Vietnamese seaweed-wrapped tofu, yuba, sweet potato fritters. All seem simple enough — dishes we can get at our favorite local Pho place. But get up early on a Sunday, drive an hour south, and these dishes can be experienced on a whole other dimension.
I am speaking of Magnolia Grove Monastery in Batesville, Mississippi, the Thich Nhat Hanh intentional community, that was established in 2005. Each Sunday, the 30-something monastics who live there open their doors to visitors to share a day of mindfulness with them, practicing walking meditation, listening to a dharma talk about what mindfulness is and how to practice it, and sharing a meal.
That meal will make you question how you ever lived before.
So what's the secret?
"We use a special seasoning," answers Sister Hoc Nghiem, mischievously. Hoc Nghiem (it means "True Practice") is a nun and former Memphian who lives at Magnolia Grove.
That special seasoning is a combination of joy, love, compassion, mindfulness, and just good energy, she adds.
- The nuns say a kitchen bodhisattva prayer that expresses gratitude for being able to prepare and offer food to their community and recognition that the most important food is joy, love, and harmony.
"Our teacher [Thich Nhat Hanh] says the kitchen is like the meditation hall," says Sister Boi Nghiem, who Sister Hoc's sister both in blood and in monastic life
"We will come in a little early and enjoy a cup of tea and enjoy the moment," Sister Hoc says. "Then we will do something to make the kitchen pleasant, such as make a vase of fresh flowers and light some incense or some sage."
Then they say a kitchen bodhisattva prayer that expresses something along the lines of gratitude for being able to prepare and offer food to their community and recognition that the most important food is joy, love, and harmony.
Sister Hoc adds that the fact that most of their food comes fresh from their garden creates another layer of that special something.
"And when we grow our garden, we also do it with joy and love," Sister Hoc says. "We don't just focus on the food to harvest, but when we are watering our garden, we also do that with joy and happiness."
All the food prepared at Magnolia Grove is vegan in accordance with the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which represent the Buddhist vision for a global spirituality and ethic and include the first training, "Reverence for Life."
"When you eat the food here, you can cultivate compassion because you know no animals had to sacrifice their lives, and it makes you feel good about yourself," Sister Boi says.
The last of that je ne sais quoi that separates the food at Magnolia Grove from any other meal is the fact that they eat in silence for the first 20 minutes of the meal as a way to practice eating meditation and mindful eating.
"I think one of the reasons people enjoy the food here so much is that when they eat, they know they're eating," Sister Boi says. "There's no cell phone or TV to distract them, so they're really tasting the food and really living in the present moment."
Sister Boi adds with another mischievous smile, "It's Vietnamese food, and Vietnamese food is always good."
For more information on visiting Magnolia Grove for a day, go to magnoliagrovemonastery.org.
Many of the monastics will be in Memphis on Saturday, June 17th for a Day of Mindfulness presentation at Rhodes College as part of Rhodes' Compassionate Campus Initiative. The event is from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Bryan Campus Life Center on Rhodes Campus, and participants are encouraged to register on eventbrite.com (where you can also make a donation).
Here is a recipe from Sister Boi:
Fried Tofu with Nutritional Yeast
Serving for 5 people
- 1 box of firm tofu
- 5 teaspoons nutritional yeast (crush it with mortar and pestle to powder)
- 2/3 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon sugar
- Cut tofu as square or triangle shapes, put them into a bowl, then add sugar and ½ teaspoon salt, shake well and let sit for 15 minutes.
- Mix crushed nutritional yeast and ¼ teaspoon salt together.
- Fry on low heat so tofu turns yellow and stays soft, put them on a tray, sprinkle the nutritional yeast all over them, shake well. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.
- Serve with rice.