I was once reading The Complete Tassajara Cookbook by Edward Espe Brown, when I came across some advice that I often think of in the kitchen. Brown, new to the position as head of the kitchen at Tassajara, asked a Zen master for advice. He told him, “when you are washing the rice, wash the rice.”
I think of this advice for two reasons – one is that I don’t actually ever wash rice (am I alone in this?). However, the primary reason I think of this is, of course, the sentiment of it. Like most Zen sayings, this advice is much easier said than done. From what I’ve gathered, it is a struggle for Brown to follow even while living in a monastery.
I struggle with this as well. Sometimes, by the end of making a large meal, especially at the end of a long day, my back aches and I am just ready to be done. Gradually though, I think of this saying more and more not because I am reminding myself to follow it, but because I am acknowledging that I am actually chopping the onion or peeling the ginger. I can’t say exactly what’s brought on this change. Like anything else, I suppose it’s time and work.
There are a few tricks I employ to help my kitchen Zen:
– I read through the recipe (if I’m using one) multiple times before making it. I visualize the order I’ll do everything, including any extras I’ve decided on. For instance, if I’m going to add a side dish of rice, I think about when I will prepare this. If I’m preparing something without a recipe, or using a recipe I know very well, I still run through the steps in my head, and plan out when I will do each one.
– I prep all food before turning on the stove’s heat. The only time I do not do this, is when I’m making something that will simmer for quite some time and have ingredients added at the very end. Child-sized bowls are a cheap way to keep your ingredients separate. I have several from Ikea.
– I listen to good music. I’ve stopped listening to the news while cooking. Once in a while, I sing.
– I clean up as I go, or while food is cooking. As much as possible, I try to keep the workspace clear.
– I stop and smell each ingredient, and notice the textures and colors. I am grateful for my ingredients. We live in a world that contains vanilla extract, cinnamon, lemons, garlic, and cumin seeds. I don’t even have words for how amazing that is.
I realize that this all takes a little longer, but I think I save time in the end, because I’ve had so many less kitchen disasters since doing this. This doesn’t mean of course, that you can’t chop quickly, or take a few short cuts, or even make a few mistakes. All it means is to be aware of what you’re doing.
November is the month of gratitude, and sometimes I think that all gratitude really is, is noticing.