Shojin Ryori: The Proper Cuisine for Buddhists

There are various kinds of cuisines that a person can try out in a lifetime. Depending on the country and its culture, every cuisine has its own distinction and flavor that attract visitors from all over the world to try it out. However, not all cuisines are healthy as most of them would use certain ingredients that, while they are tasty and contain some nutritional value, may be bad for the health in the long run. An example of this would be utilizing fatty pork in dishes. For a healthier cuisine that one may opt to at least try once in their life, a better option would be the cuisine that Buddhist eat on a daily basis, known as shojin ryori in Japanese. 

Eating Shojin Ryori in Japan 

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Also known as devotion cuisine, shojin ryori is the practice of eating Buddhist cuisine in the Land of the Sun. Shojin ryori is typically served at several temples all over the country like Tokyo, Osaka, and the region of Honshu, especially in the area of Kyoto wherein various temples stand. While shojin ryori incorporate Japanese style, a later version that incorporates more of a Chinese style also exists.

This new style known as fucha ryori is prepared by the Obaku school of zen. This more recent style of Buddhist cuisine is offered at the head temple of Manpuku-ji among others. In more recent times, shojin ryori is no longer just served at temples but also at restaurants. Hence, if non-practicing Buddhists can enjoy shojin ryori.

Commonly known as the traditional dining style of Buddhist monks living in the Land of the sun, the popularity of shojin ryori grew alongside the growth of Zen Buddhism during the 13th century. Because the cuisine is mostly made without meat, and sometimes even without fish, this type of cuisine can be enjoyed by vegetarians and vegans alike. Even meat-eaters can enjoy this cuisine should they want to try something new or just cleanse their palate.

A traditional shojin ryori meal is composed of mostly dishes based on soybeans. These foods include tofu that is accentuated by seasonal vegetables as well as wild mountain plants. These ingredients are supposed to provide balance, as well as alignment, to the mind, body, and spirit of a person. This kind of meal also made a contribution to the elegant haute cuisine in the country known as kaiseki. Today, shojin ryori can be enjoyed at the dining halls situated inside Buddhist temples in the country.

To give a brief background of this simple and all-natural cuisine, shojin ryori was actually introduced to Japan by the founder of Zen Buddhism known as the monk Dogen. His practice mainly focuses on seated meditation. Among the many traditions of Buddhism is the prohibition of killing animals solely for human consumption.

This action was believed not to just cloud the spirit of the person but also interfere with meditation. Thus, the meals of the monks were made without animal meat or fish. Buddhist monks also avoided incorporating ingredients like onion and garlic in their meals, which have pungent flavors. These beliefs are the supposed foundation of shojin ryori.

Despite the simplicity of shojin ryori, the preparation of the meal is also highly meticulous as Buddhist monks do their best to minimize waste. Instead of throwing away certain components of ingredients such as radish and carrot peels, they try to think of something that would still make use of these so-called wastes. Hence, they use these, as well as leafy green vegetable tops, to make simple soup broth that can be served along with the meal.

The Concept and Main Dishes of Shojin Ryori 

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Even though the shojin ryori meal does not incorporate meat, fish, or other ingredients that may provide strong flavors, the cuisine itself is not bland at all. When cooking dishes that would be part of shojin ryori, Buddhist monks incorporate the “rule of five” when they cook as a guide. The principle revolves around the colors and flavors of each dish in the meal. Basically, the meal shall have five colors as well as five flavors. The colors include green, red, white, yellow, and black. The flavors include sweet, salty, umami, sour, and bitter.

These flavors in each dish are brought about by drawing them out naturally from ingredients that are used in each dish. Instead of adding extra flavorings into the dishes, which may have high sodium, the Buddhist monks let the ingredients do its work naturally. Balance in color and flavor is achieved whilst being able to provide nutritional balance in the meal. Furthermore, the person eating these dishes would also have a body that would come into balance with the seasons.

This balance with the seasons is attained by incorporated vegetables into the dish corresponding to the season. Vegetables like cucumber and tomato are incorporated in shojin ryori during the summer season as these are known to provide refreshment in order to cool the body from the summer heat that it experiences. On the other hand, vegetables like root vegetables are used in shojin ryori during the winter season as these are known to provide warmth to the body.

Shojin ryori utilizes popular vegetarian Japanese foods as its main ingredients. These include soy-related products such as tofu, abura-age or fried soybean curd, natto or fermented soybeans, and koya-dofu or dried tofu. Other frequently used ingredients in shojin ryori include fu, which is a traditional wheat gluten food, and konnyaku, which is made from konjac plant and has a consistency of thick gelatin.

Vegetables used in shojin ryori vary depending on the season. During the summer season, vegetables typically used are tomatoes and eggplants. During the autumn season, vegetables typically used are kabocha squash and sweet potatoes. During the spring season, vegetables typically used are tender wild mountain greens like fuki or butterbur stalks and buds as well as nanohana or rapeseed plants. During the winter season, vegetables typically used are daikon radish and root vegetables.

There are also primary seasonings that are used in preparing shojin ryori meals. These include dashi stock made with kombu kelp, sake, vinegar, soy sauce, mirin or sweet rice wine, miso or fermented bean paste, and sesame oil. However, these seasonings are not to be used in excess. The main purpose of these seasonings is to bring about the true flavors of the vegetables instead of masking them. Hence, they are not meant to overpower the natural flavors of the vegetables.

Back in the day, milk and eggs were not used in the traditional shojin ryori. This may be attributed to the fact that these ingredients were historically scarce in the country. However, in this day and age, shojin ryori can contain dairy products as the belief of the monks is that this does not harm animals in any way. Thus, for vegans trying shojin ryori, it would be best to ask first whether the meal contains any dairy products or not.

The structure of shojin ryori is centered around the principle of “ichi ju san sai,” which translates to “one soup, three sides” accompanied by rice and pickles. The soup can be of any variant ranging from carrot or pumpkin soup cooked with soy milk to kenchinjiru, which is a kind of clear soup cooked with vegetables, tofu, and vegan dashi. The sides are usually composed of small dishes such as goma-dofu, also known as sesame tofu, with a garnish of grated ginger or wasabi and accompanied by soy sauce.

Looking for Fresh Produce for Shojin Ryori

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Among the primary ingredients of shojin ryori are from fresh produce. Hence, people who are preparing ingredients for shojin ryori may find some of them in the produce section of the grocery store. To be more close to home, one may also opt to just grow these in one’s own garden as they are quite easy to plant and take care of. With this, one is sure that the ingredients are clean and fresh.

One of the main ingredients of shojin ryori that is of fresh produce is none other than daikon radish. Being a root, this type of vegetable is able to soak up all types of flavors. Moreover, the vegetable also has various kinds of nutrients that is good for the health. Despite the many nutrients that it possesses, daikon radish is often affordable with a big size. Typically, this kind of vegetable is used for soups, stews, and pickles. It can also be used as a garnish.

Another option is ginger root. Contradicting to the other types of vegetables incorporated in shojin ryori, ginger root has a bit of a strong flavor. Nonetheless, this vegetable is a staple in most shojin ryori meals. Usually used as a garnish, ginger root adds only a bit of flavor the dish while not overpowering all the natural flavors. Its flavors blend really well with tofu and its shelf life is also pretty long. A tip in preparing ginger root is to scrape its skin off using a spoon instead of a knife or peeler so one would be left with more ginger to use.

One other root vegetable to try is burdock root, also known as gobo in Japanese. Though this may not be as readily available in some grocery stores depending on one’s location, this type of vegetable is often used in soups and stews of shojin ryori meals. The vegetable looks long and tough. More often than not, cooks peel the skin off this vegetable prior to eating. Moreover, burdock root is typically parboiled, which means that it is boiled first for a few minutes before adding in all other ingredients. With a mild, earthy taste, it provides a warming effect when eaten.

Mushrooms can also be incorporated in shojin ryori meals. A popular selection of mushroom would be shiitake mushrooms. This type of mushroom is the most common mushroom used in shojin ryori. However, it is important to note that while this mushroom provides great flavor to dishes, it can be rather expensive in comparison to other mushrooms available in the market. Still, shiitake mushrooms truly provide a difference in the flavors of each dish that it is incorporated in.

If one cannot find fresh shiitake mushrooms, one may also opt to look for dried ones. Both fresh and dried shiitake mushrooms share distinct flavors to every dish. Furthermore, the aroma of the mushroom is also great and provides warmth when eaten. Nonetheless, one may still opt to try other mushrooms in the market that would still give a different flavor to soups and stews.

Preparing Shojin Ryori Ingredients that Last Longer

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Aside from the fresh produce, there are also other ingredients in shojin ryori that does not expire easily. Probably the most common and important ingredient in the list is dried kombu. This is used to make kombu stock, which is then used with almost everything in shojin ryori meals. While some may opt to use vegetarian dashi as an alternative, the flavor that dried kombu gives is unparalleled. Other than using it to make a stock, dried kombu may also be eaten.

Dried kombu is typically used to make soup and stew recipes. It is full of flavor and packs a punch when soaked in water. One may also get it fresh though this option may be harder to come by in the market. Basically, it is just kelp taken from the ocean. While it is not that popular in the West, it is highly used in Japan. Do not wash the dried kombu. Instead, wipe it with a damp paper towel so as to remove some of the white powder on top but not all of it.

There are other more ingredients that one may need for the preparation of shojin ryori. Some of these ingredients that would last longer than fresh produce include shoyu or soy sauce, rice, tofu, and umeboshi. Each ingredient plays a part in completing a shojin ryori meal. Restaurants also offer shojin ryori any time of the year like January. An example of this would be Sougo, a Japanese shojin restaurant. Not only would it be nice to look at and highly recommended by the monks, it would also be healthy to the mind, body, and soul of the individual.