recipes adapted for the daily meals enjoyed at the center.
Adding to the charm of the book are many homespun, hand-drawn black and white illustrations and hand-lettered text contributed by one monk in residence. Following in the tradition of the ancient monastic scribes, one monk applied his modern-day hand lettering skills, distinguishing the book as a hand-crafted work.
The Monastery Cookbook is not only an excellent collection of mostly vegan recipes, but it's also a delightful reading experience. For example, one monk shares his journey on the path of self-discovery that began the first day he was given the job of cook. He was new at the monastery, had no previous cooking skills, and was feeling very insecure. Though he struggled with his emotions daily and even thought about leaving, he gained insight and peace of mind, and now looks back on those early days with sense of comfort. He feels even more rewarded today, now that his task of writing this book is completed.
By Chat Mingkwan
Book Publishing Company
Trade Paperback $14.95
Thailand possesses a rich history steeped in Buddhist tradition, yet most Thai people eat vegetarian foods only a few times a month on certain holy days to honor the Buddha. Chef Chat Mingkwan eschewed the voluminous meat-based dishes of his country and took up the ponderous challenge of creating vegan dishes that flaunted the same satisfying flavors as their meaty counterparts.
Growing up in Bangkok, he learned first hand how to create the complexity of seasonings that give Thai cuisine its renown. The art of balancing the distinct flavors of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy is the essence of Thai seasonings. Typical Thai dishes are flavored with fish sauce, shrimp paste, and fermented fish. Taking the place of these animal-based flavor enhancers are plant-based flavorings made from a variety of soy sauces that range from lightly colored and lightly salted to double-dark soy sauce with higher salt content. There is even sweet soy sauce flavored with molasses. Other seasonings that stand in for shrimp paste include mushroom sauce, fermented black and yellow beans, and fermented tofu.
Look-alikes that even taste like beef, chicken, pork, smoked duck, goose liver, fish, and seafood are formulated from soy products along with sea vegetables and served just like typical animal-based dishes. Though Chat's recipes do not include faux animal foods, they could be added. Today's Thai vegetarian need never feel deprived.
Chef Chat, who apprenticed in restaurant kitchens in France as well as in San Francisco, provides an extensive glossary to explain unfamiliar ingredients, describes the process of making homemade tofu, and discusses the herbs and spices that give Thai foods their distinct quality. If not for Chat's glossary of unique ingredients, even kitchen-savvy cooks might not know what to do with items like smoked coconut, lily bud, pandanus, bottle gourd, or banana flower.
While Western tradition focuses on serving a number of individual courses in specific order at mealtimes, the Thai table features an array of dishes all set out at once and eaten at random. How delightful to be served soup, salads, appetizers, entrees, vegetable dishes, rice and noodle dishes that encompass all four flavors in one meal. The exception is dessert that is not served as part of the meal.
Because no typical Thai meal would be complete without a curry dish or chili dip, the first recipes to appear in the book feature Chili Dipping Sauce, seven recipes for curry paste, and two peanut sauces. Considered family heirlooms, secret curry paste recipes are still handed down generation after generation from mother to daughter--this is the stuff of old-fashioned tradition where twenty to thirty minutes of grinding ingredients with a mortar and pestle takes precedence over using a blender or food processor.
Thai salads, called yum, made of fresh and cooked vegetables, are where the combination of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors are evident. Attention is also given to texture so the diner can experience soft, gluey, and crunchy all in one dish. Most familiar is the pungent Green Papaya Salad. Chef Chat's tantalizing recipe is made with unripened, shredded papayas, carrots, jicama, long beans, and tomatoes and seasoned with lime juice, soy sauce, and palm sugar. The final touch is a garnish of crushed roasted peanuts. Other temptations include Lemongrass and Mushroom Salad, Pad Thai Salad, and Green Salad with Peanut Dressing.
While Thai soups, known as tom, are thin broth that may be hot and spicy, they usually do not contain curry paste. Instead, many feature a coconut milk base, such as the Galangal Coconut Soup heightened with the uniquely aromatic spice galangal, lime juice, kaffir lime leaves, and chopped Thai chiles. More familiar is Chef Chat's recipe for Tom Yum, a Hot and Sour Lemongrass Soup.
Almost like peering through a keyhole, the reader learns much about Thai culture through Chat's section introductions that describe the intricacies of its singular cuisine. Who would have thought that a wok could double as a floating device or a saucer for snow-sledding!
Stir-fries, curries, and noodle dishes all take their place at the table in every Thai home. While familiar dishes like Pad Se-iew, Massamun Curry, and Panaeng Curry are well represented in the book, the home chef can recreate those not found in Thai restaurants like Red Curry Fried Cakes, Steamed Curry in Banana Bowls, and Morning Glory with Peanut Sauce.
Americans channel desserts into a slot that dictates they be served at the end of a meal or a short time after the meal. Thai tradition differs greatly. Dessert may be served as a snack or even a light meal enjoyed at any time. Historically, desserts in Thailand were only eaten on special occasions like weddings and funerals so were never developed to compare to the rich cakes and baked goods typical in the Western world.
Thai desserts have a rich character all their own and are based on fresh fruits with coconut milk and palm sugar and flavored with jasmine shrub and pandan bush. Taste the Banana Pudding in Coconut Cream or Floating Lotus, both bathed in coconut cream and exotically flavored with jasmine and pandan. Perhaps Sticky Rice Wrapped Banana or Sweet Corn and Coconut are more tempting.
Finish a meal or enjoy a between meal treat with Thai Iced Tea, a traditional blend of chai tea, sugar, and crushed ice and garnished with a wedge of lemon or lime.
Buddha's Table offers the reader cuisine to relish and an excellent cookbook to help attain expertise at recreating vegetarian Thai cuisine. Clear explanations about its unique ingredients, easy instructions for preparing the recipes, and a graphically pleasing format including two full-color food photos make Buddha's Table an excellent cookbook for anyone who loves to explore exotic flavors.
Reviewed February 2005