Memorable food

When I lived in Nagano/Japan, friends took me to a restaurant on the compound of Zenko-ji, a majestic and famous Buddhist temple from the 7th century. The food being served there was prepared and cooked in the style of Zen monks, known as shojin ryori, a vegan/vegetarian cuisine characterized not only by its list of ingredients, but also by the humble and reverent attitude of the cook, by beauty and and devotion.

o-bento In general,  Japanese meals are presented in such an esthetically pleasing manner that one barely wants to eat it out of  fear of destroying the balance of color and shape on one’s plate. This was particularly true here: numerous small or tiny dishes arranged to offer a feast for the eyes as well. Somehow, the care and attention that so obviously went into the preparation of the various components of the repast was almost palatable.

I don’t remember anything in particular of what I ate; after all, this was over 30 years ago. Except for one item: a small amount of a paste-like substance, two tablespoon-fulls at most, shaped like a ball. It had a pleasant, nut-like taste and almost melted in your mouth. Trying to find out what it was posed some challenge: neither I nor my friends spoke more than rudimentary Japanese. Something like a mushroom or fungus maybe, and it grows on rocks — must be some lichen, although I had never heard that this was edible.

iwatake gathering

Hiroshige, Iwatake gathering at Kumano in Kishū

What made this dish so unforgettable wasn’t so much the taste but is effects. All through the next day I wasn’t hungry at all, didn’t eat, and yet had plenty of energy. It seemed like the ideal food for hiking trips or any other occasions where it would be useful to have little weight and bulk combined with high energy output. However, it was impossible to identify what I had eaten, and I left Japan with a strong, but vague memory.

Well, Google finally came to the rescue. I often told friends about this mysterious stuff probably made from lichen, and I finally decided to look it up. Lo and behold, I found out what it is: iwatake in Japanese, meaning rock mushroom, is a lichen that’s being harvested from dangerously high cliff faces and is valued for its associations with longevity. In addition, I discovered several websites — here is one — with scientific studies about the anti-cancer and anti-tumor qualities of lichen, iwatake being among them.

One other misconception got cleared up: due to my relatively poor language skills, I had understood that whatever I was eating had to be preserved for almost 100 years in order to fully develop its taste and qualities. Not so; what the restaurant staff tried to explain was that the lichen had to be almost 100 years old before it was big enough to be harvested…

Here are two more pictures:

iwatake harvest

Iwatake harvest II

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About artnexus

art-lover photographer
This entry was posted in culture, Japan, vegan, vegetarian, weird stuff and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Memorable food

  1. artnexus says:

    Wow, I picture you dangling off a cliff in one of those bamboo baskets — where did you harvest it? And I’d be curious to hear whether you also experienced lots of energy after you ate it.

  2. littleoddme says:

    I know this is an old entry, but the powers of google also brought me here. I just harvested my first iwatake today and am sitting here with it on my desk contemplating it’s preparation. Thanks for giving me some more background on it. 🙂

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