The Shuni-e (commonly called Omizutori) ceremony has been held at Todaiji Temple in Nara since the Nara Period (710-784).
Although the large torches that shower sparks on people are famous, they are simply meant to lead the monks to the temple hall. The monks pray for the happiness of all living things and go through the cycle of penitence and prayer.
The participants of the ceremony distance themselves from the secular world and start their preparations in February. Those who provide their daily care also live under the same roof.
Naoyuki Yanagihara, a 39-year-old cook, served as an "inji," who prepares the meals, for five years starting in 2009.
During the 14-day ceremony that starts March 1, a proper meal is served only once a day. Although the temple had been following the menus that were planned after the war, around 60 years had passed, and Yanagihara was singled out to create menus "that fit with the times."
When he studied the documents on the meals of Omizutori dating to the late Edo Period (1603-1867), he found that they consisted of "ichiju sansai," or a soup and three side dishes in addition to a bowl of rice, back then.
But the menu that had been followed since the more recent Showa Era (1926-1989) consisted of a soup and a side dish. Yanagihara decided to add a side dish and created daily menus of a soup and two side dishes. After receiving the nod, he switched to the new menus in the fourth year.
The dashi stock is the most essential element in "shojin ryori," or Buddhist cuisine. Yanagihara tried different combinations of ingredients to make the stock and finally decided on kombu kelp and dried shiitake mushroom. He chose dried kelp from Rausu in Hokkaido.
His wish to offer nutritious and warming food to the monks who practice asceticism in the cold took shape as "okabe" tofu with walnut sauce.
Okabe is another name for tofu. The dish offers a variety of flavors including pan fried tofu and crisply toasted walnut, dashi-based sauce, bitterness of "fukinoto" (shoot of the giant butterbur), and the sweet-sour taste of pickled ume. Documents show that the walnut was also used in menus in the Edo Period.
In addition to being creative with the dishes, he sewed a quilted cover by hand to cover the box containing the side dishes so they will not get cold while the monks chanted the Buddhist sutra.
He also compiled the recipes he created during the five years as an inji diary so they will be handed down to the people in charge of cooking. The 1267th Omizutori is being held this year.
Given strength by the meals that Yanagihara came up with, the monks pray day and night.
15 cm dried kombu kelp from Rausu
5 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 block tofu (hard "momen" type)
20 grams shelled walnut
Some carrot, oil and "katakuriko" starch
Seasoning A (1.5 Tbsp soy sauce, 1 Tbsp each of sweet "mirin" sake and sake)
Ingredient B (4 small pickled ume, 4 Tbsp sugar)
Seasoning C (1 Tbsp each of sweet mirin sake and sake, 1 tsp light-colored soy sauce)
Place kelp, dried shiitake and 3 cups water in pot and leave overnight. Place pot on heat the next day and simmer for about 10 minutes while skimming off foam that rises. Remove kelp and shiitake. Chop two shiitake into small cubes.
Quarter tofu, lay in flat container and immerse in Seasoning A for about 10 minutes. Toast walnut in small amount of oil until golden. Separate flower part of fukinoto, dust in katakuriko starch and deep-fry in small amount of oil. Slice carrot into long, thin rectangles and boil. Pour 100 cc water and Ingredient B in pot, simmer for about 5 minutes and leave to cool.
Pat tofu dry. Heat oil in frying pan and cook tofu until golden.
Combine 1 cup dashi stock (prepared above) and Seasoning C in small pot, add diced shiitake and bring to a boil. Lower heat and thicken with katakuriko starch mixed with the same amount of water.
Serve tofu in bowl, garnish with walnut, carrot and pickled ume. Pour piping hot thickened dashi with shiitake and sprinkle fukinoto.
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From The Asahi Shimbun's Watashi no Ryori column