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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Dining in the Dark

Years ago, someone had given me a copy of The Miracle of Mindfulness written by a Zen Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, who is famous for a metaphoric passage that speaks about the act of washing dishes as a meditation practice. Consciously living in the moment. He walks you through each step as you take your time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and movement of your hands. He says that if you are already thinking of what you will do next after you’ve washed these dreadful dishes, then you will always be dragged into the future, never able to live in the present moment. The metaphor of striving to live fully in the present really resonated with me and when I am rushing through something or want to be sure that I pay close attention to something, someone or some moment, I always think about washing the dishes. So to speak.

Fast forward about five years to find out that James the Doctor has been practicing mindfulness meditation for a few years now. Admirable, for sure. I had once mentioned to James the Doctor that San Francisco has a dark dining restaurant called Opaque, which is, apparently, modeled after a similar European sensation. When he suggested hosting a similar dinner for his fellow psychiatry residents, I was excited to partake.
Mindful of various textures, flavors and smells, he planned out a unique 5-course menu. I had helped with cooking and preparation so I knew the menu in advance. Still, I decided to join the table and see how it felt anyway.

That's me sitting in the black leather chair while James the Doctor is being a gracious host to my right (with the help from his brother, Jason). It wasn't feasible to create a pitch-black dining environment, so we had the next best thing: eye masks. While the experience was slightly different for me in comparison to my fellow diners, it was still a new and interesting experience eating each course while blindfolded and listening to others guess the ingredients.

Like any classy dinner, it started with hot hand towels that had been soaking in lavender-scented water. Then out came a plate of scattered arugula and tear-drop shaped tomatoes that had been injected with a balsamic glaze. The scent of the argugula and its bitter taste was instantly recognizable, but it was the pop of the tomato bursting with sweet vinegar that surprised many.

Next came a little appetizer trio with a small wedge of smoked gouda, a slice of ripe kiwi fruit with its fuzzy skin, and prunes split open and filled with a smoked almond butter and smoked sea salt.At first, it felt a little uneasy being in the dark. I kept my left hand anchored on the edge of the plate in front of me as a sort of compass and used my right hand to feel and touch my nearby surroundings. I was grateful for the mini water bottle that had been thoughtfully provided because it eliminated the fear that I might knock something over. I took comfort in knowing the shape of the water bottle and that I knew how to close it while blindfolded.
Each dish was a new sensation in taste and smell. We all loved the feel of the silky ribbons of cabbage gratin. But I was most excited about the main course: smoked chicken (from the tuesday/saturday special at Memphis Minnies) that was griddled right into a light waffle batter and served with a thin lacing of a spicy bbq maple syrup. I touched the edges of the waffles slowly and reached my fingers into its comforting grooves as I bit into it with the unshared confidence of knowing what was in it since I had prepared them just minutes before the guests had arrived. But still, the flavor and texture was still pronounced to me. The edges were crisp and warm on my tongue, but it quickly gave way to the soft custardy webbing of the interior of the waffle.
I tasted just a hint of spice from the maple bbq syrup and concentrated on the smoky chicken bits hiding around the waffle like a treasure trove of flavor. The other diners were guessing it contained bacon, pork, and even Indian curry spices. None of the above, actually, but I could see where they were coming from.

Dessert was a baked butter mochi with blueberries. I developed this recipe because I love mochi desserts, which are popular in Hawaii. The butter creates a delicate flaky crust, which gives way to a dense and chewy interior made with rice flour, coconut milk and vanilla.
Afterwards, James the Doctor revealed each dish that we had eaten and confirmed or denied our wild guesses. It was really a unique dining experience. Even though we hadn't consumed a large quantity of food, we felt full because we ate very slowly, taking the time to contemplate each bite using our senses. We ate with mindfulness.


Ali said...

This sounds amazing -- wish we had been there!!

Jase said...

Next step: pitch black with night vision goggles ;)

Lea said...

This was a really great post! Dare I say it...this all sounds a bit sensual!

Morgan Lee said...

You WAS a sensual experience! I felt very intimately connected to my food in an odd way that I don't normally experience during the average meal. Highly recommended.