Twice a year at Zen River, a junior practitioner makes the transition to a senior only after completing a traditional Soto-school rite of passage known as shuso hossen shiki. It’s held at the end of a three-month training period, or Ango. During this choreographed ceremony they must give a dharma talk on a koan in front of the sangha and the abbot, no less (!). To make matters worse – or even more exciting – they must then battle out a dharma combat with the Ango participants, who are more than eager to test the oft-frazzled shuso with thorny, or sometimes humorous, questions.*
Needless to say they are usually rather nervous of this pending ceremony. But so far so good. Everyone has managed to rise to the occasion and make it through, even if by the skin of their teeth. (I’ve only ever heard of one occasion where they didn’t, but that was in another temple many years ago.)
As tenzo, I enjoy finding out what the shusos’ favourite food is so we can prepare it for the relaxed celebratory meal after the ceremony. When it was Ranka’s turn, I found out she loved tagliatelle. So here’s a rendition of what we served on that special occasion.
This is a lovely summery pasta that combines the classic flavours of tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, and the five colours used in Zen-style cooking; white, black/purple, red, green and yellow. For a vegan version, simply omit the mozzarella cheese.
2–3 medium cloves garlic
1 medium red onion
350 g (2 cups) cherry tomatoes
70 g (½ cup) roasted almonds or hazelnuts
85 g (¾ cup) black pitted olives
250 g (2 cups) mozzarella cheese (optional)
18–20 fresh basil leaves
30–35 g (6–7 tablespoons) fresh parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons olive oil, or suitable oil for frying, divided
1–2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
350 g (12 ounces) tagliatelle (pasta ribbons)
1 tablespoon soy sauce (optional)
Fresh ground black pepper
- Peel and mince the garlic.
- Slice the red onion into thin half-moons.
- Wash and dry the cherry tomatoes.
- Roughly chop the almonds.
- Slice the black olives into halves lengthwise.
- Drain any liquid from the mozzarella and medium-dice.
- Using your fingers, tear the fresh basil leaves into halves. (A knife will tarnish the basil.)
- Grate the parmesan cheese, preferably using a micro-plane grater.
- Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium flame, add the red onions and stir-fry until they caramelize. Next put in half the garlic and stir-fry until the garlic turns a little golden on the edges. Set both aside with the oil they cooked in.
- In the same frying pan, add the cherry tomatoes, the remaining garlic and a tablespoon of olive oil. Twirl the pan to coat the tomatoes with the oil, turn the flame low and without moving them, gently fry until the peel begins to split and the bottoms of the tomatoes begin to caramelize, about fifteen–twenty minutes. Turn off the flame and cover to keep warm.
- While the tomatoes are frying, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop in the tagliatelle, stir constantly to disentangle until it returns to a boil. Simmer until al dente, about seven minutes or follow package directions. Drain and quickly rinse with water.
- Combine the tagliatelle with the red onions and garlic, one or two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, and a tablespoon of soy sauce. Season with sea salt.
- In a serving bowl, layer the tagliatelle alternating with the cherry tomatoes – including the oil and juice they cooked in – the almonds, olives, mozzarella cheese, and basil leaves. (This way the almonds and olives won’t all fall to the bottom of the bowl.)
- Serve sprinkled with freshly grated parmesan cheese and freshly ground black pepper.
Shuso hossen shiki – head monk / lay trainee ceremony.
Ango – a three month period of training.
Shuso – the position of head monk / lay trainee.
Koan – is a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used to test a student’s progress in Zen practice.
Sangha – the community.
Dharma combat – dharma combat is a form of a debate, with questions and answers that might seem illogical.