Dogen, Dharma and Discipline in Japan’s Zen Heartland

National Geographic Traveler

THE WAKE-UP BELL RINGS AT 3:20AM and within minutes I’ve shot up, changed out of my pyjamas, rolled up my futon, folded my sheets and am standing outside the bedroom ready for inspection. After a cursory assessment by a stern-faced monk I am asked to take off the tiny silver ring I’m wearing on my right hand: “No adornments, please.”

At 3:30am, I’m desperately trying not to fall behind. Padding blearily at the back of a line slicing through a succession of maze-like corridors in single file, I’m doing my best to keep step with the person in front of me while not tripping over my robes or losing the standard-issue footwear on a stair.

Ten minutes later I’m sitting upright and crossed-legged on a round, black cushion on top of a wooden platform. I’m facing the wall, a dark wooden panel, my eyes half-closed, heart beating from the early-morning workout and the sheer effort of just keeping up. I hear the footsteps behind me of a man brandishing a long wooden ‘discipline’ stick, and I know I am to stay completely still for the next 30 minutes. A bell rings three times somewhere in the distance, and I break out in a rash of goose bumps before the room is plunged into silence. All I have to do now is breathe. And not move an inch.

It may sound like boarding school or boot camp, but in fact I’m embedded and motionless among the dark wooden beams and latticed paper panels of the Sodo (monks’ training hall) in Japan’s oldest Sōtō Zen temple.

In a world when the term ‘Zen’ has been adopted to evoke anything vaguely associated with a chilled-out state of new-age relaxation and ease, it might come as a shock to learn that the regime for trainee priests here at Eiheiji, Japan’s first and oldest Sōtō Zen centre, is closer to Fort Benning than a weekend spa retreat. “Eiheiji is severe,” writes one matter-of-fact Buddhist blogger; “Eiheiji is undiluted Zen.”

Japan has no shortage of Zen temples for the inquisitive visitor looking for quiet day’s contemplation: there are over 15,000 from the Sōtō school alone, with another 6,000 pertaining to the Rinzai sect. Their sheer numbers can almost be desensitizing in cultural clusters like Kyoto and Kamakura where many of the Zen temples, though excellently preserved, have been all but emptied of their original function, and now stand stoically as hoards of tourists pass through their gates brandishing cameras and small change for luck offerings. As a Zen practitioner myself, I was a little put out by the feeling that as a tourist in Japan, I would only be skimming the surface of these incredible, sacred institutions.

Having developed a critical case of sightseers fatigue after days spent binge-gawping at the best and most impressive of Kyoto’s Zen temples (I knew I’d had enough when I found myself yawning at the famed rock garden in Ryonaji and finally completely dishonored myself by falling asleep on the steps of Sanjusangendo, the sacred temple of the 1,000 Buddhas), I decided I needed something more to really engage with Japan’s Zen tradition: I needed to get away from the tourist trail and visit a working temple to see the monks’ practice first hand. A place where I could sit, eat and walk in the company of monks, and where I wouldn’t be allowed to fall asleep on the temple steps.

Eiheiji was the perfect choice, and I discovered through my own Zen teacher back in Europe that they were open to taking visitors, by arrangement. Flung far from the crowds of Kyoto and Tokyo, there’s more to this temple than picture-perfect manicured gardens and photo-op statues of the Buddha: to adherents of Sōtō Zen (myself included), the temple is the very source of the practice, established by the founder of the Sōtō school, Eihei Dōgen Zenji, in 1244. Think the Vatican or Mecca, and you’ll get some idea of its significance. It shares the status of international headquarters of Sōtō Zen with Sojiji, another more modern temple on the outskirts of Tokyo, but what sets Eiheiji apart even from its administerial twin is the fact that it is Master Dōgen’s original temple. Its been standing here on the exact spot of its foundation among the forested mountains of the Fukui prefecture – known for their harsh winters and heavy snowfall – for 800 years, and though the buildings have been reconstructed over time, life inside the temple for its 200-or-so trainee priests follows more or less the same strict rules and rhythms that were laid out by the master in the 13th century.

Given Eiheiji’s reputation for severity, it was with a dash of trepidation that I entered through its gates the previous day. Just hours earlier I’d been traipsing under the myriad electric cables that weave a tangled awning over Tokyo’s streets, illuminated by epileptic neon signs and incandescent hoardings. I had shouldered through the throngs of Tokyo Central station, dragging a wheelie bag, clutching maps, rail passes and guide books, before boarding a Shikansen (bullet train) to the town of Fukui.

From there it was a short jaunt on the quaint one-carriage Echizen railway manned by a uniformed driver and hostess in white gloves that personally greeted every passenger on the train and wished them a pleasant journey. The tiny train ran through rural villages and miniature-backyard paddy fields as far as Eiheiji-guchi station from where I made the final leg of the voyage to the temple gates by bus.

The silence at Eiheiji – punctuated as it is by the sound of running water and framed by the stately cryptomeria cedars towering overhead – is almost unnerving after so much movement. There’s a sign written in Japanese characters at the temple’s Dragon Gate to give visitors and trainees pause for thought: “The tradition here is strict: no one, however wealthy, important or wise, may enter through this gate who is not wholehearted in the pursuit of truth.” I try to absorb the importance of this statement, a stamp of sincerity that is impressed upon all acolytes when starting their training, stripped as they are of every material possession, save the exact amount of money needed to cover their funeral fees should they die whilst in training.

Life here is definitely no cakewalk: “Never in my life had I encountered such severity,” attests Kaoru Nonomura, a salaryman who opted to spend one year training in Eiheiji and subsequently recorded his memoirs in the Japanese bestseller, ‘Eat Sleep Sit’. In his book, Nonomura outlines the various penuries imposed on the monks: sleep deprivation, manual labour, clobberings, harsh reprimands and malnutrition, recalling some kind of grim barracks procedure. The similarities are rife: the trainees are given a hard physical and psychic initiation in order to break their egos and instill a disciplined, communal spirit. The difference is, of course, that the monks are not training for combat; they are learning the principles of practice of Sōtō Zen that will qualify them to lead enlightened, compassionate and spiritually resonant lives.

The good news is that as a visitor you are by no means obliged to undergo a beating for the privilege of staying the night. In 24 hours you’ll meditate, eat, take a traditional bath, witness the ceremony and be sent on your way the next morning, having barely dipped your toes into the disciplinary mire. But the reason to go to Eiheiji is that it’s a rare chance to get a taste of the real methods of Sōtō Zen where the purest tenets of Dōgen’s teachings can still be seen first hand.

“There are three positions when you are in a Zen temple,” Ju-ichi tells me as we kneel on the tatami mats in my otherwise empty room, “sitting, standing and walking.”  We must always definitely be doing one of the three, and when moving around, the hands, instead of being thrust into the pockets or swinging by one’s side, are to be held at chest level, with the right hand eclipsing the left fist in a position called shasshu. “And please,” he adds, glancing at his watch, “do not move from your room until I come to get you.”

Ju-ichi has been at Eiheiji for over a year now. He’s one of the only monks here that appears to speak English, and I really appreciate the chance to talk with him as most other trainees that I encounter in the corridors freeze into a deep bow with their eyes firmly fixed to the floor as visitors pass by. There’s no room here for idle chit-chat.

Because of his English skills, Ju-ichi has been assigned the job of taking care of visitors at the temple, although instances of Westerners coming here are very few. Work at a Sōtō Zen temple is considered of paramount importance to the practice, and novice monks are famously given hours of hard chores to execute in order to help them along the road to enlightenment. One of the most dreaded jobs for newcomers is the cleaning of the corridors, where the doubled-over monks run up and down at speed, brandishing large cloths that polish the floors to a gleaming finish that doesn’t leave so much as a speck of dirt after a temple tour taken in white socks. It’s a wholehearted, complete way of working that chimes with Dōgen’s directions for a life where practice and illumination are one and the same thing.

I study Ju-ichi carefully for signs of duress or fatigue from the infamous Eiheiji tribulations, but he gives off nothing more than an air of light and cheery politeness, coupled with a concern that my demanding visitors’ schedule of eating, bathing, sitting, and touring (with a little sleeping thrown in for good measure) be executed to the letter. His devotion to the precise punctuality of each of these activities comes over as a touching show of hospitality, especially his patience with my clumsy ignorance of most of the standard rules, procedures and etiquette. He’ll politely whisper ‘gassho’ (bow) when a temple elder of whom I am entirely unaware passes by, or when I’m about to storm into the toilets with complete disregard for the statue of Ususama, the bathroom god, standing outside.

Back in the dusky visitors’ Sodo, a bell rings twice to signal the end of zazen, the morning meditation, and I realize that I’ve lost both of my legs. The most fundamental part of Zen practice, zazen, or ‘just sitting’, involves solely sitting on a zafu (cushion), facing the wall with the back straight and legs folded in full- or half-lotus position. This straightforward undertaking of awareness and concentration on the present moment is at the heart of Zen practice.

Dōgen wrote tomes about the simple act of sitting, which he called “the gateway of truth to total liberation.” In the Fukanzazengi, an important text outlining the instructions for practicing zazen, he gives the following advice: “Do not think good or bad. Do not administer pros and cons. Cease all the movements of the conscious mind, the gauging of all thoughts and views. Have no designs on becoming a Buddha.”

The only designs I have at this very moment is to regain use of my legs and keep up with the monks who are almost leaping from their cushions and readying for another fast procession to the ceremonial hall. An onslaught of pins and needles follows me as I get to my feet, grappling to keep my balance and have faith that my legs will carry me in the single file that quickly builds back up to the speed of a bullet train moving through the labyrinthine corridors and endless stairwells of the temple complex.

It’s 4:30am and already the morning ceremony is underway.

Eiheiji’s 200 monks are kneeling in perfectly aligned rows on either side of the altar in the Hatto, the ceremonial hall. They’re chanting the Heart Sutra, one of the oldest and most fundamental texts in Buddhism, before moving onto other key sutras and a long list of the names of the patriarchs that have directly transmitted the dharma – Buddha’s teachings – over the last 2,500 years. The sound of the monks’ deep incantations accompanied by a drum beat and the occasional bell is absolutely mesmerizing, and I try and join in with my own alto croaks as I am ushered to also kneel in the visitors section of the hall.

Ceremonies in Zen temples last for hours, and take up the best part of the morning. As all sensation slowly departs again from my kneeling legs, I watch as the monks get up and perform prostrations, towards the altar, and towards the middle of the room. Two other monks appear from the back of the hall and race between the rows, holding aloft a lacquered tray containing a number of sutra books. As they run through the lines, each monk reaches out and picks up a book with timing so precise, it gives the impression of an impeccably choreographed routine. I gasp at the fluidity of it all – not a single dropped book – and almost want to applaud when the monks distributing the sutra books reach the end of the rows and come to a sudden, smooth stop, holding the trays up high and slowly turning around with a dancers’ control and grace.

At 8:30, it’s finally time for breakfast. My disappointment at not being able to sit with the monks and eat their traditional morning meal of plain brown rice soup in a precise ceremony involving the oryoki (the special monks’ bowl set) quickly dissipates when, kneeling upon a tatami mat in a private room in front of a low lacquered table, I am presented with a tray of at least a dozen small dishes and bowls containing morsels of food of every shape and colour imaginable.

Ju-ichi chants the meal sutra (“We regard greed as the obstacle to freedom of the mind; we regard this meal as medicine to sustain our life…”) before I begin to tentatively poke a chopstick at the foodstuffs in front of me. Though it’s not the trainee monks’ daily gruel, this is shojin-ryori, traditional temple food that has developed within the Zen tradition since monks returning from China introduced it to Japan in the 13th century. No animal products are used in the preparation of shojin-ryori, and neither are any strong herbs and spices, garlic being a particular temple no-no.

Some elements of the meal are familiar, such as a chunk of sautéed tofu, a green bean, a slice of melon and a bowl of miso soup; however, scanning the remainder of the collection of edibles in front of me, I’m at pains to recognize the white jelly-like lump or the extremely thick and sticky soup-like dish. I later learn that the former is called goma-dofu and is in fact a lump of smoked starch flavoured with white sesame, while the latter is chawan-mushi, steamed yam with vegetables.

Ju-ichi has tiny dents in his lower lip and ear lobes where I presume studs and earrings once lay embedded. I ask him about his life before coming to Eheiji and he tells me he was a hairdresser, first in Tokyo, and then in New York. Which was where he learnt English. The initial formality of his role as temple host has broken down somewhat over the 24 hours that I’ve been here, and he slowly – if not completely willingly – began to cave in to my excessive and I’m sure inappropriately personal questioning.

As my time to leave approaches, I start to get brave with my inquiries: I ask him if he’s married to which he shyly replies no. Does he ever think about getting married? “Yes, of course!” To a nun? He laughs heartily. No, not to a nun; definitely not.

The question of marriage for Zen priests in Japan is a normal one, the management of temples being very much a family affair, with priesthood typically passed down from father to son. Sons of priests become ordained as monks – usually in their early twenties – go to train at a monastery for up to three years, and return home to take over the family business.

It turns out that Ju-ichi, in his early thirties, is older than most of the novices who come here straight after finishing school or university. Whereas most Zen temples that have travelled from the east and settled in the west tend to be centres for people with a spiritual calling who practice Zen in spite of other obligations in their lives, in Japan, donning the straw sandals and knocking on the doors of an institution like Eiheiji is considered a shrewd investment in the future, much like learning the skill of hairdressing. This is the way that Ju-ichi explains to me his journey from the glitzy salons of the city to the quiet, disciplined confines of this training school.

“My uncle has a temple in the north of the country, and he has no children,” he tells me, making no mention of any spiritual incentives per se. “One day he will need somebody to take over from him.” A career move; it was that simple.

The visitors schedule sets the time of departure at 10am and you get the feeling that lingering any longer will not be appreciated. As Ju-ichi walks me to the temple gate I awkwardly present him with the traditional gift I had been advised to give monks at the temple. As no one had actually said what that gift should be, I spent hours sweating over what one gives a Japanese monk who has forsaken all worldly goods. The internet counseled some perplexing and temple un-friendly national gifts like frozen steak, cufflinks and imported scotch, and in the end I decided on a tin of traditional English toffee.

We go through the gift-giving motions of refusal and insistence before he finally takes the box from me and a cab pulls up. We wish each other luck and goodbyes, knowing we’ll never meet again. My cab pulls away and the giant cedars recede into the distance as tiredness suddenly sets in along with that peculiar feeling of having lived a month in the space of a day. I can only take my hat off to Ju-ichi and his 200 colleagues for whom a year here might even feel like half a century.

Cruising the Bosphorus

National Geographic Traveler

CAPTAIN MEHMET CLIMBS UP ON DECK and hands me a beer. It’s a wind-down moment: he’s just steered our schooner through the precarious currents around the promontory of Akıntı Burnu, and now he’s leaving the plain sailing up to to one of his numerous more youthful crew. Although the evening waters are relatively calm on this summer evening, the apparent serenity of the tide can be dangerously deceiving: currents around this particular stretch of water can reach up to five knots in the worst conditions, and are legendary among sea dogs in the area.

For my part, I feel like a latter-day Cleopatra, propped up by my elbows on a mass of cushions provided by one of Mehmet’s boys to protect my delicate rump from the hard wood of the deck. Soothed by the bottle of cold beer, I am being steered like a queen, feet-first, along one of the world’s most hotly-contested waterways; the Bosphorus.

This 34 kilometre channel, sparkling azure when the sun’s shining and a dark foreboding grey under overcast skies, connects the centre of Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara to the south with the Black Sea and Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Georgia to the north. Streaming past the palaces and mosques of Old Constantinople, it cleaves modern Istanbul in two, a natural continental divide separating Europe and Asia.

It’s 7pm and the light is beginning to fade. Istanbul’s archaic pandemonium is behind us, the Bosphorus stretches generously ahead. We are sailing close to the European shore and I can see fishing rods in sillhouette against the darkeneing sky as men stand solitary or gather in groups of three, four and five to watch their lines with unwavering composure. Fishing is the strait’s oldest tradition and was for centuries the sole livelihood of Greek, Turkish and even Albanian villages that lined the shore from Constantinople to the Black Sea. Today it’s the favourite passtime of scores of Turks who spend their mornings, afternoons and evenings routinely casting baited lines into the water below.

I’m jolted out of my regal repose by the sight of a levithian hunk of steel coursing towards with the stern severity of an unstoppable funeral march. I spin round to see the captain and his young crew relatively nonplussed by the sight of the bohemoth oil tanker that just rounded the headland and appeared to be smack in the middle of our course. One of the 5,000 oil tankers annually that make the journey to and from the oil fields of the Black Sea, it’s hardly a rare sight; still, we darken in the shadow of its giant hull and rock madly on its wake.

The captain is unpeturbed. He’s been navigating the strait for years. For him, it’s a companion, an adversary and a kindred spirit. He knows each cape, bay and peninsula by heart; every erratic swirl and eddy is inscribed in his extensive mental log. Aparently, I’m in safe hands.

“The Bosphorus has two main currents,” he tells me, miming the movements with his hands. “There’s a surface current that flows from the Black Sea towards the city, and a deeper one underneath that moves in the other direction”. The lower one is so strong that legend tells of fishermen who used to put down their nets to harness its power to propel them against the force of the surface current.

I met the equable captain quite by chance, walking to Arnavutköy from the neighbouring village of Kuruçeşme. He was sat on the rear deck of his schooner drinking tea under a giant ‘for rent’ sign. On the boat next to him, two men were struggling to attach a satellite dish to the vessel’s sterm pulpit while a third was signalling to them from inside the cabin as to the clarity of the signal as a football game buzzed into life on his TV screen. Mehmet noticed my amusement at the farcical sight and smilingly lowered a gangplank for me to board his boat. Within minutes we had sealed a plan for an evening’s cruise along the strait.

Mehmet’s sailer is one of dozens moored along sections of the stunning 7km stretch of coast road that runs from the village of Kuruçeşme all the way up to Emirgan on the European shore of the Bosphorus. Vessels of all shapes and classes bob shoulder to shoulder, innocent of their vast social differences. Decrepit fishing boats loaded with swathes of orange netting partially submerged in seawater puddles on their wooden floors and invigorated by a coat of spring paint nestle next to grandeoise fibreglass yachts whose shining white sterns bob and bounce off the cut-off tyres tied with thick rope to the concrete walkway.

It’s ironic that I am sat at one of the most romantic tables along the Bosphorus and my date for the evening is an A5 spiral bound notebook. Nonetheless, I’m having the time of my life. The restaurant, Körfez is one of Istanbul’s best kept secrets; a restaurant nestled into a bay between the villages of Kanlıca and Anadolu Hisarı on the Asian shore, and a favourite among the city’s well-heeled fish lovers. Diners are ferried across to this remote location by way of a private shuttle that runs from the castle of Rumeli Hisarı on the European side, sailing under the stars and the giant metal underbelly of the second Bosphorus bridge. The whole experience is indisputably spellbinding, a must-do for any visitor to Istanbul.

Waiters with large mezze trays balanced on one shoulder weave their way through a sea of brass-buttoned blazers and designer dresses with calamari, shrimp and scallop starters to offer their clientele. When asked what they recommend for a main dish, the answer is instantaneous: “the sea bass.” And so follows a flurry of action as the entire fish encrusted in a shell of sea salt is brought to the side of your table and set alight before being hammered from its casing and served on your plate. It’s a lot of fish for me and my notebook, but I’ll willingly attest to the fact that its among the best I’ve ever tasted.

This is the life, I think. It’s not hard to see why the Bosphorus is popular with so many Istanbullus looking for a break from the city. In fact, these shores that run the entire length of the strait are all considered part of Istanbul, and are easily accessible from the centre of town by car or ferry. And still, it’s far enough away to afford some greenery, silence, good food and stunning views of the variety that I’m contemplating from my waterside seat in Körfez. This particular restaurant may be catering for the high-end crowd, but between here and the Black Sea there is something for every pocket: from $10 Sunday family outings to the far-flung Genoese castle at Anadolu Kavağı, or a $1,000 night on the tiles for a gaggle of heiresses at one of the notorious Bosphorus super-clubs. One of which happens to be my next stop.

The spectacle of a giant crystal chandelier hanging over my head in the open night sky momentarily distracts my attention from my hard-fought mission to the bar. Armed with only my bare elbows, I’m pushing my way through the thick crowd of jetset revellers clutching flamboyant cocktails and displaying for the world to see how Istanbul’s upper crust really live it up. Caravaggio himself would marvel at the composition of the richly-loaded fruit plates adorning the private tables to the side of the club, while anyone who believes Turkey is a country blanketed by conservatism will have their eyes opened by the scantily clad young girls shaking their well-toned booty in skimpy D&G dresses.

This is Reina, waterside nightclub extraordinaire, home to no less than ten outdoor restaurants and a large central dance floor, and domain of Istanbul’s glitterati; the rich, famous and fabulous make this extraordinary Bosphorus nightspot their summer haunt. Getting in is not easy; near-impossible for single men unaccompanied by women, and a crapshoot for anybody arriving without a reservation or the bling factor of their own private yacht.

In contrast to the rustic quaintness of its fishing villages, the Bosphorus is also no stranger to shows of extravagance. In fact, its shores have been colonized by bling for centuries now. In the later days of the Ottoman Empire, pashas, viziers and wealthy families living inside the cramped conditions of the rapidly growing and condensing Istanbul looked to the Bosphorus for relief. One by one, houses, mansions and palaces began to go up along the shoreline that had previously been the domain of a handful of fishing villages. And so was born the yalı, the seaside mansion that is the architectural progeny of the Bosphorus. Typically a multi-storey house made from finely worked wood built at the water’s edge, this structural tradition flourished along the waterway from the end of the 17th century onwards. More than 620 yalıs were built over the years on the Bosphorus shore, and many still survive today, having been renovated into restaurants, pricey boutique hotels and homes for the city’s elite.

And then there are the ornate palaces, reminders of the final vestiges of the Ottoman Empire: Dolmabahçe, the last residence of the Sultans, built near the mouth of the Bosphorus in a flamboyant French style; the baroque Beylerbeyi, an erstwhile guest-house for esteemed visitors of the state; the compact Küçüksu, originally a summer house for the Sultans; all are jaw-dropping in their unrestrained opulence. All three are open to visitors, who shuffle in tour groups around its decaying interiors in plastic-covered feet with a kind of reverent silence you feel is kept in check for fear of waking the dead.

If Beverly Hills moved to the Bosphorus, it’d be thrilled to settle in Bebek. One of Istanbul’s more upscale neighbourhoods, Bebek is a hotbed for ladies who lunch, professionals who coffee, and yuppies who aperitif. Home to posh specialist bakeries, delicatessens and a pint-sized branch of the local swanky department store Beymen, Bebek can also boast what is widely recognized as The Best Starbucks in Istanbul, Turkey, and possibly even the world. The coffee shop’s reputation is entirely based on the strength of its stunning view across the waters of the Bosphorus, and I’ve sat there for hours myself, nursing a mocha frapp and staring riveted at the tankers criss-crossing the strait as streams of excited high-school kids chattering in Turkish flowed around me at a steady rate.

Arriving at Bebek on Captain Mehmet’s schooner just after sunset, I disembark and cross the little park to see the lights coming on inside Lucca, the hippest after-work destination for the more affluent local office force. The sound of popping corks marks the beginning of a night’s session, and the bar is fast filling with suited yuppie-types getting ready to decompress after a day behind the desk.

At that same moment, something completely different occurs: the fluorescent tubes of the waterside Bebek Mosque just across the road buzz into life. The ear-splitting sound of the muezzin’s stentorian call to prayer siphoned through tinny loudspeakers temporarily drowns out Lucca’s jazzy lounge soundtrack. For the devout, this is Maghrib Adhan, the twilight call to prayer that brings scores of men, likely local shop assistants and waiters from the surrounding cafes and restaurants, filing inside the mosque and prostrating themselves in unison over their prayer mats in the direction of Mecca.

As a city, Istanbul has an incredible propensity for the snapshot; a passing instant that contains all the divergent elements of society, belief and culture in one single pitch. This evening in Bebek is one of them.

Less than one kilometre downstream in Arnavutköy, the vibe is a little different. The lights are coming on one by one in Abracadabra, a quirky seedbed of experimental cooking set over the four floors of a burgundy-coloured yalı overlooking the Bosphorus. “We’re here for the people who are tired of the chic, expensive, pretentious places,” owner and chef Dilara Erbay tells me from behind several hanging garlands of garlic and chilli peppers. Her hair is wrapped in a blue scarf and her skin covered in a thin film of moisture, a mixture of steam from the boiling pots and her own perspiration as she rushes around the kitchen of this cosy eatery whose open cooking spaces and pine trimmings have all the intimacy of a domestic dining room. “My husband and I wanted to create a homely, artistic and joyful venue,” she explains, “just like our home.”

Weekend dinner times and Sunday brunch see Abracadabra fill out with clientele come to feast on Dilara’s distinctive creative recipes; singular dishes like mihlama, a black sea region fondue, or deep fried snails in a hot shrimp sauce. The favourite is the ‘1’ börek, a pastry made with pastrami and dried fruit and served with a rosehip sauce, washed down with a tamarind-flavoured drink that can be fortified with a shot or two of vodka.

Dilara moved Abracadabra from Beyoğlu in the centre of Istanbul to Arnavutköy about a year ago, and hasn’t looked back. Business is booming, despite the financial crisis, and the this creaky 100-year-old yalı that was once home to an Armenian family is the perfect setting for her inventive and wholesome cuisine. For confirmation, you need look no further than the charming scene just out of the window: outside, by a small white lighthouse on the tip of Arnavutköy’s promonitory, a group of boys are throwing themselves into the water. One by one, they let the burly current sweep them upstream, where they hoist themselves up dripping onto the cement jetty and repeat the process tirelessly with ebullient shouts and screams.

Across the Bosphorus in tiny Kanlıca on the Asian shore, the pace of life slows down by yet another few notches: a smudge on the map, the village consists of a small ferry landing flanked by two wooden cafes at the water’s edge and a square containing a miniature mosque built by Ottoman wunder-architect Sinan in the 16th century. It’s just past lunchtime, and a couple of old men in flatcaps are sitting watchfully on a bench at the waters’ edge, their fishing rods bobbing in the Bosphorus while they smoke and exchange the odd word. I ask one of them about the day’s catch and he cheerfully shakes his head: “We lost a sea bass a earlier this afternoon,” he tells me. “Now it’s quiet. There’ll probably be nothing till evening.” Nonetheless, he returns dutifully to the vigil of his line.

To Istanbullus, Kanlıca is a place synonymous with one thing: yoghurt. Heading straight for the wooden cafe perched right next to the boat dock of this tiny village, I beeline for a table by the window for maximum float-on-water effect. The tall, white-shirted waiter brings me the menu, a dog-eared one-pager cataloguing variations on size and sweetness of yoghurt and the odd side dish to accompany. I order a medium sized option with extra sugar and a karışık tost, a hot cheese and pepperoni sandwich that’s more ubiquitous on the streets of Istanbul than even the time-honoured kebab. My passion for this most unsophisticated local snack is one of my best-kept secrets.

Here I meet Elif, a teaching assistant at the city’s Bilgi university who flees to Kanlıca at the first opportunity for a little respite from the urban mayhem. “Here you can enjoy a lifestyle that doesn’t suffer from over-commercialisation,” she says. Gesturing towards the European shore in the direction of Bebek and the nightclub Reina, she adds, “The European side became the easy part of the lifestyle package for modern yuppies because it’s so close to the modern residential and business districts.” She has a point. Istanbul’s European side is where the action is. With the exception of a couple of historical and commercial neighbourhoods like Üsküdar and Kadıköy, the Asian half of this bi-continental metropolitan sprawl is far more suburban in character. And at the edge of the Bosphorus it’s positively serene.

Looking at the ferry timetable, I see that the next public boat to service this little outpost isn’t due for another hour and a half, so I decide to walk down the coast towards Anadolu Hisarı, an early Ottoman castle about a kilometre down the coast from here. It was built in 1390, in the days when this land was still under Byzantine rule, and the domes of Christianity had not yet been replaced by the soaring minarets of Islam. The Ottomans had repeatedly failed to take the well-protected Constantinople, and the construction of two castles at either side of the Bosphorus’ narrowest point was part of their subsequently successful strategy to control trade in and out of the city, thus creating a commercial seige and weakening the Byzantines into eventual defeat.

The remains of the castle at Anadolu Hisarı are scant, but a walk around its tumbledown ramparts, and a stroll around its quiet harbour, stopping in at the small fish restaurant and continuing on to Küçüksu Palace, a few hundred metres downstream, is a lofty and reflective afternoon’s activity.

It’s now completely dark as Captain Mehmet’s wooden boat creaks into position at its mooring spot and his lively crew jump up and secure ropes and fenders for another night docked outside the village of Kuruçeşme. The village lights have blinked into life, winking tungsten sentinels heralding the advent of another evening along the strait.

The sea air blows onto the shore and ignites orange the coals on the tiny makeshift barbequeues grilling the day’s catch, which is to be served up in crusty bread rolls as balık ekmek. It’s a wildly popular snack that Istanbullus associate with the sea air and the squawking seagulls of their home, and I buy one, despite not being in the least bit hungry. It’s a symbolic act.

Somewhere in the distance are the glittering explosions of a firework display, most likely marking a wedding. To my far right, the fairy-lit Boğaziçi Köprüsü, the 36-year-old Bosphorus suspension bridge, sweeps for 1,500 metres into the darkness, connecting with the fronting Asian shore whose undulating obsidian landscape is layered over the lime-infused charcoal of a darkening full-moon night. The peace in the air is tangible and it’s hard to believe we’re only a 20 minute ride along the coast road back to the traffic-saturated chaos of Taksim Square and the tourist throngs in Sultanahmet.

What contrasts. I think of Mercan Dede, a local musician here and Sufi aficionado whom I spoke to some time ago about his love of the Bosphorus. He told me “Istanbul is where the angel and the devil walk hand in hand.” Tonight, on the inky waters of the heaving strait, giddy with the swell of the water and a stomach over-full with fish, I think I know what he means.

On Kipling’s Trail

National Geographic Traveler

The tiger was close: a fact that had finally managed to pierce the clouds of my pharmaceutical fog. Having just bolted at gut-churning speed over a series of dirt tracks in an eight-seater, open-top Gypsy, our ranger Kaustubh suddenly cut the engine and brought the vehicle to a stop next to the source of the noise we had been chasing. A tribe of Langur monkeys were going nuts, jumping between branches and emitting the shrieks and growls of their alarm call. It was a warning signal to other potential prey that there was a predator very close by and a clear cross-species message to me that there was ample cause to be very afraid.

 ‘They’re seeing something we can’t,’ said Kaustubh with Jurassic Park-like intensity. ‘It’s either a leopard or a tiger.’

I stood up to try and dispel the sleepiness. I was learning the drowsy way that drugs do not enhance the safari experience. At least not the kind of drugs I was taking. My last-ditch, self-administered dose of Diphenhydramine, a multi-faceted miracle med sold as variously as an antihistamine, an antiemetic and a sleep medication, was giving me all the benefits of bumpy-drive nausea relief but also adding intense somnolence into the bargain. Such were the perils of an adventure holiday mixed with chronic and embarrassing motion sickness: all afternoon, my husband had been prodding me as I dozed off in my seat while we passed a host of once-in-a-lifetime wildlife sightings including Spotted and Sambar deer, wild boars, peacocks, a jackal and several ominous birds of prey in a holding pattern overhead. Now, through the diphenhydramine haze, I was faintly aware of a mounting buzz stemming from the anticipation that seven hours of bumpy off-roading was about to come to a dramatic crescendo. This mixed with the sobering awareness that, should the drama become too intense, we were most vulnerably exposed in an open vehicle with not so much as a water pistol to protect us from the jaws of a hungry Shere Khan.

The Pench National Park – situated in the Seoni district in the middle of India across the state lines of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – is Jungle Book territory. These are the forests where the contentious poet and literary voice of the British Overseas Empire, Rudyard Kipling, had his man-cub Mowgli fostered by a family of wolves. As a child raised more on the Disneyfied version of Kipling’s tale, and as an Anglo-Indophile adult fascinated by the author’s accounts of the British Raj, I had long harboured a desire to visit the place where men and beasts mingled in an all-singing, dancing, morally instructive kind of way. And though in seven hours we hadn’t seen as much as the swipe of a wolf’s tail (nor that of a snake nor a bear, not to mention the elusive large cats), there was one group of characters that were out in force: the screeching grey Langurs, the reprehensible Bandar-Log, the Monkey People cast as evil, dirty, shameless outcasts and reviled by Mowgli’s mentors, Baloo and Bagheera.

Maybe it was the drugs, but looking at the little guys up close, it seemed like Kipling’s was a harsh assessment. As far I could see, the Bandar-Log were a pretty cool bunch: they hung out in groups, often clinging to one another in pairs, grooming, fiddling with stuff on the ground, eating leaves up in the trees and shaking the branches enough to send a few pickings down for the deer who waited expectantly below. In addition to this, the Langurs played a vital role in every other paying human’s raison d’être in the park, namely a much-coveted glimpse of a large, striped, carnivorous cat.

The tiger-spotters need all the help they can get: like most safari parks in India designed to simultaneously protect and make a buck from the animal, Pench is home to a mere smattering of them. Its 881 square kilometres houses only about 60 of the cats, around 12 of which live in the much smaller area apportioned to visitors. It works out at roughly one tiger per 10 square kilometres, which, when I did the maths (about six hours into the drive, as it slowly began to dawn on me that the odds were very much against us), turned out to be a feline needle in a huge jungle haystack. Still, our guides did an excellent job of remaining animated and buoyant throughout. This game of safari hide and seek that was their bread and butter was actually also their passion, and as soon as I verified this, the chase took on another dimension.

 To a punter, the jungle seems like a hostile place: it’s dense and dry and rife with teaks, frankincense, banyans and the ghost-trees whose sinister white branches radiate like the fingers of the undead through the otherwise greeny-brown vegetation. All I could see around us were vertical stripes, bark piled on bark and lots of foliage. How could someone pick out anything through all this visual noise? The trick, as Baloo taught Mowgli, and Kaustubh subsequently tried to teach me, was to learn junglespeak.

It was a language in which Kaustubh and Subash, a professional tracker riding up front with him, were highly proficient, both aurally and orally; after every few minutes of trundling over rough, bile-invoking hillocks in the heavy-footed Gypsy, Kaustubh stopped the car and switched off the engine (a mercy call for my nausea). He and Subash rose out of their seats and listened while scanning the minute gaps between trees for the tiniest sign of movement. The moment was so still and they were listening so hard, I felt like I could almost see their ears twitching. I tried to do the same: to me the noise of the jungle was the backdrop of birdsong and other unknown sounds that comprised the cacophony of feral gobbledegook. To the guides, however, it was a complete syntax, ready to be deciphered, followed and more impressively, replicated. Kaustubh had an extensive and quite entertaining repertoire of animal sounds, from Langur cries to various birdcalls and even tiger noises. As he methodically identified and repeated each sound to me, I started to recognise the noises myself. The mating cries and alarm calls were the most easily discernible: deep hoots emanating from the monkeys turned out to be the calling card of a primate in search of some tail. (It was a sound I initially took to be one of distress, a misreading that leads to me suspect some psycho-sadistic element in the animals’ sexual makeup.) The monkeys’ actual alarm call sounded more like an old man hocking up a loogie, while the spotted deer made a noise like a deep klaxon. The rhythms were quite particular – long periods of silence followed by a barely perceptible ruckus among some distant trees that jolted our guides back into action. Kaustubh restarted the Gypsy and we sped off in the direction of the disturbance, though again and again we kept losing the thread of the chase.

Still, Kaustubh (or KT as he had us call him in the national tradition of reducing to acronyms names that were challenging or tiring to pronounce) was skilled at softening the disappointment after a false tiger lead by way of maintaining a contagious zeal for every other aspect of the park: from the shrubs and smallest flowers to the benign deer that stared out from among the trees before scuttling off at the first sound of a motor engine. He brought us to an abrupt stop to point out a tiny owl camouflaged against patchwork grey bark, an osprey perched on a dead tree protruding from a watering hole, a drongo sitting on a branch above our heads or a green bee-eater, barely visible on a far-off fence post.

After the intense commotion, the Langurs started to lose interest. The noises they were making died down and it no longer sounded like we were visiting an emphysema ward.

‘That means whatever it is, it’s moving away from us,’ Kaustubh said, trying to follow the monkeys’ gazes as they slowly scattered off into the green murk. ‘It’s probably headed for the watering hole. Let’s go.’

The house where Rudyard Kipling spent his earliest years is hidden among a clutch of dense greenery in the grounds of the JJ School of Art in Mumbai. Unknown to most of the city’s residents, it’s an elegant, green wooden structure with slender columns and dispersed latticework. Under the close scrutiny of the art school’s security guard, who is bemused by visits from the occasional intrepid Kipling acolyte, I peered in through darkened windows to see evidence of modest habitation despite the general exterior air of neglect. A bust of the author’s head is situated on a plinth on the front porch with a plaque that wrongly states he was born in this house (actually it was constructed a few months later, in 1866). Due to his father’s posting as a professor of sculpture at the school, it was here that he spent a his pre-school years, frolicking through the tropical shrubbery with his little sister and in the care of their Indian ayah, whose vernacular language initially came more naturally to the young Kipling than English. In his biography, the author refers to this period as a kind of unbounded Dream Time when even such horrors as finding a child’s severed hand in the back garden, did little to detract from the magic of innocence.

The current state of Kipling’s house in Mumbai is in some ways representative of a wider ambivalence towards the author. Depending on which side of the fence you fall, either he was an imperialist, racist and orientalist in the worse sense of Edward Said’s definition of the terms, or he was a devoted product of India’s great melting pot with an insuperable fascination for the country that spawned him.

1860s India was a curious place for its population of Anglo-Indians: the Colonial Administration was really digging in its heels following a national uprising in 1857, and expat life was often difficult, distrustful and downright hot. Those who could escaped the worst of the heat by heading to the hill stations in the foothills of the Himalayas where, reinvigorated by the mountain air, the Brits bred all manner of scandal within high-society circles. Kipling, who from the age of 16 worked as a journalist first in Lahore, then in Allahabad, was witness to this strange society in summer exile – whose capital was the very English-looking town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh – and wrote copious stories of its exploits in a volume called Plain Tales from the Hills.

Despite earnest claims to the contrary by locals invested in pushing the Kipling buck as far as they can, the writer never actually visited the Seoni Hills. All the detail he included in his Jungle Book stories came, as he himself stated, from something called the Sterndale’s Gazetteer, and in fact he didn’t write the Jungle Books until five years after he left India. If it wasn’t clear to readers already, it needs to be reiterated that The Jungle Book is a work of pure imagination.  Which made sense. If not, where were the bears, wolves and lumbering elephants?

About 10km from the entrance of the park, the mud-and-brick village of Amajhiri straddles a concrete road that disappears into dust at its edges where it meets the rounded whitewashed walls of the village compound houses. The doorways and courtyards are spotlessly clean and still bear the fresh rake-marks of a broom’s bristle. We were there on the invitation of Raj. Born and bred in Amajhiri, father of one-and-counting Raj works at the Baghvan Safari Resort, the place where we were staying. Upon our arrival there, he was assigned to us as a general granter of wishes and organiser of whims, as well as local oracle. As such, I had one huge favour to ask of him: could we take a few hours break from the safari and go and check out his village?

Tea on Raj’s mum’s front porch was enamel-strippingly sweet, and served in the midst of the dozen or so children that had gathered around us to eye the proceedings with cautious curiosity. A flock of geese waddled down the high street, while a gang of kids (*baby goats*) teetered nearby on shaky, barely functional legs. Kaustubh, who was accompanying us on our visit, sighed.

‘I’d love to live in a place like this,’ he said, holding one of the baby goats up into the nape of his neck. ‘It feels like such ideal living.’

Perhaps. But now, as in Kipling’s time, village life also had its drawbacks: on the way back that night, as the Gypsy’s giant treads threw the road’s dust up into the beam of our headlights, Raj recounted a couple of incidents of latter-day tiger sightings that were too close to home: one night he actually saw the eyes of a tiger reflected in his motorbike’s headlight, just metres away in a field. He was understandably less than cool with the idea of a Shere Khan padding around the peripheries of his own habitat.

In Kipling’s day, tigers were for hunting. The British Raj’s insuperable taste for gunning down the cats has carried into modern-day poaching, since China especially provides a hungry market for Indian tiger body parts. A century ago, India was home to around 42,000 tigers; today there are a mere 1,800. But even this number may be too large, given that the animals’ territories and the corridors between them are also shrinking and altogether disappearing.

Tigers are solitary creatures. They live alone, hunt alone and only really get together with other tigers for mating or child-rearing purposes. The rest of it is a very unsociable game, to the point of hostility: if a tiger catches another on its own territory, it’s liable to fight its rival to the death. And if it is pushed out of its hunting grounds, it will wander into human settlements and pounce on whatever it can find: a cow, a goat, a dog, or – if particularly hungry – a person. (At the time of writing, there’s a hunt on for a man-eater who’s picked off ten humans to date around the peripheries of the Corbett Tiger Reserve in the northern state of Uttarkhand.)

That night, we slept on the Machan (a rooftop terrace) of our bungalow at the Baghvan lodge. It was a daring opportunity to bed down under the stars and foliage of the jungle within the relative safety of a netted, curtained tree house.

‘Are you sure tigers can’t jump this high?’ I asked my husband as we both clutched at the hot water bottle placed between the chilly sheets. It wasn’t an altogether ridiculous question, given Raj’s story and Kaustubh’s earlier disclosure of a recent photo of a tiger paw print in the dust just metres away from our room.

The tigers were always close – but when you were actually looking for one, they were nowhere to be seen.

We arrived at the watering hole, and I was still toting a little tiger anxiety. On the way, we had spotted an enormous paw print in the dust, as well as the hair-curling sight of a set of claw marks ripping through the bark of a tree that a tiger had been using as a scratching post and had left like a beastly mark of Zorro to chart its passage.

Two other Gypsies were already pulled up on the same spot, having deciphered the same set of signs as we had. You could have cut the silence with a knife. Kaustubh was standing like a sensory beacon on the Gypsy’s bonnet, raising and lowering his binoculars and scanning the sound spectrum for the slightest rustle of a nearby kitty.

Then the apotheosis: KT shot out a finger in the direction of the trees in front of us, a gesture that carried in a silent wave over to the other two vehicles. In the tiny gap between the trees about fifty metres ahead, I made out a flash of a pattern that flickered between the sedentary barks. But those weren’t stripes; they were spots.

Kaustubh fixed the animal with his binoculars. ‘It’s a leopard.’ He gasped like it was his first sighting.

I thought I’d be disappointed; Bagheera in the place of Shere Khan. Somehow seeing a tiger was supposed to be the point of the whole thing. But as we watched the leopard move cautiously through the forest, it was like following a vision. And when he came to the roadside, only a few feet away from the Gypsy, I felt like I was in the presence of royalty. He put one foot very tentatively in front of the other as he felt out the ground of the road and slowly crossed, never for a second taking his eyes off us. I completely forgot about the diphenhydramine, my urge to vomit, and even my fear of large cats charging the Gypsy; all I could do was watch Bagheera, (‘as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo’, but thankfully this time not ‘as reckless as the wounded elephant’), as he receded into the distance on the other side of the road, and out towards the watering hole.

And then he was gone and all that was left behind was a bushed void of satisfaction. Everybody exhaled and it was all we could do not to high-five each other. The sky began to darken as we trundled our way back out of the park and I felt the last traces of the diphenhydramine give way to a more lofty euphoria. Some of the Bandar Log lined the trail and eyeballed us nonchalantly as we returned back out to the realm of the humans, of the rectangular fields, the villages, the fires and fences, the domesticated dogs and cows and herds of buffalo also slowly making their way back home.

A chill prickled the back of my neck as I gauged that Shere Khan was still out there. We hadn’t found him, but I figured he knew where we were, and that he would decide when and where he wanted to be found.

Drool Britannia

National Geographic Traveler

Globally ridiculed for the likes of its greasy fish and chips and soggy scampi, England has long been a nation with a severely deflated culinary mojo. But in the last few years, there have been rumblings of revolution in the air, led mostly by a generation of young chefs and restaurateurs bent on reviving the best of the Olde English kitchen and the art of nose-to-tail eating. Vanessa Able hits the food trail in London to discover what this revolution tastes like and whether it entails more than just entrails.

IT’S AN HOUR BEFORE SERVICE at St John’s restaurant in London’s Smithfields, and a London Porker, also known as a Middle White pig, is getting a shave. Cleansed and disemboweled, it lies peacefully with a half-smile on the counter top while the last remaining strands of black wiry hair are scraped from its ears, cheeks and snout. The sound of the knife blade scouring the skin sets my teeth on edge, but the kitchen’s porcine barber, a fly-in American chef from New York’s Gramercy Tavern called Ben, is oblivious to the rasping noise. He picks the beast up by grabbing all four trotters and lovingly turns it on its side, exposing the giant slit down its middle from where all its intestines have been removed.

“This is the glamorous part,” Ben remarks dryly, adding: “I don’t even shave myself, and here I am shaving a pig.”

Set in a former smokehouse around the corner from London’s largest meat market at Smithfields, the St John restaurant has become a London institution. Extolled by ‘Kitchen Confidential’ chef Anthony Bourdain as “an eye-opening, inspiring, thoroughly pleasurable yet stripped down adventure in dining,” the place opened in 1994 as a no-frills establishment serving up good, simple British food. Since then, it has risen to become a symbol of what is being called the revival of English cuisine.

Yes – English cuisine. No, it’s not an oxymoron, and there’ll be no sniggering at the back, please. It’s true that for centuries Britain has been lampooned the world over for the pitiful state of its national dishes: food critic Bill Marsano once wrote that, “the British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal.” Comedian Jackie Mason joked “Britain is the only country in the world where the food is more dangerous than the sex,” while more recently, former French President Jacques Chirac somewhat un-diplomatically observed of the British, “You cannot trust people who have such bad cuisine. It is the country with the worst food after Finland.”

Ouch. And as an Englishwoman, it hurts my national pride to admit that such derision has not been not entirely unjustified over the last few decades: after all, think of a good British meal, and what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Most likely the cholesterol-and-fat banquet of a full English breakfast: runny eggs, singed bacon, oily sausage, blackened tomato and (ugh!) tepid baked beans.

Over at St John, however, the revolution is in full swing. There’s not a tepid baked bean in sight as the barman chalks up today’s ‘Elevenses’ menu, a bill of bar snacks: Welsh Rarebit; Bone Marrow Toast; Snails and Oakleaf; Eccles Cake; Mackerel; Globe Artichokes; Lamb, Bread and Green Sauce; Peach and Champagne Jelly. Next door in the office, the lunch docket is rolling off the printer: Rolled Pig’s Spleen and Bacon; Venison Saddle, Beetroot and Pickled Walnut; Grouse; Stinking Bishop and Potatoes; Chitterlings; Lamb Sweetbreads; Smoked Eel; and of course the shaved and roasted Middlewhite, served with marrow and parsley sauce.

You’ll be forgiven for feeling like you’ve fallen down the culinary rabbit hole into a medieval English cookhouse: St John espouses a vigorously imaginative style of cooking that goes beyond the fine cuts and filets to include the whole animal – ears, cheeks, trotters and all- onto the menu, drawing from old English traditions and recipes that were based on seasonality and thrift.

Over in the kitchen, a tray of roasted shallots is being pulled out of the oven. One of the chefs eagerly explains to me their destiny: “you get a piece of toast, and you squeeze the shallots out of their skin while they’re still warm. They’re nice and sweet: you spread them on the toast and eat them with goats curd and chopped mint. Such a simple thing, and it just works,” he enthuses, feeding me a spoonful of the goat curd to demonstrate his point.

Simplicity is one of the buzzwords of the revolution. This became outstandingly clear to me after an evening’s ‘research’ spent hemorrhaging my wallet in the company of stiff suited businessmen at 24, glitzy restaurant of celebrity wunder-chef and self-proclaimed ‘ambassador of British cuisine’, Gary Rhodes. The self-conscious minimalist serving of the food (try 3 small lettuce leaves passed off as a £10 salad) and the stuffy, forced-fancy atmosphere (I felt like I was sitting on a spike all night), combined with the SWAT-style security check upon entering the building all combined to feel so unnecessary.

Here, among the whitewashed walls of St John, where everything from the phrasing of the menu to the actual preparation of the food, unpretentiousness is next to godliness. The idea being that the less fuss that is injected into geometric chopping, fussy presentation and complicated sauces, the more the diner’s attention focuses on the inherent quality of the foodstuffs they are ingesting.

Sounds sensible, and so pragmatically English. But head chef Chris Gillard, fingers black with the sticky tar-like goo of cuttlefish ink, quickly corrects me: “Food here is not so much English as it is Fergus.

The Fergus he is referring to is Fergus Henderson, the restaurant’s chef-founder who has been extolled as one of the frontrunners of the movement to invigorate English cooking. Famously self-effacing and commonsensical, Fergus usually shuns all such accolade, and yet his bold no-nonsense approach to cooking English food has inspired a new generation of chefs in the country, including Chris.

Fergus, whose battle with Parkinson’s disease has cut down his kitchen hours over recent years, is not in the restaurant today. I’m disappointed not to be able to meet him, and so I start grilling Chris about him. I ask him how he finds the experience of working with Fergus and he replies, “inspiring”, citing his love of simplicity and “passion and love of a good lunch” as what set him apart.

“It probably comes from the fact that he never had a formal training; he never learned to cut things into cubes,” Chris explains. He points over at a pot of boiling carrots: “Those are going to be served as they are,” he says. “Why cut them?” He studies my face for a sign of recognition. “Does that make sense?”

Yes, I suppose it does. Fergus’ cookbook, “Nose to Tail Eating – A Kind of British Cooking” contains all sorts of pearls of wisdom of this uncomplicated, all-inclusive nature including how to eat radishes at their peak and theories of jugged hare, as well as the skills of making everything from pressed potatoes and mushy courgettes to the more daring deep-fried lambs brains and pig’s cheek and tongue.  

Which is precisely what I’m tucking into just over a mile away on Commercial Road in Spitalfields. This east-end neighbourhood has recently undergone a facelift after years as one of the city’s more salubrious areas, and is today home to St John’s other branch, Bread and Wine. This joint is considered the more casual of the two, with the menu featuring smaller dishes, better fit for sharing. The lunch list today includes pigeon, smoked sprats and puffballs, but being in adventurous mood, I am more excited by the pig’s cheeks. They lie before me on a white plate, a three-layered pear-shape of tongue, cheek fat and skin.

This particular pig doesn’t seem to have had as good a shave as its counterpart in Smithfields.

“Eeeuwww, it’s all hairy!” exclaims my 19-year-old godson and dining companion, whose eyes nearly popped out of his head when I ordered the dish to come with an ox heart salad. An architecture student, Alex is by no means a culinary heathen – in fact I’m constantly surprised by the delicacy of his teenage palate. And yet here we are, two children of the British Isles, born and raised on British soil, neither of us having ever sampled half of these long-forgotten delicacies our country has to offer.

Offal has always played a major part at the British dinner table, especially in the north of the country. The UK has seen a staggering rise of 67% in the sales of offal since 2003, a figure that shows suggests a return to old traditions that took a particularly hard blow with the modernization of eating habits of the past 50 years, and during the mad cow disease crisis in the 1990s when a lot of offal, especially cows brains, was banned.

I’ll admit I’m amazed to discover that the pig’s cheeks are extremely tasty, though the alarm bells of guilt do ring out with every mouthful of hairy fat. The ox-heart, mercifully un-fatty, is sliced into thin strips, slightly charred and served with a watercress and pickled walnut salad. I expected a novelty flavour requiring some kind of acquired taste, but it is, in fact, delicious. Even Alex is a convert…

“It’s not for the squeamish,” warns Tom Pemberton, presumably catching the perturbed look on my face as I peer into a simmering pot of pigs’ heads. There are four of them in total, turning and waving gently with the action of the boiling water with all the tormented dismay of a Hammer Horror. Tom reaches in with a knife to poke at the meat. “The bones are still in there. Look, there are the teeth,” he demonstrates by pulling back the now flaccid meat of the jowl to reveal a set of blackened gnashers.

Tom is making brawn. “It’s something people have often heard of, but they don’t know what it is,” he explains. “The meat is quite gelatinous, and you take it off after you’ve cooked it. It falls off very easily. Then you pack it into a terrine mould, straining the water that you cooked it in, but the jelly that comes from the bones sets and makes a terrine and that’s called brawn.”

Tom is the head chef and owner of the Hereford Road restaurant in Bayswater, and today he’s giving me a beginners guide to English kitchen essentials. Next up I’m shivering in the cold room of the prep area in the basement of the restaurant as he excitedly pulls various ingredients off the shelves to demonstrate the variety of his daily fare. Smoked eels hang off the edge of the rack next to a tray of Cornish mackerel and wild sea bass. On a lower shelf are the tiny, plucked bodies of wood pigeons and English quails, calves kidneys, the heart of a pig and a bunch of duck breasts that are being salted. Tom holds a pot of razor clams up to my face and one of them bulges out and lunges towards me, making me jump. “People find these a bit freaky,” Tom assures me, explaining that they have to be cooked alive for optimum freshness.

“It’s an interesting thing that in Britain everyone can cook a good pasta, but no one can make a good Shepherds Pie any more,” Tom laments as we sit among the white walls, wooden tables and red leather booths of his restaurant. “I started cooking in 1994, and the really popular thing then was a misnomer of ‘Modern British’, which wasn’t British at all but just a mixture of Italian and French.”

“People spoke about peasant Italian and French cooking with this kind of received knowledge, and you kind of felt like saying, ‘Well, hang on mate; you’re from Suffolk. You’ve only been to France once!’”

So is there a revival going on? Tom seems to think so. The sweetbreads, calf’s kidney, ox liver and deep-fried calf’s brain on the menu today hark back to his own roots: “As a child, I really liked offal, which,” he admits, “is unusual.” His father came from the north of England and was raised on a cheap and practical diet of tripe, kidneys and black pudding, which were very common household dishes before the rationing of the Second World War and the supermarket revolution in convenience and microwave meals that followed.

Tom particularly prides himself on his restaurant’s braised oxtail, positing that Hereford Road might be the only place in London that prepares the appendage whole. As far as he is concerned, the use of offal in the kitchen is not a novelty, but a cracker-barrel staple. “British food is simple and it gets to the point. I really like that side of it.”

There’s still room for schoolboy humour, however. It’s 3pm, the quiet hour just after a hectic lunch service and before preparation begins for dinner; I’m taking a break with the jocular Peter Woods, and we’re giggling over lamb’s testicles. “They taste very similar to sweetbreads,” he says, “very soft, very delicate, and slightly creamy…” and with that we both descend into chuckles. “They didn’t go down so well,” he recounts of one of his less popular dishes with a chortle. “I think it was the wording more than anything.”

Peter, who previously trained at the Savoy Hotel and Marco Pierre White’s Belvedere restaurant, is the head chef at The Northbank restaurant just next to London’s Millenium Bridge. Opened in 2007, it has a more formal, business-like air than the understated St Johns and Hereford Road restaurants, combined with a spectacular view of the Thames and the brown-brick behemoth that is the Tate Modern. Braised Beef Cheeks, Vegetable Wellington, Honey Roast Quail and Pork Belly are served on white tablecloths against a background of quirky, rather hypnotizing toile de jouy wallpaper depicting scenes of modern London.

Despite the darkness of the cloudy August sky shadowing St Paul’s Cathedral at our backs and the former residence of its architect Sir Christopher Wren just across the river, Peter reminds me that today is nonetheless the Glorious Twelfth (of August), otherwise known as the first day of grouse season. “And next month we’ll be getting pheasants and partridges,” he continues, enthused at the prospect, “but no oysters, not yet. You can only get oysters in months that end with an ‘r’.”

Seasonal cooking and local sourcing are the second and third commandments of the English cooking revival, and a subject that seems to light a fire in the eyes of every English chef that I talk to. It means that the menus are in constant flux, with ideas and dishes changing depending upon the time of year and what their local suppliers have in stock. All quite mind-boggling for a generation raised on supermarket imports that don’t think twice about eating asparagus at Christmas, or figs in the spring.

“It’s refreshing to see English chefs going back to a more traditional way of cooking and doing more research into what we’re using,” says Peter, as he leads me into the kitchen to show me a box of (in season) girolle mushrooms. “They’re lovely, real nice. Lovely, lovely mushrooms,” he eulogizes, almost a bit misty-eyed.

As emphasis shifts from exotic global ingredients to seasonal items grown on British soil, so local farming has also undergone a boost in recent years as demand for special gourmet ingredients has flourished. Farmers markets are burgeoning all over the country, but if you’re in London, then best place to start any hunt for local products is at one of the great city markets: Smithfields in Farringdon for meat, Billingsgate near Canary Wharf for fish, and the gorgeous Borough market at London Bridge for all that and more besides.

Locals will grumble (as locals are wont to do) that Borough Market has been overrun by tourists in recent years, but if anything the new wave of interest in the market and its products has helped to invigorate its original spirit. Set within a network of alleys and high-ceilinged warehouse-type spaces in the brown-brick backstreets of the city’s south bank, the market is a weekly convention. It’s an orgy of gourmet fare, with blackboards and hand-written signs at every few paces proclaiming venison, boar and pheasant pies, black pudding loaves, hot and spicy cider, Whitby cod and haddock, Isle of Manx kippers, Cumberland bacon and wild mushrooms, to name but a few.

Anyone skeptical of Britain’s cheese prowess should head down Park Street to Neal’s Yard Dairy for a mind-boggling selection of British cheeses. Heavy-duty shelves holding hefty cylinders of matured cheese line the walls in a shop where cheery, knowledgeable staff thrust pieces of cheddar or goat’s cheese at you, and hold lengthy court as to what’s in season, recommending the best cheeses of the month. The collection is impressive: 63 varieties in total, with only five sourced from outside the UK. It’s enough to make me want to roll out a Union Jack.

The word is spreading. You don’t even have to go out as far as the fields of East Anglia to feel the swelling consciousness about local sourcing. Chef Tom Aikens, who runs two restaurants in Chelsea, is a socially engaged cook who takes an active role in working with organizations like Project Dirt and Capital Growth who are aiming to create over 2,000 community food growing spaces in London by 2012, and End of the Line, a campaign aiming to curb destructive global fishing habits.

I meet with Tom at Tom’s Kitchen, his gourmet café that’s a regular haunt of London’s upscale Chelsea crowd, after a lunch of beetroot, feta cheese and pomegranate salad and a plate of pan-fried scallops. Though not as ardently English as the other stops on my gourmet tour, what’s attractive about Tom’s Kitchen is the effortless English warmth exuded by the wooden tables and white tiled walls, and the extensive menu that just about covers every food craving from waffles to steak tartar, but nonetheless leaves room for a host of British classics like beer battered cod and 7-hour braised lamb shoulder. 

“The average customer is more in tune with what they should be eating, asking questions about food, where it comes from, etc,” says Tom. “It’s great because it means restaurants and chefs have to buck their ideas up as well.” Part of that process, according to Tom, involves striking a balance between producing a varied and affordable menu, a comfortable and congenial atmosphere and garnering a responsible code of practice in terms of food suppliers. “To me, food is not just about what we eat, it defines our values, health, status, environment, as well as our culture, politics and economy.”

The revolution is simple, it’s locally sourced, its organic and responsible; it’s slow-cooked and seasonal and it wastes nothing, and it’s not for the easily nauseated. It’s characterized by classics such as St John’s now signature roast bone marrow and parsley salad (Anthony Bourdain’s death row meal, according to his ebullient introduction to Fergus Henderson’s ‘Nose to Tail’), Hereford Road’s braised oxtail, Northbank’s hog’s pudding and Tom’s Kitchen’s 7-hour braised lamb shoulder. And in the spirit of true British-ness it’s obstinately humble, self-denying, and right on time.

“We don’t do revival,” Trevor Gulliver, co-owner of St John, modestly assures me. “We did not set out to be some kind of movement, we are just very happy when folk decide to come eat with us for the particular way we go about our restaurant,” he says, dropping in the little secret to their success: “you must simply do today that what you think is right and continue that way.”

Pig’s trotters anyone?