Filed in Food, Travel

Cilantro Days

David Vardy

I asked him why he had permitted me to study with him, and he said that the moment he saw me, he felt compelled by my commitment to learn. Asked why he hadn't explained that the temple had been shut down, he answered that if he had, I surely would not have returned.

Days and weeks passed. I had a cave of my own. Inside the kitchen hut, one wok was used for boiling, and the other for deep frying and sauteeing. Maintaining the conventions of a Buddhist temple, the diet was vegetarian. A typical meal consisted of eggplant boiled, and then soaked in sesame oil, sweet wine, and soy sauce with minced ginger. Potato-like tubers were boiled then lightly sauteed. Greens were usually blanched in salted water with a touch of sesame oil. Rice was offered by people living near the temple. But the master believed that rice was not good for his health. His kung-fu practice already generated intense heat in his abdominal region, and boiled rice, so he said, would make the heat excessive. Instead, he used the offerings for making rice wine, a nutritious drink with a cooling effect.

A stone sink, linked to a waterfall by hose, provided a constant supply of water that flowed into the sink and back out to the river. The grounds were totally overgrown and wild. The old man showed me which plants to leave alone for future medicinal purposes, and which were edible, as well as those used for fuel or mulch.

After several weeks of pruning the forest, I became increasingly anxious. The time had come to study Buddhist and Taoist ways and train in martial arts. Yet, I rarely saw the master. Sometimes he remained in the guard house at the base of the mountain for days. And when I did see him, we talked very little, usually at meals, over a small bowl of soup, some preserved roots, and perhaps some greens.

When he was around, the old man would talk to the numerous squirrels, birds, or snakes. He asked me to offer flour, which was given to us by people who occasionally came to the guard house to be healed or diagnosed. The offerings were made to a large tree whose roots wrapped around a rock and didn't seem to enter the ground at any point. The tree ate the flour, he explained. My internal voice began to chatter louder than usual. I feared going crazy and wondered if the master was really enlightened or just a madman. Slowly it dawned on me that he wasn't going to teach me anything: no words, no scripts, no rules, no lessons. Allowing me to unlearn, to slow down, and just be, had been his medicine for me. With this understanding, the mind-chatter quieted, and more subtle sensibilities rose to the surface. My taste buds became more refined, my sense of smell acute. Flavors alone enthralled me. Foraging and cooking made days on the mountain complete.

Six months later a government official discovered that I was living at Eighteen Lohan Temple. I was deported immediately. On my last day in the cave, the smell of cilantro simmering in the pot brought me back to Guatemala, where I had learned that delicious food can be strong medicine. In Taiwan I learned that the secrets of cooking aren't limited to the ingredients.

David Vardy is the owner and chef of O Chame, a Japanese restaurant in Berkeley, California. He has a degree in medical anthropology.

Image: Tea BowlJan Hashey, 1991.

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