Visit Japan with Zenbu Zen by Jane Lawson »

Finding food, culture and balance in Kyoto

By Robyn Lewis
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Zenbu Zen by Jane Lawson

Zenbu Zen by Jane Lawson [©Murdoch Books]


Jane Lawson was once a chef, later a publisher of cookbooks and author of several successful titles, including the beautiful Snowflakes and Schnapps, an exploration of the culinary legacy of northern Europe. But what seemed to be an idyllic lifestyle led her to near burnout.

Finding herself stressed and unhappy, Jane took time out, drawn to Japan’s Imperial capital, Kyoto, where she sought to unwind and to explore the rich culture of old Japan.

She had lived briefly in Japan at age twenty, and had always wanted to return. Two decades later she found the perfect excuse: executive stress. With her background in food – which by nature is in tune with the seasons – Kyoto seemed a perfect choice. In many ways Kyoto is the food capital of Japan, and has been a cultural and spiritual mecca for centuries.

In Zenbu Zen, she describes her arrival in Kyoto, where she quickly found herself immersed in the beauty of small things, the glorious detail that enriches life almost everywhere you look in Japan.

Her mind distracted by the new sensations that awaited, from the food halls of the local department stores, Jane recounts being able to sleep for eight hours straight for the first time in seven months. It was an auspicious beginning to her four-month stay.

Jane arrived in December, the twelfth month traditionally called shiwasu, ‘the month of priests running’ (doing their end-of-year errands). The seasons in Japan are far more divided than those in the West, reflecting nuances of the climate that that we are perhaps too busy to notice.

Although it was winter, Jane quickly felt at home. She settled into her accommodation rented over the internet, made new friends, and began to absorb the local culture. Of course this included Japanese food.

Despite her burnout, she had had the germ of an idea for a book in her mind, but for the time being taking ‘time out’ took priority. However she kept a diary of her food finds from day one, and as she unwound, her love of food and writing clearly took over. (I suspect Jane will always be a workaholic).

Jane is also a very talented photographer, and her vignettes and landscapes (along with food photographs by Cath Muscat) make the resulting book a work of art. For anyone contemplating visiting Kyoto and with even the slightest interest in food and design, Zenbu Zen is a must. It is a visual delight and a beautiful souvenir of one of the most lovely small cities in the world.

Its title is Zenbu Zen, meaning in Jane’s words that “ultimately everything is zen, it will be all okay in the long run. The ups and downs and in-the betweens are all part of the glorious ride”. Go with the flow and enjoy the journey; life will take care of itself.

December sees her enjoying food treats such as Wagyu with King Brown Mushrooms, Duck and Leek Hotpot and Korokke (croquettes) which are so popular all over Japan that there are small stalls solely devoted to them. Clearly there is a lot more to Japanese food than we see in the West. Jane notes however that Japanese deep-fried food is nice and crisp, never greasy.

After a month, Jane was regenerating and felt “safe and happy, cocooned by the loveliness and ‘gentleness’ of Kyoto”. She was invited to “restaurants that you cannot access unless you are a regular, or accompanying a regular, establishments with a very long history which have developed their craft over an extended period and only desire patrons who will appreciate the technique, presentation and effort behind the beautiful food.

This usually means ‘no gaijins’ (foreigners) allowed. Connoisseur diners will attend and sit very quietly, never under the misguided notion they are ‘there for a good time’. It is about serious consideration of the atmosphere, cuisine, ceramics and other antiques serving ware – and the sake, which is sipped slowly and appreciated.”

January is called ichightsu, or mutsuki. It is the month when friends and relatives visit, a month of harmony and affection. In Kyoto it began that year with a temperature of -11C, which as Jane noted did not deter thousands of Japanese from an early visit to a shrine, often bearing gifts of food.

Fish and seafood plays an enormous part on the Japanese diet, and Jane explores dishes such as Tender Simmered Octopus, Simmered Japanese Yellowtail and Daikon, and Satsuma-Age (Fish Paste Cakes), along with New Year treats such as Yokan (Red Bean Confectionary).

Jane notes that with the breakdown of extended families, many are losing their knowledge of traditional ingredients and cooking techniques, but as in Australia and elsewhere there is a return to the appreciation of local foods.

However unlike Australia's adventurous home cooks, “most ... in Japan rarely stray from cooking their national cuisine, and only prepare Korean Chinese or ‘Western’ cuisine on rare occasions”.

The phrase ‘small is beautiful’ must have been created for Japan, whose people possess an appreciation of things that are small but often momentous. This is perhaps because their country is so crowded, the houses and urban spaces so small by our standards that anything large can seem out of place and disproportionate, almost jarring to the senses.

Thus food servings are also usually small – you may be served just a single piece of sushi, with the aim of appreciating the technique of the master who prepared it – and many meals consist of a sequence of small, carefully prepared dishes.

This perhaps makes the recipes in Zenbu Zen somewhat difficult to apply to home cooking in Australia, where servings are larger and we have less time for food preparation, particularly for a number of dishes in one meal. However you can dip into them – perhaps as a central point or for a lunch – and they are certainly authentic and inspirational. For those with the time to spend in the kitchen and the ability to source the ingredients (there is a good glossary), many delights await.

Jane’s stay extended through the height of winter in February, or Kisaragi, the ‘month of wearing layers’. She supplies us with many winter warming recipes like Ginger Tea, at and Kinako and White Chocolate Truffles, and Steamed Savoury ‘Custards’ (more like a soup).

Surprisingly for winter there are also a range of ice creams. As Jane says, “while seaweed, soy, charcoal, wasabi, salad, garlic, curry and cypress may seem tame enough, the spectrum gets a little challenging at the other end: fried chicken, eel, squid guts and raw horse meat (complete with chunks) would not even tempt my adventurous palate”.

During the months of March (Yayoi, meaning new life) and April (named after a spring flower), Jane also travelled around Japan, visiting other cities and rural areas. It may surprise many that Japan has extensive forested areas, which are meticulously managed and maintained, preserving the beauty as well as providing a timber resource. These provide a scenic background to many landscapes. Their leaves are often used as garnishes in traditional dishes, always reflecting the season.

There are spring recipes for Grilled and Drenched Asparagus, Bitter Leaves in Miso, and Marinated and Grilled Fish, but perhaps thankfully Jane spares us recipes for raw sea slug guts mixed with salt to form a thick, slimy, pungent sauce, and seaweed soup with a consistency of raw egg white, tastes to which even she did not become accustomed. One recipe that can be served in either summer or winter and may have broader appeal is Green Tea ‘Latte’, made with matcha, which is delicious.

At the end of her stay, Jane was refreshed and had regained her perspective on life. She returned to Australia for a period, then back to Kyoto to collate and edit her beautiful book. By this time she had also restored her soul.

The result is insightful, and exquisite – not perfect, but then in the Japanese philosophy of wabi sabi, it does not need to (nor should) be. Wabi sabi is the kind of ‘quiet, undeclared beauty that waits patiently to be discovered’, the ‘beauty of things imperfect, impermanent and incomplete… modest and humble’. Zenbu Zen is all those things, and more.

Being a time-poor working mother, I am unlikely to have the time to fully enjoy the sixty recipes in Zenbu Zen, but as an insight into another culture, of which we in the West are only given occasional glimpses, it is unbeatable.

Buy it to relax, to savour, and to dream, and one day, hope that you too may be able to visit Kyoto and enjoy its beauty. And if you can’t, may it also restore your soul.


Zenbu Zen by Jane Lawson is published by Murdoch Books (Sydney, NSW, Oct, 2012; hc, 288 pp) and retails in Australia for RRP A$69.99.

Zenbu Zen is available for purchase online via here »

In December Zenbu Zen was shortlisted for Best Japanese Cookbook in the Gourmand World Cookbooks Awards 2012.


  • japan-all (JP)

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October 07th, 2012
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