When We Eat, We Are Eating the World

A conversation with Soto Zen tenzo Valerie Duvauchelle

What happens if you are a cook and a tsunami is coming your way? In our third post for the Dark Kitchen series, Mark Watson interviews Soto Zen ‘tenzo’ Valerie Duvauchelle about cooking in a storm, paying attention and cultivating right relationship with food and community.

Valerie with three-bowl oryoki (Photo: Sophie Lavaur)

(Originally published by , 7th July 2021)

I first met Valerie in March 2020 when we both joined a new weekly online meeting of people exploring what ‘contemplative activism’ might look like. The Covid-19 pandemic had just begun to run riot worldwide, and most of us were in countries in lockdown. Contemplation, with its connotations of medieval monks and nuns in silent and private devotion, suddenly seemed more relevant in the face of the fear and confusion brought on by the pandemic.

How can contemplation be a form of activism in the face of ongoing collapse? This is one question that has been at the base of our very modern, vocal and open meetings for over a year now, as we have held a space to actively contemplate many existential subjects – from powerlessness to death to failure. The group is made up of people with differing life practices and ideas, with several practising Buddhists among us (though I am not one).

Valerie practises Zen Buddhism of the Soto lineage. Born and raised in France, she spent many years in Japan, where she eventually took the Buddhist vows and became a nun, though she is secular and not attached to any monastery. Her specific role as tenzo, or cook, within a community, has a more multifaceted meaning than is ordinarily understood by the word ‘cook’. A tenzo is responsible for providing meals by working with ‘just what there is in front of them’, and also, through the food, for being ‘a bridge between the external and the internal’ and for mirroring and balancing the emotional state of the community.

In the meetings, what stands out are Valerie’s spontaneity and directness, her knowledge of food and Zen traditions, and the way she can bring you right into a story, so you feel you’re there experiencing it alongside her.

This May we spoke about her role as tenzo, the Japanese earthquake of 2011, paying attention to what is, and what contemplative activism has to do with the food we cook and eat.

Mark Watson: Did your interest in food come before your involvement in Zen Buddhism?

Valerie Duvauchelle: Well, first it’s always about lineage, whether spiritual or familial. My mother is a great cook – she’s probably the biggest tenzo I know – she’s still cooking at home in Brittany for everybody at 83! When I was growing up she taught yoga in the evenings, so I was often alone, with both parents working. But she cooked all my meals in advance, and every night I had her food. Then at weekends we’d always cook together and make chocolate mousse and desserts. So I never really felt alone. The relationship was through the food, and for me it’s always been about joy and love.

MW: What led to your involvement with Zen and becoming a tenzo?

It was by chance, really. I was working in Japan promoting movies for the French Ministry of Culture, and around the time of the 2008 economic collapse, something strange happened.

It suddenly didn’t make sense anymore. I’d previously been a short film producer, which involved physically being around people, and also cooking and making sure the crew had decent meals during very long working days. Now I was promoting and writing contracts and talking with other producers on the internet. It was just admin. And then one day I couldn’t do it anymore.

I couldn’t sit down at the computer. I let the date of the annual Clermont-Ferrand short film festival (where I’d look for new films) go by. I just couldn’t register. I couldn’t present anything to my sponsors, and so I knew it was over. I thought I’d gone crazy.

At the same time I had this intense urge to cook. I baked so many cakes I started donating them to local homeless people. Then some Japanese friends suggested I run cooking classes. So that’s how my life changed through cooking without even deciding it. Around that time I felt very oppressed and paralysed, and I decided to sit, even though I wasn’t attending any Zen temple yet. After a while I decided to go to a temple.

At my first Zen retreat, I was fascinated by the approach towards food – which was exactly the same as for the meditation. We also ate in the same place we meditated, and I was right in front of where all the food was placed and served. The monks would appear and put everything in a certain place with these beautiful gestures – like a choreography for serving, which included the people receiving the food.

Then there was the oryoki ritual, where we have our three bowls, and a certain way to deploy them, which is the same for everybody. And something just happened. I went every Sunday, and I continued to do retreats. I was so in love with the mystery of this food, that after about a year, I’d become closer to the tenzo of Sōji-ji, Koganeyama Roshi.

Three-bowl oryoki (Photo: ©Philippe Lissac/Godong)

MW: So you learned hands-on from a tenzo?

VD: Strangely, he didn’t talk to me directly at first. But at some point he asked me: ‘How did you eat tonight, Valerie?’ I was surprised he’d even seen me. He ran a monthly cooking class for people outside the temple, mostly grandmothers – two of them were real guardians of old Japanese recipes, like uzubeshi, uzu (a citrus fruit) topped with miso, nuts and sugar that you dry for three months and then cut in slices. They also knew how to make umeboshi (salt fermented prunes) and omochi (steamed rice filled with azuki bean jam). So I became friends with them.

Once, in a sesshin (retreat), when we did the ritual of putting the rice at the level of our mouths, then eating three spoons of it – it tasted and smelt exactly like this delicious cake my mother used to make when I was a child. I thought: I’m in a temple, it’s white rice, what’s going on? I had another spoonful, and again the smell and taste of this cake, just out of the oven and still warm. I asked the cook if he’d done something to it. He said no, he’d been doing the same rice the same way for years. That’s when I understood that something mysterious was there. If the rice was the same, what had happened for the flavour to change so much?

Later I moved from Tokyo to work in a deli with two other macrobiotic cooks, where I made vegan food with ingredients from the temple and began to teach cooking classes. I’d make ginger chocolate truffles from the red bean azuki used in traditional Japanese sweets – the Japanese people loved them.

Summer plate ‘de la bienveillance’

MW: You experienced the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, didn’t you?

VD: Yes, I was working alone in the deli at the time. In Japan they don’t hide the electric wiring, and I hated that, especially when there’s so much other beauty. It was Sunday, three o’clock, the shop was quiet, and I decided to do something about the wiring. As I moved the fridge, everything stopped, and I thought I had broken something. Then I felt the earth start to move. The deli was on the seafront, it was quite scary. That day felt like a week, no electricity, nothing. I was alone, it was cold, and so I emptied the fridge, which was full of food, and decided to take it all to another café on the seafront – the last place you’d normally go in an earthquake. But often when you’re in danger, you look for companionship.

What a surprise when I arrived at the Magokoro café to discover a dozen others who’d had the same idea, including people who couldn’t get back to Tokyo because there were no trains. Shin-ji the owner started cooking all the food, because there was no fridge to keep it from spoiling.

We couldn’t see anything and it felt very intimate, like we were alone in the world, with all the fantastic food. The feeling faded when the electricity suddenly came back on. But we carried on eating.

The government sent a text message to everyone warning of an aftershock in the Tokyo area with risks of a tsunami. And we were on the seafront! I jumped up to go, but nobody else moved. After a silence, someone said, ‘Mmm, those look tasty,’ and people started talking about the food and their memories of particular dishes. I thought at first, ‘These people are crazy. Don’t they realise?’

And then it occurred to me: ‘Escape to where? And from what? If something happens, then it happens.’ So we just sat, and in the event there was no tsunami.

The aftershocks continued for several days, and you never knew whether there’d be another big earthquake or not. It was like a complete confrontation with the fear of death. At some point you go, ‘I’m just going to live my life. Yes, I might die, but if the earth is moving, it could move here, it could move there. And what am I running for?’ A lot of people went through that process.

When the news reached the West, we were bombarded by everyone’s hysteria and worries. I went to Nagasaki, more to calm my family down than myself. Then we heard about Fukushima. My father phoned and said I must leave because the second reactor had gone into meltdown.

I’d only gone to Nagasaki because of other people’s fear, I actually felt very anchored in my life. So I decided to go back and reopen the shop, and the Japanese all reopened their shops, because the most important thing was to really be there. It was crazy, but that was the spirit – you’re human and you can only live your life, whatever the circumstances.

MW: This practice of just living your life feels like a physically embodied, grounded and existential awareness of actually being alive right in the moment. Something very different from the tropes of the industrial-consumerist machine constantly repeating Live your Life, Be Yourself, Fulfil Your Potential etc. as a kind of cliché or cheap commerciality.

This practice of just living your life feels like a physically embodied, grounded and existential awareness of actually being alive right in the moment. Something very different from the tropes of the industrial-consumerist machine constantly repeating Live your Life, Be Yourself, Fulfil Your Potential etc. as a kind of cliché or cheap commerciality.

VD: Yes, they are two very different attitudes.

MW: How would you describe the basic role of a tenzo?

VD: A tenzo is one who ‘ordains the seat’, and their main function is to help everyone find their place, to find harmony, organic adjustment to what is, and acceptance of all phenomena as they occur.

Firstly, there is the posture of ‘just sitting’ and then ‘just cooking’ with what there is. So the practice of the situation. That’s why a tenzo never judges what they have – they just work with what there is in front of them.

The tenzo nourishes the practice, meaning (s)he protects the capacity to be porous to all the ingredients of the world. So, as a tenzo cooking for the community you go out and sit with the heat, the joy, the tiredness, you tune into the weather, what’s going on in the season, what’s happening with the heart of the most vulnerable person in the group. A tenzo will always sit in order to be attuned to their community, and then through the food, try and help balance any situation.

Also when we receive the food we are literally eating the world, so we let the world become us, let life be us, let the Earth be us, let the ancestors live with us.

When they compose the menu for the community, a tenzo will basically try to mirror the outside, try to bring whatever there is around onto the plates in terms of flavour, colour, texture. In Zen cuisine it’s through variety that we arrive at the centre. So we pay attention to acidity, for example, and bitterness, and salt. And from all these different flavours comes the centre.

We do the same with the colours, always paying attention to the main tonality of the season, whether that’s green (spring leaves) or red (summer berries) or orange/brown (autumn). And also the texture, always making sure there’s something raw, something cooked, something steamed. Of course at every meal there might not be all these things, but the tenzo just pays attention including as many as they can, with the intention of protecting the flavour of reality as it is.

It’s above all about the practice of the situation and not a culinary dogma. During retreats or funeral ceremonies, we take care of the flavours, we do not use garlic or onion, but in our daily life we simply aim to remain in conversation with what there is.

So through this variety the body finds its own equilibrium. And as it is always a body-mind posture, the mind follows the general centred posture of the sitting, which the food also brings.

MW: What about oryoki – the practice of the bowls?

VD: It’s a very beautiful practice. The first bowl always has the cereal, for example rice, which is never seasoned. There are two reasons for that: one because this bowl represents our awakened selves when we are fully alive, the pure taste of our life, as it is. And two, a non-seasoned cereal is very useful to a tenzo, because you can use it for porridge the next morning!

The second bowl is for a soup, or a mix of things, and the third one is for raw food, a salad or something lacto-fermented.

Zen desserts

MW: Are there any gender barriers to becoming a female tenzo?

VD: In the Zen monastic tradition there is no difference between men and women in terms of enlightenment, although different monasteries exist for women and men. There is no discrimination other than in a socio-economic context – in Japan, women’s temples have no land or cemeteries and often have no other resources than catering.

Zen is as much secular as it is monastic, though – it’s simply the dynamic contemplation by which we live. It’s about cultivating a space of deep relationship to what we are, to what is – on one’s cushion, yes, but then in the kitchen and in the subway, in the temple chanting a sutra or in the street demonstrating, one cultivates openness to what happens, from which right action arises (meaning adjusted, tuned to the moving situation).

As a Frenchwoman, I’ve chosen the secular path, and my aim is to extend this practice to anyone who wants to live cooking as they live their lives, with what is, and without being attached to an identity, without crystallising things, and to allow everyone to realise that each kitchen is a temple, the most precious one, that of our life.

MW: Finally, in the face of the collapse of the world as we know it, what would be the one thing you would most like to see make it through to whatever comes next?

VD: Basically, cooking and eating together. In the end of the end of the end people will always sit and cook and eat together, even if it’s one grain of rice, because this is where their existence comes from.

Assiette de la bienveillance – literally ‘plate of benevolence/kindness’

The Practice

Everything in the Zen practice of eating is an invitation to be with life:

Sitting: with all that is continually happening, committing to be at the heart of sitting

Cooking: adapting to the situation, reflecting life as it is, not wasting, protecting the silent taste (awami)

Eating: unfolding and closing the oryoki, washing bowls, eating with alternating bowls

Acknowledging: recite the five contemplations before meals:

I contemplate all the energy and efforts it took to get this food to me;

I contemplate how I honour this gift of life on a daily basis and how I give back for what is offered to me;

I contemplate how this food protects me from the greed of anger and the illusion of being separate;

I contemplate how this food nourishes my body and maintains my health;

I contemplate how this food awakens me to my life and instils in me the joy to keep walking.


A summer oryoki menu

1st bowl: Coriander quinoa

A non-seasoned cereal with fresh herbs: for example local quinoa (white +boiled) with coriander (green)

Prepare the quinoa in twice the volume of water. Cut herbs and mix into the quinoa.

2nd bowl: Fried (deep texture) aubergine (violet + salty) with sautéed tofu (white/yellow + salty) and vinegar (acidic)

Ingredients : aubergines, sunflower oil, cider (or rice) vinegar, agave syrup, salt , hard tofu, sesame oil

Cut the aubergines into 2 cm strips along half their length and fry them in sunflower oil until they are soft and golden. Season with vinegar and agave syrup (or cane sugar) with a little salt.

Cut the tofu in cubes and sauté in sesame oil.

3rd bowl: Ginger (yellow + hot) and carrots (raw + orange + sweet) with pink peppercorns (dry + pink + sweet and bitter)

Ingredients : carrots, ginger, pink pepper 

Grate the carrots, slice the ginger very finely, season with salt and put pink peppercorns on top.

In this menu we have a diversity of colours, flavours and textures, with a bit more acidity than other seasons.

Dessert suggestion: Take soy yogurt and mix with a little cashew nut purée. On top add some fresh red fruits and agave syrup.

Here too we have the complementary contrast of colours and flavours. Or even more simply, just slice a melon and let it sit for 15 mins in salted water before serving.

Five-bowl oryoki (Photo: Marc Cherruau)

Contemplative activist and secular nomadic Zen nun (Soto lineage), Valerie Dai Hatsu shares the tenzo path of Zen community cooking wherever she goes. She is a member of the Collective Intelligence Cooperative in France, teaches The Work That Reconnects, and is an advisor to communities on food practices. Her book Le Goût Silencieux: la pratique zen de la nourriture was published by Actes Sud, France in 2018. For more about Valerie’s work, see her website La Cuisine de la Bienveillance (in French).

Mark Watson will be teaching plant contemplation and practice as part of the upcoming Dark Mountain online course ‘When the Mountain Speaks With Us’, hosted by Schumacher College this September.


First Spring Tonic Forage of the Year

Nettles pushing through, Suffolk, England, March 2021

The changeover from winter to spring has really got into gear over the past couple of weeks here near the Suffolk coast. The first thing I noticed were the nettles pushing through in the back garden.

But this doesn’t mean a whole lot of weeding! My immediate impulse is to make a great spring tonic soup, like nettle, leek (or wild garlic!) and potato (I did this on Tuesday evening, the first spring wild green soup of 2021, and it was so good – really simple, too). And I love to make fritters with nettles and herbs (like these baked ones), and steam nettle tops as greens.

After ingesting all those winter-warming fats and starches during the winter months, a good spring slough-off of bodily lethargy and reconnection with the life force is what I’m ready for, and for this, nettles, along with other spring greens such as cleavers and dandelions (leaves and flowers), are really our very good friends.

I’m planning on hosting some online workshops this year, starting in the spring, where we’ll explore native wild plants and how amazing they are: as food, as medicine, as pollinators for insects and as beings in their own right. We’ll also be looking at how getting to know the plants growing right where we live can work wonders for our sense of well-being and leave us feeling more connected, less isolated and more in tune with the planet.

Watch this space for more details! Coming soon!


For all inquiries, please contact me here. Thanks!

Text and Images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license

Spicy ‘curtido’ – a Central American delight

Curtido 16th December 2020 with Crown Prince squashes in the background

‘Curtido’ is a ferment popular in Central America, similar to (but not the same as) European sauerkraut or Korean kimchi. I’ve been making jars of it over the past few months, mostly based on red cabbage along with onions and carrots, chiles and herbs. Like other ferments, this one never comes out the same way twice, but it always tastes delicious, and can be ready within three days for a fabulous, gut-friendly relish!

There are some tasty commercial ‘curtidos’  available in the UK, but in case you’d like to have a go at it yourself (highly recommended), here’s how I made today’s jar:

1 medium white cabbage (one of the denser varieies)
1 carrot, julienned
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 level teaspoon chipotle chile flakes
1 level teaspoon jalapeño chile flakes
1 tsp of Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) Note: Mexican oregano is in the verbena rather than the mint family, and is stronger than the regular oregano we’re used to in the UK, but you can substitute this for two teaspoons of regular oregano)
2 teaspons freshly ground cumin (I heat the seeds in a dry frying pan before I ground them)
2 teaspons sea salt
1/2 cup of lightly salted water and apple juice mix (50/50)

Curtido P1070449In a bowl mix the cabbage, carrot, onion, salt, chile flakes, oregano and cumin until evenly distributed. (You can massage the cabbage first if you want to.)

Pour in the apple/water mix.

In a 1 litre Kilner/Mason jar press the vegetables down hard. I use the end of a rolling pin for this, and that gets the juices flowing. You can also use a few whole cabbage leaves to cover the vegetables.

You need to make sure make sure the curtido is covered with liquid, so if necessary, use the cabbage heart to hold the vegetables down firmly when you close the Kilner jar.

Keep in a warm place out of the sunlight (in the winter I used the airing cupboard) and place the jar in a bowl to catch any of the liquid that might (and probably will) escape. These ferments can get fizzy quite quickly. Open the lid once (at least) or twice a day to burp the jar.

This ferment can be enjoyed after as few as three to five days. After about five days I generally place it in a new jar and keep it in the fridge, where it doesn’t remain long!

From ‘Xochimilco’ Pallet to Wasteground Patch of Plants

‘Floating’ pallet garden 2019

Last year, I put a wooden pallet on a patch of grass in the garden and covered it with pots of plants of mostly Mexican origin: chiles, anise hyssop, marigolds (Tagetes) and others. I called it ‘Xochimilco’ after the floating gardens in Mexico City, although they were ‘floating’ on a wooden pallet rather than water.

In winter I cleared the pots but left the pallet, and when I removed it in the spring there was a bare patch of earth 4ft x 2ft, which I sprinkled some grass seed on and left.

Waste ground patch 7th August 2020

By summer, the grass hadn’t done so well, but all sorts of waifs and strays began to appear in the patch that were nothing to do with my planting intentions. And I left them to do their thing.

As of 7th August, as well as the various sparse grasses, I can count at least 23 types of plant in this tiny patch, and whilst it doesn’t seem quite so romantic or exotic as a Mexican floating garden, I’m very fond of it (it looks lovely close to, the photo doesn’t do justice to it at all). The plants are mostly native or naturalised.

Here are the denizens of this tiny waste patch, among them quite a few edibles: various grasses, white clover, ribwort plantain, horsetail, rocket, lemon balm, dandelion, Good King Henry, small-flowered willowherb, marigold (Calendula), fat hen, nipplewort, fennel, yarrow, vervain (Verbena officinalis), nettles, chard, wild carrot, evening primrose, sorrel, bramble, ground elder, bristly ox-tongue and wild lettuce.

I’ve been cropping the fat hen to include in a summer version of these delicious fritters, and it grows back in no time.

Not such a waste ground, after all!


Wasteground patch 10th August 2020

Growing Out Of The Wall

From 7th July 2017

Passing by the wall of an old Suffolk church today, we were called to attention by an amazing display of St. John’s wort growing out of the cracks, so we stopped to pay a visit…

and found a whole array of burgeoning wild blooms, including harebells,

and yarrow,

along with the more familiar kinds of wall plants, like ivy-leaved toadflax,

and pellitory of the wall itself:

Let more wild plants cheer up old walls!

Medicine Jellies

22 June 2020 I’ve just started to make these very easy jellies again after rather a while, and so here is an extract, from May 2010, of a piece I wrote for the Transition Norwich blog. Have a go at one of these ‘medicine jellies’ yourself. They are delicious.

Recently I’ve been making what I call medicine jellies, using a basic vegetarian jelly mix and adding all sorts of herbs and fruit. Here there is peppermint, lemon balm, ground ivy, mugwort, slices of lemon and blackcurrants stored from last year. Only the lemon and the jelly mix are not from the garden.

I made the first one to help shift the remnants of a friend’s cold which had after-effects on the sinuses. The jellies taste (and smell) really good, not at all medicinal. And they’re really fun to do. Just drop the chopped fresh herbs and lemon into the liquid jelly right at the beginning and stir once or twice before it sets (I use the handle of a wooden spoon). I put the (cooked and defrosted) blackcurrants in slightly later than the rest of the ingredients.

The jelly in the picture I took along to a Transition meeting on Wednesday (5th May 2010). It was a great digestive after our celebration feast. I took it as a good sign that it disappeared without trace almost before I’d put it on the table.

Original post: My entry into Transition and a Medicine Jelly (8th May 2010)

Spring Baked Fritters with Nettles and Apple Mint

Marrowfat pea bhajis - P1070486

These are simple, very tasty fritters made with nettles*, apple mint, plantain and sorrel (but you can use many edible spring ‘greens’). They need little time to prepare and bake and you can eat them as a snack, for lunch, or as a starter before a main meal. They can also be shallow fried.

INGREDIENTS (Serves 2 – 3)

Bunch of nettle tops* (4 or 5)
Bunch of apple mint tops (4 or 5)
A few ribwort plantain leaves
A few sorrel* leaves
3 or so tablespoons of pea flour (I use Hodmedod’s Organic Marrowfat Pea Flour for this, but you can also use organic chick pea (gram) flour and experiment with others)
1 tablespoon rice flour, preferably organic (optional)
Olive oil (or sunflower)
Squeeze of lemon juice
Pinch sea salt
Pinch baking powder

Make a slightly sloppy but not runny batter with the pea flour, rice flour (if using), baking powder, water and salt, and a tablespoon of oil. Mix together well. The ratio of pea flour to rice flour should be 3:1 or 4:1.

Add the roughly chopped nettles, mint, plantain and sorrel and stir well until the greens are thoroughly covered.

Spoon out the mixture to make about nine or ten fritters onto an oiled baking tray, then bake at 180°C for 15 minutes, turning once.

Serve hot with mango chutney, tomato ketchup and/or mayonnaise – or just eat as is.

* Nettle tops (like cleavers and sorrel) are best eaten when young in spring and before flowering.

Is it Kimchi, A Slaw, Both Or Neither? I Don’t Know But It’s Delicious

I originally posted this on 28th December 2014, but after making the most delicious batch of ‘kimchi slaw’ just recently, I thought I’d repost here for anyone who’d like to try out the recipe. A lot more people are familiar with fermentation here in the UK now than they were in December 2014, but most of those I speak to who have tried one of the various new products on the market have yet to make their own. All I can say is, have a go… it’ll be worth it. If you’re a bit nervous about the microbes, take a look at the interview I did with Eva Bakkeslett in 2018. And happy fermenting!

P1020654 800x600It’s a ferment; it’s alive; it’s a revelation; it’s a meditation; it’s raw veg in brine; it’s part of a movement; it’s inspired by a dish that’s a national treasure; it’s fizzy; a few days later it’s not so fizzy; it’s radical; it’s an addiction.

It’s cabbage and carrot and radish and onion and garlic and chilli and ginger.
And a pear and/or apple, and honey, tamari and sea kelp and chives and salt water.

It’s also shitake mushroom water but that didn’t scan in the verse.

Anyway I’ve been making this pickle for a few months now, based on Korean kimchi and inspired and aided by fermentation revivalist Sandor Ellix Katz’s The Art of Fermentation, and the recipes by Garden Betty in California and Holly in Argentina, which I came upon on their blogs.

I’ve introduced my version of ‘kimchi slaw’ to people in the Raw Food Demos I’ve been giving at Giddens and Thompsons local greengrocers in Bungay, and talking about it to everyone else! Fermentation is something that really seems to excite people. It’s certainly got me going lately.

photo 4

The recipe here is my version as it stands now. It appears everyone does it differently. And the ‘kimchi’ never comes out the same twice. It must be the influence of all those shapeshifting microorganisms!

A Red Cabbage Kimchi ‘Slaw

INGREDIENTS (Organic, local and home grown vegetables are always my first choice)

1 small red cabbage or ½ large one
1 large carrot
1/2 red onion
Japanese or daikon radish (mooli), equivalent size to carrot. Sometimes I leave this out if it’s not available and just use cabbage and carrot as the main vegetables.
handful chives or small bunch spring onions
½ cup sea salt (not table salt)
5 cups filtered water (ratio = 1 part salt to 10 parts water)

1 small or ½ large pear, peeled, seeded, diced
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1 thumb ginger, peeled & cut into small chunks
2 fresh red chillies, deseeded if too hot
1 tablespoon raw organic cane sugar OR 1 tablespoon RAW honey
½ – 1 small cup stock: liquid from 5-6 shitake mushrooms soaked in warm water plus 1 level teaspoon kelp powder
Dessert spoon Korean red pepper flakes/chilli flakes OR level teaspoon smoked paprika powder

Note: for the most recent ferment I omitted the red pepper flakes/paprika, as I used two homegrown Ring of Fire chillis in the sauce – mainly deseeded but with just a few seeds left in. It was just the right heat, definitely pretty hot but without going into overburn!

Chop/shred red cabbage. Remove hard centre and keep intact for use as plug in the jar.

Place shredded cabbage in a bowl with water and sea salt. Stir and put plate on top of the bowl so all cabbage is submerged. Weight plate down with something heavy. Soak for 1½ – 2 hours or more, stirring and turning the cabbage thoroughly at least once or twice during this time.

Meanwhile soak five or six shitake mushrooms in warm water for 20 mins.

Julienne carrot and daikon/mooli. (I soaked the carrots with the cabbage in the salt water for the latest batch, but you don’t need to).

Rinse cabbage 3 times and let drain in a colander.

In a liquidiser/food processor place peeled, seeded and diced pear, roughly chopped garlic, red onion, sugar/raw honey, chives/spring onions, ginger and mushroom & kelp stock (without the mushrooms). Blend to smooth sauce.

Place prepared vegetables in a bowl, pour the sauce on top and add red pepper flakes/smoked papriika. Gently and thoroughly mix in all the ingredients.

Place ‘kimchi slaw’ in a clean jar (mason jars are great) and push down firmly. Fold a few outer leaves of the cabbage and cover the slaw. At this point you can put the cabbage heart on top to hold the vegetables down further. The vegetables should be submerged under the sauce.

Keep in a cool visible place. Burp the jar frequently if you’ve closed the lid (see cautionary note below)*. You can start to eat this delicious ‘slaw’ within three days. And mine never last much longer than a week before they are eaten up!

*A Word of Caution – take note but don’t let it put you off! If you are fermenting vegetable in glass jars with the lids on, you should keep them in a place where you can see them easily, because you will need to ‘burp the jar’ frequently whilst they are first fermenting. Even in a cold kitchen (like mine!) in the winter gas can build up in the jar quite vigorously. You do not want the jar to explode! The trick is to keep the lid on loosely so trapped gas can be released.

Kimchi ferment 2 [smaller]

I ferment my ‘kimchi pickle slaw’ in a mason or kilner jar. After pushing down the vegetables with the folded outer leaves of the cabbage and then with a weight if necessary to keep them submerged (the fermentation process is anaerobic), I place the the lid with the rubber seal on top of the jar leaving the metal clasp off (see pictures). This means the lid sits loosely on the jar, which can then burp itself and release the potentially explosive CO2 safely.

The picture above shows my latest pickle, bubbling happily and tasting great! (It was a full jar the day before yesterday!)

For an update (February 2015), see: ‘Kimchi Slaw’ Variations and a Jar of Smreka

Kimchi & Squash

Sources and inspirations:
The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz (Chelsea Green Publishing) for detailed kimchi recipes and methods (and everything else about fermentation). Just makes you want to try everything in the book from dosa flat breads to herbal meads. Excellent. Sandor’s book Wild Fermentation is brilliant too. Check out his website here.
Korean cook and blogger Holly at Beyond Kimchee. Lovely, very friendly and informative blog by a Korean cook living in Argentina (written in English).
Another great blog is from Garden Betty aka Linda in California. Again very friendly and informative with great pictures. The first kimchi recipe I tried was the red cabbage kimchi from Garden Betty’s blog.

Text and Images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license: Fermenting ‘Kimchi Slaw’ with lid on (see *note above); Raw Food Demo at Giddens and Thompson Dec 2014, me (left) and glam-fab assistant Simon Thompson (right); keeping the lid loose with fermenting vegetables* and fizzy (delish!) kimchi slaw; red cabbage ‘kimchi slaw’ & cha-cha or bom-bom squash with sage in brine fermenting (see recipe on Cultures for Health website).

A Quick Run Round The Dandelion Field

A dandelion post from 2014. There are so many reasons to be a good dandelion friend…

P4110006 - detail“Can I have some of your weeds?” I said to Malcolm as we picked up our weekly veg box from his smallholding.
“How much is it worth?” he laughed. “Yes, of course you can.”
“Do you reckon I can pick 100 dandelion heads in five minutes?” I said.
“No chance,” he replied.

But that is in fact what I did. Or it may have been six minutes. Whilst Charlotte picked up the box and chatted with Malcolm, I moved swiftly round the field picking fresh flowers for the ‘dandelion beer’ recipe I’d found in Hedgerow Medicine.

Got home, shook out the small black beetles, boiled a few litres of water with 100g of sugar, let cool to blood temperature, poured into a large bowl along with a whole finely sliced lemon, covered with a clean dishcloth and that’s it. I’ll give it an occasional stir over the next few days, then on Monday or Tuesday I’ll pour the lot through a sieve into a couple of bottles and it should be ready to drink by Thursday or Friday.

P4110013 - detail

Hedgerow Medicine is a great book by Julie Bruton Seal and Matthew Seal, full of simple recipes like this, all clearly written, which can be followed by anyone, herbal old timers and novices alike. I’ve written here (and elsewhere!) about the book, which continues to be one of my favourites.

And dandelions are one of my favourite spring tonic plants. A herbal treasure chest, rich in potassium and other nutrients, and a strong but gentle cleanser for the urinary system, the leaves and flowers are also great in salads. Plus goldfinches love the seeds. And they are just plain joyous spring sunshine plants!

And if they can get me moving so quickly around a field, there must be no end to their extraordinary qualities!

P4160009 Dandelion beer detail 1Postscript 29th April
Made two delicious, refreshing litres from this first batch. It’s really good value too, the cost of one organic lemon, 100g sugar and the heat to boil the water. Batch no. 2 is now on the go.

PPS Remember to leave plenty of blooms to mature into their clocks for the birds too.

PPPS Become a dandelion ambassador!

More Baked Onion Bhajis – with Potato and Beetroot

This is a variation on the bhaji dish I posted here a few months back. I made them today for a late lunch, and they came out a treat. The beetroot adds a vibrant colour whilst the potato lightens everything up (just remember to rinse it a few times through a sieve after grating, and squeeze the excess water out).

As ever, they are disappearing fast from the plate…


3oz/80g Hodmedod’s yellow (or green) pea flour (you can use the more traditional gram flour, but I love the lightness and taste of the ones using the pea flour).
1oz/28g brown rice flour
1 medium onion, sliced finely
1 small beetroot grated
1 small/medium potato, grated and rinsed through a sieve 3 times with excess water pressed out

1/2 to 1 Ring of Fire chili chopped up very finely (Note: these are very hot. If you can’t stand the heat, stay in the kitchen, but use one or two milder chilis).
2 tablespoons fresh coriander leaves (chopped roughly)
2 tablespoons tender kale leaves, destemmed

2 tsp roughly ground organic cumin seeds
2 tsp organic coriander seeds
1/2 tsp ajwain seeds (optional)
1/2 tsp ground tumeric (plus 1 tsp grated fresh turmeric – optional)
1 tsp sea salt, ground

up to 75ml water (or equal parts tomato passata and water up to 75ml)
olive oil


In a bowl mix the flours and the salt together, making sure they’re evenly distributed.

Heat the cumin, coriander and ajwain seeds in a pan to release the flavours, then ground with a pestle and mortar (or a Mexican molcajete if you have one). Add to the flour and salt.

Now add everything else except the water (but including a tablespoon of olive oil) and mix together. Then add up to 75ml water (or a mix of water and tomato passata), bit by bit, and keep mixing until you have a slightly wet (but not at all sloppy), sticky mixture, with all the ingredients evenly distributed.

Using a tablespoon of mixture for each bhaji (this should make at least 10 decent-sized ones), place on a baking tray greased with olive oil, and bake in the oven at 180C. After 10 – 15 minutes, take the bhajis out, turn them over and drizzle each one with olive oil. This is key, as it gives the bhajis a deep-fried texture (but without using so much oil). Bake for another 10 minutes or so.

The ones I made today were delicious on their own, though you can eat them either hot or cold with pickles and chutneys.

Note: Bhajis are a versatile dish and you can add or subtract spices according to taste. I often add a teaspoon of paprika, and today I substituted Thai chili flakes for the fresh chili, and added some freshly popped black mustard seeds.