Gastronomy

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Gastronomy is the art of preparing, presenting and consuming food. While a preoccupation with food and eating would be linked to craving, this need not cancel out the idea of flavoring nutritious food, presenting it in a hygienic and appealing way and consuming it with appreciation. The Buddha spoke of several principles and ideas that pertain to gastronomy.

According to the Western understanding there are four basic or ‘primary’ tastes; sweet, bitter, sour and salt. The Buddha recognized these tastes but added four more, making eight basic tastes (mūla rasa); sweet (madhura), bitter (tittaka), sour (ambila), salt (loṇika), pungent (kaṭuka), savory (khārika), mild (akhārika) and bland (aloṇika, S.V,149). This more subtle understanding of tastes allowed cooks a wider combining and contrasting of tastes thus giving rise to a richer and more varied cuisine.

As far as preparing and cooking food is concerned, the Buddha said that a skilled cook (rasaka or sūda) will carefully observe his costumer’s or employer’s reaction to his preparations and adjust his recipes accordingly. ‘He should think like this, “Today he liked this curry, he reached for that, he took a good helping of this, he praised that, the sour curry pleased him.’ (S.V,151).

Such ideas eventually led to the development of a distinct ‘Buddhist’ cuisine. Although the Buddha did not mandate vegetarianism, it seems that early Buddhists gravitated towards a meat-free diet or only ate meat occasionally. This was partly because of religious scruples and partly economic, meat being expensive. And like the Jains, they favored non-root vegetables; fruit, grains, pulses, leafy vegetables, etc.; because they did not require digging and thus the possibility of killing creatures living in the earth. However, within a few centuries Buddhist cuisine was absorbed into the general Indian culinary tradition which was influenced by Ayurvedic ideas of clean (sāttvika), dim (rājasika) and dark (tāmasika).

An important part of gastronomy is table etiquette. The Tipitaka gives us a detailed description of how the Buddha ate which points to what he considered to be gracious behavior while eating (M.II,138). The Vinaya too, contains several rules that pertain to table manners.

In countries beyond India where Buddhism became established, particularly in the Far East , a distinct Buddhist gastronomy evolved, becoming and remaining even today very influential. These culinary traditions are usually entirely meat free and they avoid pungent vegetables such as garlic and onions in accordance with the Buddha’s instruction not to eat these vegetables (Vin.II,139). Such cuisine is called ‘vegetable food’ (zhaicai) in Chinese and 'do chay' in Vietnamese, ‘devotion food’ (shojin ryori) in Japanese and ‘monastery food’ (sachal eumsik) in Korean.

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References