KZN ZEN

Retreating to flavour and mindfulness

By Wanda Hennig 28 June 2019

Nasturtiums from the Buddhist Retreat Centre’s garden transform the salad. Photo: Wanda Hennig

Too many chefs. Zen food. Monkey thieves. Ensconced. Sangoma recipes. Kitchen wisdom. Adam’s sourdough. Only in KZN.

Tantric Tarts: crispy, zesty, intriguing. A Thriller with Vanilla: sublime, luscious, decadent. You’ll have guessed we’re talking food, this being TGIF. But what’s cooking? Who’s cooking? And where?

Okay. So the Tantric Tarts are on the supper menu. Puff pastry, basil pesto and caramelised onions; roasted cherry tomatoes, beets, green and yellow peppers and courgettes. These layered with crumbled feta; the pastry with its mini-tower then gently brushed with egg yolk and a splash of milk so it bakes to a golden glaze. The tarts served alongside an intoxicatingly flavourful Mushroom Love soup (bona fide names, all of these) that dares you to resist having seconds.

And that Thriller with Vanilla?

It’s the pièce de résistance baked vanilla cheesecake stippled with slivers of strawberry and lavished with strawberry coulis – the strawberries and a dash of sugar brought to the boil, simmered till soft, pressed through a sieve then refrigerated. Added just before it is offered, as the lunchtime dessert, at the Buddhist Retreat Centre last Sunday.

A cheesecake to thrill the tastebuds. Photo: Wanda Hennig

The cheesecake – unquestionably a 10 on the mouth orgasm scale, not just for flavour and texture, but also for the freshness of the ingredients and the care that has gone into the mixing and the baking – comes at the end of a silent Ayurveda and yoga retreat. The baker is Lungi Mbona. She, Dudu Memela and Lindiwe Ngcobo – “the kitchen ladies” as they’re known – are the long-time backbone of the Buddhist Retreat Centre (BRC) kitchen. All three were culinary contributors to Plentiful: The Big Book Of Buddha Food, the source of the “thriller” cheesecake and the BRC’s third cookbook to date. 

Reclining Buddha, labyrinth and strawberry sweetness. Photo: Wanda Hennig

The Buddhist Retreat Centre is where you can go when you feel overwhelmed by the hamster-wheel, wiped out by the news, tired of TV, bellyached from eating on the fly, burned out by life’s endless demands. You perhaps book a cosy lodge room, an upscale en-suite chalet or a rustic kuti-with-a-view. You maybe sign up for a retreat on Tibetan dream yoga or a weekend of tai chi and chi kung or a shibui workshop or a mid-week memoir writing and mindfulness retreat, which is what I was there to lead most recently.

Fruitful days and the Buddhist Retreat Centre’s big welcoming Buddha. Photo: Wanda Hennig

I have been – yes, escaping – to the centre for probably 35 years now. Getting into my car in Durban and driving for about an hour-and-a-half, remembering to turn off the N3 towards Richmond.

Knowing I’m getting there when Ixopo appears like a mirage, but before I am close enough to identify it. And – don’t blink. Because suddenly the Buddhist Retreat Centre sign appears and leads you onto the rutted dirt road you bump along, avoiding cows and potholes as you can, for 10 minutes or so. Past Woza Moya, the nonprofit community project founded at the centre in April 2000 that serves as a lifeline for some 8,000 Ufafa Valley residents.

The Zen garden, a cool spot – but for those who like it hot, there’s always a bowl of diced red chillies in olive oil. Photo: Wanda Hennig

Ixopo. The Ufafa Valley. Alan Paton and Cry, The Beloved Country country. The book’s opening lines: “There is a lovely road which runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it.”

Not much more than a minute past Woza Moya, a small sign points you through the gates and into the retreat’s property. Where, if you’ve been there before, you will know that however long you’re staying, all you need do is turn up, at the scheduled time, for whatever workshop you’re doing. And on time for meals. The 7.30am breakfast, the 12.30pm lunch (and main meal), the 5.30pm supper, which always includes soup and made-that-day bread.

And don’t forget the tea treats in between, if you are doing a workshop.

Ask the vervet monkey about these. The monkey that darted in and stole the last two light-as-a-feather Completely Ensconced fruit scones dolloped with strawberry jam and whipped cream during my recent retreat. Oblivious to reprimands and camera, so engrossed was he or she in what looked like mesmerised bliss, sitting gorging from one hand and then the other.

And in fact, the pleasures – and purgatory – of the table weaving through the retreat centre story from before the idea for it was even conceived. Starting when Dutch-born Durban-based architect and civil engineer, Louis Van Loon – a storyteller of note with a wicked wit who can regale you for hours on end and has (regaled me) many times – came to South African from Holland, aged 20, in 1956.

He became a committed vegetarian after arriving in South Africa, appalled by the “tables I saw groaning with corpses”, he told me once.

In Holland, there was very little meat during the war. Afterwards, it was very expensive. Now I saw people eating these massive amounts of meat and thought, ‘how barbaric’.”

So he established a vegetarian society, launched a magazine, organised a covert visit to an abattoir, won support — and alienated a lot of meat eaters.

The idea of creating a retreat centre came after three days spent lying, feverish and ill and wondering if he would live, in SriLanka, during a seven-month pilgrimage around Asia in the 1960s.

He bought the land in 1970. Then worked for 10 years with a handful of supporters, at weekends (all had regular jobs), building a lodge with beds for 30 people, a meditation hall, a small teaching studio (now the library) and the kitchen/dining room area.

The first retreat was held in 1980. It was before the age of celebrity Buddhists, like Richard Gere. Before meditation became mainstream: seen as an antidote to stress, depression and many other modern-day ills.

Then, maybe three people signing up for a weekend retreat was a lot. Now, popular weekend retreats have lengthy waiting lists.

Then, the landscape was mostly wattle and the property pretty decimated. Now, in no small part thanks to the drive and enthusiasm of Chrisi van Loon, Louis’s wife, the retreat has earned custodian status for the habitat it supplies to the endangered Blue Swallow and it has National Heritage Site status. Alien trees and plants have been taken out and replaced with indigenous groves and forests. There is a growing resident population of reedbuck and duiker, there are otters and porcupines and 160 bird species have been recorded.

Now back to the food.

“Rocket to a new beet” salad includes, you guessed, rocket, beetroot and feta. Photo: Wanda Hennig

The what-has-become legendary vegetarian table had its origins in a visit Van Loon paid, while building the place, to the San Francisco Zen Center (SFZC) while on a round-the-world trip he won. In a slogan-writing contest.

The zen centre, on a food note (and the culinary table is anything but incidental), comprises three practice centres: Tassajara in the Ventana Wilderness, a Zen monastery in the winter, which in the summertime opens to visitors and is acclaimed for its vegetarian table; Green Gulch, known – since long before Slow Food and real food and the organic trend – for its organic produce and kitchen; and City Centre, an urban temple in the heart of San Francisco. Where I never overlapped with Van Loon (he beat me to it). But where I lived and practised for three-and-a-half years in the ’90s. Worked often in the kitchen. Ate some astonishingly good vegetarian food.

And as often as possible went to eat at Greens Restaurant (also in San Francisco), founded by the zen centre 40 years ago (it’s their anniversary year), which has often been called the best vegetarian restaurant in the world. All Greens Restaurant chefs, for many years, trained at Tassajara.

Prior to his zen centre visit, all the Buddhist centres he had visited, says Van Loon, had one thing in common.

Lousy food. In fact, terrible food!

The ultimate insult? Food that made you want to ditch vegetarianism and eat meat.

Oops! He’d better not read my TGIF Offal: Nose to tail, beak to claw—and beast to table story.

I felt food should be part of our effort. That there should be attention paid to the food as part of holistic living and taking care of your life.”

It is appropriate that a Buddhist meditation centre advocates a reflective dimension to eating. That we make our kitchen a space where a treasure of vegetable ingredients is transformed into delicate, tasty fare. Then we eat mindfully, sometimes in silence, the better to savour the flavours. So we do more than preparing food and eating it: we celebrate it,” to quote Louis from the introduction to the BRC’s first cookbook, Quiet Food.

While one can hope, but not expect, to get food to feed the senses in a Buddhist centre, it is a fact that food is central in many – especially – Zen communities.

In a Buddhist monastery of the Zen school, the most senior position is that of the tenzo or cook,” to quote Antony Osler, the Buddhist retreat’s first resident teacher, also from Quiet Food.

Osler, human rights lawyer, author and Zen priest, whose Poplar Grove Stoep Zen centre is in the Karoo, had first-hand experience as tenzo at Mount Baldy monastery in California.

In the corner of the kitchen, a fruit and veg display. Photo: Wanda Hennig

The tenzo gets up at midnight to light the oven and bake bread. His meditation cushion is taken out of the zendo because he has no time to sit zazen… The Buddha teaches you must taste your food to know the truth of it. And live your life to know the meaning of it.”

Usually, at the retreat centre, there is a “chef” who runs the kitchen, plans the menus, orders the produce, and who works alongside the “kitchen ladies”.

Fabulous Frangipane, Saturday lunch’s pear and almond tart. Photo: Wanda Hennig

These “chefs”, who apply for the kitchen job and come with various levels of kitchen experience, every so often (three times to date) develop new recipes and a cookbook is born.

Right now, there is no “chef”. Just the kitchen ladies.

And a kitchen that, when prep is happening, has a quiet and attentive quality of working together and mindfulness that likely is why the tenzo in the Zen monastery isn’t required to formally sit in meditation.

Same as when we take custard cookies and drive deep into the valley to visit part-time kitchen crew-member, sangoma Nomusa Mthembu, and drink tea that tastes interestingly earthy, which makes sense when we learn the valley boreholes have dried up and the water was collected in a bucket from the river that morning by her grandson.

There is equanimity and acceptance when says she is happy to go sit in the mediation hall, wearing a robe and in collaboration, when white sangoma John Lockley visits and runs retreats.

You just talk from your heart to both God and the ancestors,” she says.

Everyone has ancestors. I ask God sometimes and I then I ask the ancestors – for help and advice.”

And – I am curious – a sangoma’s favourite meal?

We eat cookies with sangoma and kitchen helper Nomusa Mthembu at her home. Photo: Wanda Hennig

Not the sublime cheesecake. Not the tantric tarts. Not the light as a feather spinach and feta spanakopita that are part of our lunch.

Although, she says, she enjoys the retreat’s kitchen. And all who work in the kitchen eat, with relish, what they’ve cooked that day, when the dining room clears.

But best, Nomusa says, she likes meat. And cabbage: done her way. Some cooking oil poured into a big pan. (Big family.) Brown the sliced onions. Add paprika and salt. Chopped cabbage. Braise it till cooked. And serve it with the Zulu bread made in a pot on the fire. Just flour, salt, sugar, water and Anchor yeast. Cook for an hour-and-a-half. Good with sugar beans or baked beans. From a can.

And Lungi, Dudu and Lindiwe laugh when I ask them about working in the kitchen. And the “too many chefs” who have come and gone and who they have taught “cooking, baking – everything” from scratch.

They laugh extra-uproariously when I ask about the sourdough instructions they got from Glenwood Bakery’s Adam Robinson, who brought them “the mummy” starter that lives in the fridge and they feed every day “so it has a big stomach now”. And we will have the dough that’s “been sleeping for the night in the fridge” baked and warm with soup for dinner.

That food and eating has a long history at retreat centres is highlighted in the legacy text, Instructions for the Zen Cook (1237), which gives specific guidelines for preparing, cooking, serving – and even eating food. Inspired by this, Instructions to the Cook is one of many essays and texts that focus on how to cook “what Zen Buddhists call the supreme meal – life. It has to be nourishing, and it has to be shared. And we can use only the ingredients at hand”.

Check out the BRC’s line-up of retreat options. And note, you don’t need to be a Buddhist or even a meditator to book in at the centre.

And in fact, there is no need to sign up for anything listed. People arrive from far and wide to do personal retreats. To get perspective and distance. An escape to a place, way off the beaten track along a dirt road not too far from Ixopo, where city noise is replaced by the tinkling of wind-chimes and birds calling, the whisper (sometimes howl) of the wind, your breath and the sound of your feet tramping along the pristine paths of the forest and valley walks.

You can sit scrutinising the Zen garden, stroll the labyrinth to ponder the meaning of existence. Or you could take a long and lazy – or energetic – afternoon hike along pristine walking paths, through indigenous forest and park-like gardens. Gardens that at certain times of year, depending what’s blooming, are an Impressionist’s dream. Especially when splashed with the brightest pink and red azalea “trees” you’re likely to see anywhere, plus patches of orange clivia and luxuriously abundant assorted protea.

At some point, somewhere, you will likely hear the cavorting of monkeys at play. Mimicking the recalcitrant “monkey mind” you or I become aware of when we sit down and try to “not think”.

And then – you can go and eat. DM

Wanda Hennig is a food and travel writer, based in Durban, who lived and wrote from San Francisco for 20+ years. She is author of Cravings: A Zen-inspired memoir about sensual pleasures, freedom from dark places and living and eating with abandon (Say Yes Press, 2017). Reach her online via her website, Wandalust Online.

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