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What is Shojin Ryori - Japan’s Plant-Based Buddhist Cuisine

What is Shojin Ryori - Japan’s Plant-Based Buddhist Cuisine

Shojin Ryori, or Buddhist cuisine, is a plant-based, vegetarian meal in Japan by monks. This traditional cuisine features rice, miso soup, and a variety of vegetable and tofu side dishes. Whether you're a seasoned vegan, a curious omnivore, or someone seeking a vibrant and healthy culinary adventure, Shojin Ryori can respond.

This article will dive deep into Shojin Ryori and how and where to enjoy it.

What is shojin ryori?

A typical Shojin Ryori meal mainly consists of soybean-based foods like tofu, seasonal vegetables, and wild mountain plants, which are believed to bring balance and alignment to the body, mind, and spirit.

The term "Shojin Ryori" is derived from the Japanese word for cooking, "Ryori," and the Buddhist term "Shojin," which denotes devotion toward enlightenment.

Shojin Ryori is a way of life rather than a diet.

Shojin Ryori is a way of life rather than a diet

Although it is easy to think of Shojin Ryori cuisine as the only vegetarian food from Japan, this needs to be corrected and oversimplified.

Shojin Ryori uses many soy-based goods, wheat gluten, and seasonal vegetables—neither meat nor fish is utilized. In its strictest form, nevertheless, it even eliminates the consumption of some items that both vegetarians and vegans would typically find enjoyable.

For instance, the "Gokun" family of root vegetables — which includes leek, chives, onion, and garlic—receives particular attention. In the Buddhist tradition, their strong scent was thought to arouse anger when eaten raw and lustful when cooked. This is why they are not used in Shojin Ryori.

Besides avoiding animal products, Shojin food includes many fundamental principles when selecting ingredients, preparing meals, and serving them. Thus, Shojin Ryori is a way of life rather than a diet.

History of Shojin cuisine

Forget what you think you know about vegetarian meals. Shojin Ryori is more than that; it's deeply connected to Japanese Buddhism.

Let's go back to the 13th century when Zen Buddhism started in Japan. Searching for enlightenment, monks chose a simple life and respected all living things. They believed food wasn't just for eating but also about being mindful and compassionate.

Food wasn't just for eating but also about being mindful and compassionate.

Food wasn't just for eating but also about being mindful and compassionate

But Shojin Ryori isn't just about the food itself. It embodies the Buddhist idea of "sesshoku," which means eating mindfully. Each bite is a chance to be thankful for the farmer's hard work, the cook's skill, and the gifts of nature.

Principles of shojin ryori

Shojin Ryori was introduced to Japan from China by the monk Dogen, the founder of Zen Buddhism, whose practice emphasizes seated meditation. In Buddhist tradition, killing animals for human consumption was forbidden, believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation. As a result, their meals were made without meat or fish, and they abstained from using savory flavors like garlic and onion. These principles became the foundation of Shojin cuisine.

Japanese Buddhist cuisine must be more varied despite lacking meat, fish, or intense flavors.

The monks use the “rule of five” when cooking so that every meal offers five colors (green, yellow, red, black, and white) as well as five flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), which are drawn out naturally from the ingredients rather than added via additional flavorings.

This balance in color and flavor is believed to provide nutritional balance while also bringing the body into balance with the seasons. For example, in the summertime, cucumber and tomato provide refreshment to cool the body, while in the autumn and winter, root vegetables warm the body.

The monks use the “rule of five” when cooking.

The monks use the “rule of five” when cooking

In Shojin Ryori cuisine, nothing goes to waste, with even the carrot and radish peels and leafy green vegetable tops used to make simple soup broth to accompany the meal.

What are Shojin Ryori ingredients?

Tofu

Popular vegetarian Japanese traditional food like tofu and other soy-related products, such as natto (fermented soybeans), koya-dofu (dried tofu), and abura-age (fried soybean curd), are the main ingredients of shojin cuisine. Traditional wheat gluten foods like fu and konnyaku, a thick gelatin-like dish made from the konjac plant, are also widely used.

Tofu is the main ingredient of shojin cuisine.

Tofu is the main ingredient of shojin cuisine

Seasonal vegetables

Seasonal vegetables—aubergines and tomatoes in the summer, sweet potatoes and kabocha squash in the fall, and daikon radish and root vegetables in the winter—combine these ingredients. Tender wild mountain greens, like the blossoming nanohana (rapeseed) plant and the stalks and buds of the fuki (butterbur) plant, add a mildly astringent flavor in the spring.

 Seasonal vegetables

Seasonal vegetables

Seasonings

Shojin ryori uses seasonings such as soy sauce, sake, mirin (sweet rice wine), fermented bean paste (miso), vinegar, sesame oil, and dashi stock made from kombu kelp. However, the seasonings are used sparingly and only serve to bring them out rather than mask their authentic flavors.

Seasonings bring shojin ryori out rather than mask their authentic flavors.

Seasonings bring shojin ryori out rather than mask their authentic flavors

Milk

In the past, milk and eggs were scarce in Japan, so they weren't part of traditional Japanese cuisine. However, modern monks think milk does not harm animals so shojin ryori may use dairy products these days. Make sure to inquire in advance if you follow a vegan diet to ensure your meal is dairy-free.

You can use milk and eggs for Shojin ryori.

You can use milk and eggs for Shojin ryori.

How does Shojin Ryori taste?

Rich umami broths

Shojin Ryori often features broths made from kombu (kelp) and shiitake mushrooms, which brings a rich umami flavor to dishes. These broths serve as the foundation for soups, stews, and sauces, providing depth and complexity to each bite.

Delicate sweetness

Despite the absence of refined sugars, Shojin Ryori dishes often have a delicate sweetness derived from natural sources such as mirin (sweet rice wine) and seasonal fruits.

Shojin ryori has delicate sweetness derived from natural sources.

Shojin ryori has delicate sweetness derived from natural sources.

Earthy and nutty notes

Grains and legumes like rice, barley, and beans feature prominently in Shojin food, offering earthy and nutty undertones to dishes. Whether steamed as a side or incorporated into hearty mains, these ingredients will satisfy us.

Subtle sourness

Pickled vegetables and fermented foods like miso and soy sauce lend a subtle sourness to Shojin Ryori dishes, adding brightness and complexity to the overall flavor profile. These tangy elements stimulate the palate and enhance the dining experience.

What kind of dishes are in a Shojin Ryori meal?

A traditional Shojin Ryori meal

A shojin ryori meal follows the “ichi ju san sai” principle, or “one soup, three sides” plus rice and pickles. The soup can be anything from a pumpkin soup made with soy milk or creamy carrot, to kenchinjiru, made with root vegetables, vegan dashi, and tofu.

The sides are typically goma-tofu (sesame tofu) garnished with freshly grated ginger or wasabi and some soy sauce.

A typical shojin ryori meal with soup, rice, and sides.

A typical shojin ryori meal with soup, rice, and sides

Koya tofu or sesame tofu

As previously stated, Buddhist cuisine frequently includes tofu. Koya dofu, which is tofu with a porous texture and is cooked in a flavorful broth, and sesame tofu, which starts with sesame seeds rather than soybeans, are two examples.

Sesame tofu is served cold with a sauce on its own, although tofu is usually cooked or grilled in combination with other foods.

Sesame tofu is served cold with a sauce

Sesame tofu is served cold with a sauce

Vegetable tempura

Another popular Japanese vegetable dish in Shojin Ryori is vegetable tempura. Tempura is a simple dish made of lightly crispy-fried vegetables. Since eggs are not famous in the batter in Buddhist cooking, it can be more challenging to fry to the proper crispness.

Tempura is a simple dish made of lightly crispy-fried vegetables

Tempura is a simple dish made of lightly crispy-fried vegetables

Ganmodoki

Another dish to try is ganmodoki. A ball or square of mashed tofu, carrots, and hijiki seaweed are combined to make ganmodoki, a soy product that is served hot. It originated as a dish created by monks to look similar to meat.

Ganmodoki with mashed tofu, carrots, and hijiki seaweed

Ganmodoki with mashed tofu, carrots, and hijiki seaweed

Take caution when consuming Shojin cuisine if you have dietary allergies or are not drinking alcohol while cooking. Ensure it's strictly Buddhist, and find out about any alcohol-containing seasonings used in Japanese cuisine, like mirin (cooked rice wine).

Related post: Top 5 Popular Japanese Vegetable Dishes With Easy Recipes

Where to eat Shojin food in Japan?

In Japan, enjoying authentic Shojin ryori is an enriching culinary experience. Kyoto, known for its thousand temples, is a top spot for this cuisine. You can also indulge in Shojin ryori at Koyasan in Wakayama prefecture or specialty restaurants in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya.

Vibrant colors and healthy dishes make Shojin food a hit, especially among health-conscious young women. Remember to book ahead to enjoy this cultural and culinary journey fully.

Conclusion

Shojin ryori offers a window into Japan's cultural and culinary heritage, rooted in Buddhist traditions. It showcases the harmony between simplicity and flavor, from serene temples to bustling cities. Whether you're a vegan or a curious foodie, indulging in Shojin ryori cuisine promises an authentic and unforgettable experience.

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