Walk as if you’re kissing the Earth with your feet.
—Thích Nhất Hạnh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk
Last month I read an article, The Zen of Cooking, in Eating Well magazine that resonated with me. The author, an overworked public interest lawyer, wrote about her experience at a five-day cooking and meditation retreat at a Zen Center in California. At first she thought she was going there to relax and learn to cook, instead she learned that cooking was simply a way into Zen—a way to practice mindfulness. Although I’m far from finding my Zen with every meal that I cook, I understood.
Many of you know I recently traveled to Australia and Hawaii. I had a fantastic time in both places, but after being away from home almost a month, I eventually missed more than just my own bed. I also missed homemade meals. More specifically, I missed cooking. It’s funny because cooking is not something one would expect to miss, but I did.
For me, cooking has turned into more than just creating or following recipes, it’s also about how I cook—the practice and process of connecting with my body, my senses and thoughts as I prepare food. For me, it’s another way to practice mindfulness and hence, a way into Zen.
This might sound a bit whacky, but please stay with me. Think of the many times you have taken a moment to mindfully pay attention to what you are eating—the tastes, the smells and the textures of your food. Hmm, is that a hint of ginger I taste? Is there cinnamon, perhaps even fennel? I’ve recently found that its equally rewarding to do the same thing while cooking. Its now not only about noticing what happens to the food as I prepare it, but also an opportunity for me to observe my own thoughts, which can often be rushed as I’m trying to prepare food for friends and family and get lunch or dinner at the table on time. I’ve learned that taking the time to slow down and notice the way I cook is an opportunity to find and apply greater life lessons in patience, gratitude, generosity, love and compassion.
Sometimes I so quickly peel, chop, mince, etc., ingredients to get dishes ready in time that I barely have time to appreciate anything. But the practice of mindfulness in cooking is really the opposite; more importance is placed in the steps along the way. In cooking, that can translate to seemingly simple things like peeling potatoes and chopping garlic and onions, mindfully. It can mean taking the time to enjoy the sweet and citrusy aromatic flavor of dill, or knowing the sweet difference in carrots that were either boiled, steamed, baked or broiled—there is a difference—and it can be the process of slowly washing greens and tearing leaves mindfully when preparing a salad. It’s about learning to be present, even while cooking, because cooking in the moment can be as nourishing as the food.
I can’t say that I am always in the moment while cooking—I’m still a work in progress—but when I am, it not only feeds my loved ones, it also feeds my soul. I hope to find my Zen more often, especially while cooking, because how one cooks is often more important than what one cooks.
Tofu with Honey and Herbs
1, 12-14 ounce, package tofu
1 2-inch piece of ginger
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 tablespoons honey
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
A few sprigs of fresh rosemary , chopped
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
3-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons fennel seed
1-2 cups vegetable stock
1-2 lemons, cut in wedges (save a few wedges for garnish)
Cut the tofu into rectangles, and set on a few paper towels or dish towel to drain. When dry, place in a dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Set aside.
In a small food processor, combine and ginger and peeled garlic cloves until mixture becomes a paste. Set aside. In a small bowl, mix the honey with thyme leaves, chopped rosemary leaves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Set aside. Season the tofu generously with salt and pepper, and allow tofu to marinate in the honey mixture for 20 minutes.
In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium to high heat. Add fennel seeds, ground coriander, and the mixture of ginger and garlic. Continue to cook until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes. Add marinated tofu and allow each rectangular block to brown on both sides. Add vegetable broth and bring to a boil, lower heat and cover. Allow to simmer for 5-10 minutes.
Add a couple of lemon wedges and continue to cook a few minutes. Serve with sauce from the tofu drizzled on top of your grain of choice. Some possibilities include brown rice, barley, farro, couscous, etc. Feel free to have fun with this dish, putting your own spin to it, and enjoy!
Have you ever found your Zen while cooking? I’d love to know.