On Food

Zen Temple Cuisine

This article appeared in the December 29, 2000, issue of the East Bay Express.

1686 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley

By Eve Kushner
Shojin food should reflect the way nature looks in any given season. Ideally, the arrangement of food on a plate will suggest a landscape.

Cha-Ya, the vegetarian Japanese restaurant that replaced Cafe Istanbul in the Gourmet Ghetto, presents a number of intriguing questions. Why do crowds routinely stand out in the cold and even the rain to grab one of the few tables? Why has the restaurant taken such a radical departure from the usual Japanese offerings of fish and meat? And is there a vegetarian tradition in Japan, or is this some sort of anomaly that makes sense only in our PC context?

I found some answers on the menu, where it says, “Vegetarian Japanese cuisine originated during the mid-13th century at a Zen temple in Fukui, Japan, where the art of vegetarian cooking became a part of the monks’ daily discipline.” Oh, right—Zen Buddhists … vegetarians … that makes sense. And yet Cha-Ya’s compact explanation left me hungry for more details.

I did a little research, so here’s the scoop. Buddhism reached Japan in about 530 AD, and like most religions, it has a set of “Thou shalt nots,” including “Thou shalt not kill.” That extends to the whole animal kingdom, so believers can’t indulge in meat, fish, eggs, or even dairy products. Shojin cooking, as vegetarian Buddhist cuisine is called in Japanese, features land and sea veggies. This accords with the geographical limitations of the Japanese islands, where it’s difficult to raise livestock anyway and simpler to grow plants. But the matter is as much spiritual as practical; the monks work toward salvation by living a strenuously ascetic life (which presumably includes julienning lots of carrots and daikon) and consuming only the simplest foods.

This explanation might lead you to expect that shojin food will be bland, but that’s not true at all, because the idea is to bring out the natural flavors of vegetables, even when they’ve been combined or smothered in a sauce. Another principle is subtlety, particularly in the use of seasonings. Also, the offerings change along with the calendar, depending on which foods are available when.

In fact, shojin food should reflect the way nature looks in any given season; typical dishes include red items in autumn and brown ones in winter. Ideally, the arrangement of food on a plate will suggest a landscape, featuring some combination of “mountains,” “rivers,” “bridges,” “fields,” and “roads. (Actually, this rule applies to all Japanese cooking.) Shojin food can also resemble meat- and fish-based concoctions in a kind of trompe l’oeil.

Most people in modern Japan don’t have access to shojin cuisine unless they pay a hefty price for a Zen temple meal. East Bay residents are quite lucky, then, because Cha-Ya is nearby and not at all expensive. What’s more, it serves delicious, beautifully presented food.

Owner-chef Atsushi Katsumata lived as a monk in Japan, where he learned the art of shojin cooking. He has owned three nonvegetarian Japanese restaurants locally and opened Cha-Ya in February. The name translates to “tea ceremony,” which makes sense, given that vegetarian food is a traditional part of these ceremonies.

Miyajima bridge
Miyajima, Japan.

The restaurant’s interior is unrecognizable from the Cafe Istanbul days. Katsumata has utterly transformed the space into a cozy nook with four to six tables (depending on whether or not they’re pushed together) and eight more seats at a semihexagonal counter. The rich woods of the countertop, the decorative wall beams, and the varnished tables create a stylish ambience. So do the bamboo designs on the interior doorway curtains. The wall hangings don’t work well in a clump, but they are quite attractive individually. It’s a good thing the inside looks so enticing, because if you visit Cha-Ya, you’re almost certain to stand outside for awhile, looking in like a forlorn dog at all the appealing food and happy diners. Fortunately for those both outside and in, the dishes arrive in a well-paced succession as the pleasant, unobtrusive servers scurry to deliver umpteen pieces of pottery to each table.

With the exception of the big soup bowls filled with noodles and topped with veggies or tofu, Cha-Ya’s menu practically invites you to dine in the tapas mode, ordering lots of dishes and sharing them with tablemates. My husband, Arif, and I happily complied, sampling appetizers, soups, salads, and sushi, some of it from a list of specials that changes every two weeks.

Our two appetizers came from the list, though in fact both are always available. We began with gyoza ($3.75), or vegetarian potstickers. Although the usual pork filling can be boring, this vegetarian version combined cabbage, carrots, corn, and green beans in a way that burst with flavor, making the dish one of the evening’s winners. The edamame ($3), or steamed soybeans served in the pod, were cold and lacking in salt, which disappointed me, as I love them hot and salted. Although I’ve certainly tasted better, these were edible enough, so we munched away, barely making a dent in the heap.

Cha-Ya offers two miso soups, one with wakame seaweed and tofu, the other with mushrooms. We opted for the first ($1.50), which proved to be warming and wonderful with lots of green onions on top.

We moved on to the senroppon salad (a steal at $3.50). The crunchy shredded vegetables (including cucumber, daikon sprouts, daikon, carrots, and shiitake) appeared as a haystack of mostly white, glistening strands. Garnished with soybeans, smoky pine nuts, and fried tofu, the salad had an irresistible taste and texture. We marveled at the subtle dressing; though it supposedly had a soy-sauce base, it tasted nothing like that. Perhaps the soy sauce mixed with juices from the vegetables.

Two of our entrées came from the specials list. Nan-man ($4.75), the “Halloween special,” featured a whole chestnut inside a mound of kabocha (Japanese pumpkin). Sprinkled with peas, pine nuts, and tofu, the dish provided a comforting warmth but otherwise struck us as bland.

The other special entrée, sushi with fried asparagus and yam ($4.50), pleased us more because frying enhanced the asparagus flavor. The vegetable tempura roll ($4.50) was quite similar, with sweet potato and asparagus tempura tightly bound up inside perfectly sweet rice. We also enjoyed the third order of sushi, the futomaki roll ($4.50), which is a big piece of seaweed wrapped around cucumber, tofu, spinach, kampyo gourd, and shiitake and then cut into four cross-sections. Arif observed that the chef had perfected the art of miniaturization with this sushi, making it possible for us to taste five different vegetables in one bite.

Our food was great, but truth be told, I felt a little unsatisfied even after packing away so much. It was as if I’d eaten three bags of carrots; although my stomach was full, my mind searched for more. I’ve never felt deprived after eating vegetarian pasta or pizza, so why was the Cha-Ya experience different? Arif pointed out that Japanese cuisine already lacks bread, and if you take away meat, too, well….

So why the crowds? We concluded after that first night that although Cha-Ya’s food didn’t quite satisfy our cravings, vegetarians must feel like they’ve arrived in heaven. Within its strict parameters, the restaurant goes all out and does a fantastic job. It makes a great addition to the Gourmet Ghetto’s vegetarian scene, which includes Smokey Joe’s and Vegi House (a Chinese venue). The food at Cha-Ya is light and healthy, with fewer fried dishes than at many Japanese restaurants. It’s unfortunate that Cha-Ya isn’t open for lunch, because it would be perfect for a refreshing midday meal.

Although I left our dinner slightly disappointed and wasn’t eager to make a follow-up visit, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about the food. To my amazement, I began to feel downright excited about returning, and I devised a strategy sure to leave me more satisfied. An order of vegetable tempura would give the meal more solidity, I figured, and that turned out to be exactly right.

We started with the scrumptious gyoza again and tried to figure out what made it so good. Maybe it’s the type of wrapper they use or the hot juices that seep out. It could be the grilled flavor. Perhaps it’s the tasty dipping sauce with sesame. Or all of the above.

We moved on to the soba salad ($4.25) and sang its praises for the rest of the meal. The dish featured a bed of cold buckwheat noodles made vermicelli-thin. The chef topped them with a radial design of watercress, fried tofu, julienned veggies (red and yellow peppers, red onions, bamboo shoots, and ginger), and enoki mushrooms. And that’s not all! On top lay carrot florets, sliced strawberries (which were sweet and unexpectedly perfect in a vegetable salad), soybeans, and pine nuts. A light sesame dressing made the salad impossible to stop eating. We picked at it till we’d devoured it all, though this took some time. New dishes arrived, and we briefly turned our attention to those but kept returning to the salad.

The vegetable tempura platter ($7.25) included potatoes, asparagus, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, kabocha, and green beans. The light, crispy batter made it a flavorful dish that proved substantial and filling, just as I’d hoped.

We sampled two orders of nigiri sushi ($2.75 for two pieces), in which a vegetable is lashed papoose-style on top of the seaweed and rice. The Japanese eggplant atop the sushi struck me as pleasingly soft, whereas the asparagus version wasn’t as tender as I might have liked.

Hosomaki sushi comes with a vegetable tucked into the seaweed-rice bundle. We tried the kampyo gourd and the oshinko (pickled daikon) versions and found both to our liking. Each order ($3) included six pieces.

To finish the feast, we indulged in the nondairy vanilla ice cream ($3.75).We oohed and aahed over the lively vanilla taste, the fresh pineapple on the side, the intriguing green tea sauce, and the crunchy dried soybeans (which tasted like nuts) on top. To our surprise, the bill came to less than $32 before the tip.

We ended our second visit as converts. It’s not that we’ll give up our meat-and bread ways, but Cha-Ya certainly showed us that it’s possible to make vegetables exciting and delicious. Although I still don’t know why anyone would wait in the rain to eat in a restaurant, I can see why Cha-Ya has cultivated a loyal following.