Tea Bowl, Jan Hashey, 1991.
Tea Bowl, Jan Hashey, 1991.

I have always loved the dance of cleaning the kitchen, washing the vegetables, cutting, cooking, cleaning again. My culinary career began when I apprenticed with a Swiss chef at age seventeen. Cooking was art, it was dance, but in Guatemala, I learned that it was medicine as well.

The people of Todos Santos in Guatemala’s highlands—statistically documented as the poorest of the Mayan descendants, but also the healthiest—first taught me this lesson. Wild cilantro, for example, quite a fragrant and pungent seasoning, also functions as a natural preservative when blended with meat. The Guatemalan diet is simple: beans, squashes, corn, occasionally meat, and various wild plants. Similar to Chinese methods, their system divides foods into ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ depending on how they affect the body. Many medical anthropologists now believe that the Mayans adopted this system from Catholic priests during the Spanish conquest, who probably inherited their knowledge from early European alchemists influenced by the Orient. The ancient Chinese system, based on yin and yang, is still one of the most sophisticated tools for diagnosing disease in the world today. Applied to nutrition, this system can also promote a more balanced diet.

Following my visit to Guatemala, I combined cooking in restaurants with studying Chinese medicine and martial arts. At the suggestion of my martial arts teacher, I traveled to Taiwan to study with a Taoist/Buddhist master at Eighteen Lohan Temple on the outskirts of Taipei.

With the help of a translator, I eventually found the temple grounds and asked for the master. Inside a small guard house a young Buddhist nun served us tea. The temple itself was up a mountain, beyond a foot bridge over a narrow river. With no electricity or telephones, I wondered how she would notify the master. She assured me that the wait wouldn’t be long.

Soon enough a stout man in monastic robes greeted us. Conversing with him was unnerving; one eye was crossed and the other looked blind, but his relaxed manner and the strong wine he served eased my tensions. When I asked if I could study with him, he said yes, but on condition of a three-year commitment. Startled at first, I soon left to arrange for an extended visa.

Two months later I returned to the guard house only to report that my request for a three-year visa had been denied. That didn’t seem to faze the master. We ate small bowls of noodles with bitter greens and drank a fair amount of rice wine, which he proudly said was stronger than any whiskey I could find back in the States. That turned out to be true, and loving to drink, I decided that three years drunk on the mountain wouldn’t be so bad. I was ready to enter the temple for the first time.

After walking uphill for twenty minutes, we entered a small cave which contained a mat, some books and plenty of wine bottles—some empty, some full. I asked where the rest of the monks might be and how many of them lived at Eighteen Lohan Temple. Chuckling, he said there were no others. The government had closed down the temple four years earlier. Later I learned that he was suspected of teaching martial arts to dissident Taiwanese opposed to the present government. Rumor also had it that he practiced esoteric Taoist sexual techniques with female apprentices.

I asked him why he had permitted me to study with him, and he said that the moment he saw me, he felt compelled by my commitment to learn. Asked why he hadn’t explained that the temple had been shut down, he answered that if he had, I surely would not have returned.

Days and weeks passed. I had a cave of my own. Inside the kitchen hut, one wok was used for boiling, and the other for deep frying and sauteeing. Maintaining the conventions of a Buddhist temple, the diet was vegetarian. A typical meal consisted of eggplant boiled, and then soaked in sesame oil, sweet wine, and soy sauce with minced ginger. Potato-like tubers were boiled then lightly sauteed. Greens were usually blanched in salted water with a touch of sesame oil. Rice was offered by people living near the temple. But the master believed that rice was not good for his health. His kung-fu practice already generated intense heat in his abdominal region, and boiled rice, so he said, would make the heat excessive. Instead, he used the offerings for making rice wine, a nutritious drink with a cooling effect.

A stone sink, linked to a waterfall by hose, provided a constant supply of water that flowed into the sink and back out to the river. The grounds were totally overgrown and wild. The old man showed me which plants to leave alone for future medicinal purposes, and which were edible, as well as those used for fuel or mulch.

After several weeks of pruning the forest, I became increasingly anxious. The time had come to study Buddhist and Taoist ways and train in martial arts. Yet, I rarely saw the master. Sometimes he remained in the guard house at the base of the mountain for days. And when I did see him, we talked very little, usually at meals, over a small bowl of soup, some preserved roots, and perhaps some greens.

When he was around, the old man would talk to the numerous squirrels, birds, or snakes. He asked me to offer flour, which was given to us by people who occasionally came to the guard house to be healed or diagnosed. The offerings were made to a large tree whose roots wrapped around a rock and didn’t seem to enter the ground at any point. The tree ate the flour, he explained. My internal voice began to chatter louder than usual. I feared going crazy and wondered if the master was really enlightened or just a madman. Slowly it dawned on me that he wasn’t going to teach me anything: no words, no scripts, no rules, no lessons. Allowing me to unlearn, to slow down, and just be, had been his medicine for me. With this understanding, the mind-chatter quieted, and more subtle sensibilities rose to the surface. My taste buds became more refined, my sense of smell acute. Flavors alone enthralled me. Foraging and cooking made days on the mountain complete.

Six months later a government official discovered that I was living at Eighteen Lohan Temple. I was deported immediately. On my last day in the cave, the smell of cilantro simmering in the pot brought me back to Guatemala, where I had learned that delicious food can be strong medicine. In Taiwan I learned that the secrets of cooking aren’t limited to the ingredients.

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