How this experiment started
I was inspired by a Chef’s Table episode about “temple food”.
Like many people, I’ve been wowed by the ‘Chef’s Table’ and ‘Chef’s Table BBQ’ series on Netflix.
I won’t bore you with a recap. Suffice it to say, it needs to be watched rather than read about.
But I got the idea to try cutting onions and garlic out from my diet from one of the show’s best episodes.
It was about a nun called Jeong Kwan who lives in an hermitage in South Korea. That episode was the first time I learned there was such a thing as “temple food” i.e. the food that monks eat.
Temple food is vegetarian, and excludes garlic and onions for a spiritual reason
In the episode, Jeong Kwan explained that temple food doesn’t use garlic, onions, scallions, chives, or leeks (referred to as the “five pungent spices”). The last three — scallions, chives and leeks — are also in the onion family.
Put more simply, temple food does not contain garlic and the common types of onion.
According to Jeong Kwan, the reason garlic and onions are excluded is because the spiritual energy from these ingredients would prevent monks from reaching a state of calmness, and would be a distraction to meditation.
That made me sit up.
I’d been trying to meditate for many years now and failing miserably.
And I’d also been using onions and garlic as a base in almost all my cooking for many years.
Perhaps they were why I’d always had trouble calming my mind down enough to meditate?
After a few days of this intriguing possibility knocking around in my noggin, I decided that I was going to give it a try.
I would attempt to cook with no onions or garlic.
Small steps to one change
Whenever I’ve tried to change my diet in the past, I’ve found that the best way to do it is by not expecting perfection, but to just do better than before, even if it’s only in small increments.
Making a 180 degree change can feel dramatic and good in a way, but I’ve found that quick drastic changes rarely end up sticking around.
Whereas small changes made over a period of time are more likely to become permanent.
That’s why the first few times I cooked, I just cut down on the amount of onions and garlic that I would normally have used.
After that, for a few days, I stopped adding garlic completely, and only used one small shallot (a small onion).
And finally one day, I felt comfortable enough to start cooking with no onions or garlic at all.
This gradual cutting down may seem rather silly and unnecessary, but for most of my life, I’d been conditioned to see onions and garlic as essential ingredients in most cooked dishes I know.
So much so that whenever my supply of them got low, I would panic and buy extra the next time to make sure I didn’t run out again!
The first week of no onions or garlic
What surprised me most of all was that I could not taste any difference in my food.
No difference at all!
The fried rice I made still tasted good without any garlic or onions.
(I was a little worried the first time because I’d believed that the first step to making fried rice must always be to sautee diced garlic and onions. I was wrong as my fried rice tasted perfectly fine without that step.)
The soup I made was alright too.
And so was the curry.
It’s kind of unbelievable, and a part of me wishes I’d known earlier how unnecessary onions and garlic were to the end result of my cooking taste-wise.
I would have saved a lot of time, money and space by not having to buy and store onions and garlic.
Plus I live in a place with high humidity and heat most of the time, so storing onions too long can become a yucky affair. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to throw out some rotten and mushy blackened onions (the smell is incredible too). Too-old garlic is less messy as they just dry out and lose their potency, but I would always feel bad throwing them out.
It’s really nice to not have to deal with that anymore.
After several weeks of no onions or garlic
Over the weeks since I stopped eating onions and garlic, I’ve been feeling a lot calmer in my heart, my mind, and my spirit.
I would sometimes worry obssessively before. Now, the same anxious thoughts don’t show up as often, and when they do, they don’t linger for as long in my brain.
I also rarely — if ever — get angry now.
And what anger that arises once in a while usually dissipates quickly. It feels like there’s nothing “in me” now that anger can use to hold onto. Now when the feeling lands, it slides off like water on a smooth pebble.
In the past, I could stoke my own anger all day and even over a few days. I knew how to hold onto grievances alright…
I also get frustrated much, much less now, even when things don’t go my way or according to “my plan”.
My patience also seems rather long these days. To the extent that it can sometimes feel boundless.
For instance, I’ve found that even when I’m completely exhausted or famished, I don’t get triggered and angry.
Before, my emotional state would usually be affected by my physical state.
A big benefit to this is that I feel guilty much less often. Anger would often lead to me feeling guilt. Even just the feeling of anger can sometimes be enough to make me feel like a bad person, I don’t need to express my anger to anyone outwardly to feel guilty.
Thus, simply feeling angry much less now is a big emotional weight off my shoulders.
I have no idea what to make of these changes.
Even though that was the whole point of my experiment, it’s still baffling to feel and live these new facets of myself.
Especially since it’s all come about not from any painful healing from dreamwork nor any punishing lessons from plant teachers, but simply through one small change in my daily cooking habits.
To risk another allegory, if I was a computer, it feels as if I had all my decades-old processors and bits switched out for all the newest and most expensive parts.
Everything runs so much cooler, quieter and cleaner. And any job that gets thrown at me, I can handle more easily.
Some unexpected changes
There were some changes that I did not expect too.
I now have little to no tolerance for certain types of media and content. Specifically, those that have horrific crimes or excessive violence as the main running themes.
Movies and TV shows that I onced liked very much now feel repulsive and intolerable to me. I either have to stop watching them or I’d fast forward the scenes to skip them.
It’s not just my taste in entertainment that’s changed, but my news habit too.
I still check the news daily, but I find myself done with this activity much faster.
Now I read what I feel I need to, and I stop and move on to some other activity with no concerns about missing out on what I didn’t read.
Whereas before, I would sometimes read the news obsessively for hours.
When so much of the world’s news is fear-driven, this habit had been horrible for me spiritually.
It’s been proven that news which create fear, exaggerate the truth, or are outright lies receive far more views and is shared much more widely than good or neutral news. So much of the news we see is designed to exploit that psychological human trait.
My emotional reactions and thoughts to the news I read have also changed.
When before I would sometimes feel angry, frustrated, impatient, or judgemental, now more often than not, I just feel empathy, worry and compassion.
And I also find myself sometimes stopping mid-article to say a small prayer for the people I’m reading about that are in bad situations that made me worry for them.
I never used to do that before.
Ironically and hilariously, I have not had any success meditating. This is because since I started this experiement, I have not really meditated at all.
Ok that was pretty embarrassing to admit!
Maybe I need to find something else to eliminate in my diet that can completely change my horrible habit of procrastination and goal-dropping.
But in seriousness, I don’t mind at all.
It’s funny how sometimes I have a specific goal in mind that I will work toward, but instead of reaching that, I end up receiving all these other precious gifts along the way that I never knew I needed or wanted.
A small afterword in defense of onions and garlic
If you managed to power through this long-winded post, you may think that I now see garlic and onions as “bad or useless”.
Certainly, garlic has some amazing health benefits. I’ve used them myself to treat a severe ear infection successfully when powerful antibiotics from my doctor had failed. And I will again if I need to.
And I’m not saying that onions and garlic impart zero taste. They have amazing flavours and smells. Fried onions will likely always smell wonderful to me.
And in dishes where onions and garlic need to take centre stage, excluding them would simply not be possible (e.g. onion soup, garlic bread, spaghetti aglio e olio).
However, in my life, I rarely make dishes where onions or garlic need to be front and centre.
My uses for them have mostly been as part of a base where I sautee them in butter or olive oil, before building the main dish on top of that.
In those cases, quite happily, I’ve not noticed their absence at all.
I should also add that I am not a supertaster, and my sinuses sometimes gives me problems.
So I don’t doubt that my sense of smell is not the best, and we all know that smell makes up a good part of our sense of taste.
What I’m saying is this is my own personal experience only, and I would definitely believe if someone else finds that eliminating onions and garlic in their cooking leads to a discernable and unbearable loss of deliciousness.
As for me, now I find myself using more chillies, ginger, miso powder, seaweed, stock, anchovies, worcestershire sauce, and soy sauce to add flavour to my cooking. I’ve used these ingredients regularly in the past, but I think about them more now when I cook, and I’m perfectly happy with that.