The Zen of cooking

Naoko Moller learned by helping her mother prepare daily meals for the monks in Japan

Those attending a Zen cooking class at the Kahului Jodo Mission on Dec. 10 give thanks for the food prepared for them. Teacher Naoko Moller said that Zen cooking is more than just cooking and eating the food; there are spiritual and social aspects as well. ASA ELLISON photos

Some Mauians got a taste of Zen Buddhism.

Earlier this month, Naoko Moller, who was born in a Soto-Zen temple in Niigata, Japan, gave a course in Zen cooking to about 40 people in two sessions at the Kahului Jodo Mission.

“Actually, it is a pretty simple meal,” Moller said. “Eating a Zen meal . . . it seems like it balances you. When you are eating the food, what you are eating, how you are eating, . . . it makes you calm.

“You kinda sit and relax and enjoy.”

Moller is not a trained chef and learned the preparation of “shojin-ryori” Zen vegetarian cuisine from her mother, who was the wife of the 27th minister of the temple with roots going back 1,000 years. She had to prepare meals for the monks.

Naoko Moller taught a Zen cooking class at Kahului Jodo Mission earlier this month. She gained a lot of her knowledge at the side of her mother at a Soto Zen temple in Niigata, Japan, as a child.

” ‘This is going to be good for you,’ “ her mom told Moller. “So I helped with the cooking.”

She relies on her memories, notes and books written by Soto sect founder Dogen. He lived in Japan from 1200 to 1253.

Dogen’s “Tenzo-kyokun” gives instruction on how to cook to make the most of ingredients, and “Fushuku-hanpo” teaches how to partake with gratefulness and in a mindful way, a handout given to attendees at the Dec. 10 event said.

“It’s an attitude, . . . how you bring in the traditional things and to be able to appreciate it and to be grateful, . . . and enjoying the people you are eating the meal with.”

Shojin-ryori is a vegetarian meal. In “Tenzo-kyokun,” Dogen said that human beings should avoid killing and eating animals out of respect for sentient life, Moller said in her handout.

Naoko Moller prepares a Zen dish at a cooking class earlier this month. Zen dishes are totally vegan, although they differ in preparation.

But vegetarian fare cannot be lumped together, she said.

“Zen cooking is vegan, but vegan is not necessarily Zen cooking,” Moller said.

The difference lies in the flavor and preparation. In Zen cooking, she said “you can taste each vegetable” in an individual harmony of the dish that sounds so Zen. Vegan cooking often is a blend of all tastes, vegetables and spices.

Though not a vegetarian herself, her husband is, and they eat vegan meals together. “At home, I don’t eat meat,” said Moller, who resides in Northern California.

“When we go out, I do eat anything,” she added.

Moller moved to Hawaii when she was 8 years old. Her father succeeded his father at the Soto Zen temple in Nuuanu, Oahu. Her brother is the current head of the temple, which she visits often.

The women of the temple were looking for foods to prepare, so she bought 20 sets of dishes used by monks under training and began teaching shojin-ryori about four years ago. The dishes, which are stackable, made teaching convenient, she said.

Moller took her class to Hilo and Paia Mantokuji last year. The Japanese Cultural Society of Maui invited her to present her class this year.

“I am so happy I have something to share,” Moller said, adding that she has no professional training. Actually, she is an English-as-a-second-language teacher.

The major ingredients for shojin-ryori are vegetables, mushrooms, seaweed, soybean products and nuts. The broth is made from dried seaweed, mushrooms and vegetables.

Garlic and onions are not used.

The menu she offered included a mushroom takikomi-gohan, a Japanese-style rice pilaf that included gobo, or burdock roots, carrots, aburage or deep-fried tofu and hijiki seaweed; miso soup with shiitake mushrooms, daikon, gobo, aburage, carrots and Chinese peas; Chinese cabbage, cucumber and kombu seaweed for pickles; yakimono (grilled or fried) eggplants, red pepper, sweet sesame miso sauce with yellow chrysanthemums; spa-ghetti squash and cucumber flavored with grated sesame seeds, miso and rice vinegar for a salad; and yomogi-dango, mugwort dumpling on azuki bean paste and sprinkles of kinako-roasted soybean powder for dessert.

Preparations methods include raw, boiled, broiled, fried and steamed with spicy hot, sour, bitter, salty and sweet flavors.

The food preparation technique evolved through the years to use vegetables in season and methods of preserving such as pickling and salting, she noted.

Moller has not done a nutritional analysis of the Zen meals but anecdotally “if you go to Japan, you don’t see people in Zen monasteries and the temple who are obese or who are ill.” When she is back home and eating mostly vegetables, “I find myself feeling healthier.”

When asked if she has a favorite shojin-ryori dish, Moller said she doesn’t have one, which aligns with the simplicity and harmony of Zen philosophy. Doshin said one should cook with a “joyful heart,” “a generous heart” and a “big heart,” she explained.

“It is not only about cooking for eating it,” she said. “It is the basis” of Zen philosophy.

* Lee Imada can be reached at