I'm a little concerned when I arrive at the Skip Garden, a community allotment in London's King's Cross. Surrounding the garden is a construction site, and the racket of drilling, cement mixers, and builders' loud voices fill the air. Through all of this din, I've got to listen to vegetables.
Yep, that's right.
"For me, vegetables are not only ingredients but something god-like. We cannot live without vegetables, crops, or plants."
That's Toshio Tanahashi, a Japanese chef known for his Zen Buddhist approach to cooking. He's about to do a two-week takeover of Carousel restaurant in Marylebone, and has met me at the Skip Garden to explain more about shojin-ryori, the vegetarian cuisine he practices.
"It's probably best for you to eat it but I'll try my best to explain," says Tanahashi with a smile. "Generally, people understand shojin as cooking without meat or fish. That's how they perceive it to begin with. It was established by a monk who came back from China to Japan in the 13th century."
As we take a brisk walk around the allotment, spotting kale, sage, and lemon verbena, I think about an interview I read with Tanahashi in which he said, "true understanding does not come without listening to the silent voice of vegetables."
Noticing that Tanahashi does not rip leaves from any of the herb plants we pass, but rather touches them softly and stoops to smell, I ask why we should be cupping our ears to the soil.
"To face vegetables and having time to face vegetables is important. They are everything to me," he answers. "For instance, yesterday in the fast kitchen [at Carousel] and meeting new people, it's quite a stressful environment you're working in. But when I start peeling vegetables and touching them, I start to calm myself and forget about my surroundings. That is the meaning for me."
Ollie Templeton, head chef at Carousel, who's come along for the field trip, admits that Tanahashi's presence has already had an effect on the restaurant.
"It's the first time we've done anything like this at Carousel, serving no meat or fish," he says. "On Monday, we went to our veg supplier's warehouse and rather than just tick ingredients off a list, we were deciding what to put on the menu by seeing, touching, and smelling the produce."
I'm a little disappointed there was no listening.
In shojin cuisine, cooking fruits and vegetables is all about slowing down and paying attention to the task at hand—which means no machinery to speed things up. Every process must be done manually, from thoroughly cleaning the produce, to peeling each vegetable individually with a knife, and making purées by pushing veg through a sieve.
"Every day, I try and find the truth. That's what I think cooking is," says Tanahashi. "It is meditation to me and very philosophical. You're thinking about the experience."
I ask whether he thinks that people can find solace in cooking in their everyday lives. After all, it has been shown to improve mental wellbeing.
Surprisingly, I'm shot down.
"I don't think cooking generally is relaxing. The majority of the time, I feel that the kitchen can be quite a busy and stressful place," says Tanahashi. "And people try to make cooking more convenient and quicker. They don't have the time to face what they're actually doing in the same way that I do it as meditation. That's the difference between the shojin cooking and other types of cooking."
Tanahashi tells me that he decided to change his Tokyo businessman lifestyle when he was 27 and learned shojin cuisine from a Buddhist nun who had dedicated her life to the practice.
"The first thing I learned there was grinding sesame for two hours every day to make tofu," he explains. "While I was doing it, I had to have a very good posture and I was concentrating on my breathing. I now do that every day."
Templeton rolls his shoulders back at the mention of sesame-grinding. He had his first experience of the laborious activity yesterday, when Tanahashi demonstrated it to the Carousel kitchen.
The principles of shojin-ryori might sound extreme but its centuries-old concepts have become surprisingly relevant. We're all waking up to the fact that we need to consume less meat for the sake of the planet and our health, as well as the importance of eating seasonally, locally, and considerately.
"It's really sad that people aren't eating seasonal food and local food. The reason is because eating has become businesslike," says Tanahashi. "People don't think all the time about where their food comes from. They tend to forget and are eat conveniently."
While I'm not quite ready to start grinding sesame for hours, I think Tanahashi might be onto something with this vegetable listening lark.