As with so many things in Japan, some of the most treasured experiences are often the simplest. This can be said of Japanese philosophy, design and especially its food, where simple seasonal ingredients are assembled with meticulous care and harmony to create a meal that is a perfect balance and joy for the senses.
These philosophies are particularly true of the traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine known as shojin ryori. These vegetarian and often vegan meals are not only for devout Buddhist monks, but are a highlight for anyone visiting ancient places such as Kyoto where they can be enjoyed within the Buddhist temples themselves.
Shojin ryori was first introduced to Japan from China by the monk Dogen, the founder of Zen Buddhism, and grew in popularity with the spread of Zen Buddhism in the 13th century. The meals embody many Buddhist philosophies including moving towards enlightenment and compassion for all living things. The name itself comes for sho (精) which means “to focus”, jin (進) which means “to go forward” and ryori (料理) which means cooking or cuisine. Buddhism also forbids the killing of animals so all the foods are made without meat or fish. They also omit the use of pungent flavors such as garlic and onions, opting for gentle seasonings instead, and minimize waste by ensuring that every element of the ingredient, from root to tip, are incorporated.
Despite these restrictions, the meals themselves are harmonious and beautifully delicious. The ingredients are all based on what's fresh and in season, and follow the "rule of five". Every meal balances the five colors (green, yellow, red, black, and white), the five flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), the five food preparations (raw, stewed, boiled, roasted, and steamed) and the five elements of food (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). This is said to provide the optimal nutritional balance based on the seasons when the foods are grown and provide support for the body, mind and soul.
Typical ingredients used in shojin ryori include soy based products such as tofu, yuba (tofu skins made by warming a bowl of soybean milk and skimming off the film), aburaage (thinly sliced, fluffy, deep-fried tofu pouches) and natto (fermented soybeans), paired with seasonal or wild mountain vegetables. These ingredients are lightly seasoned with such things as dashi (a stock typically made from konbu or kelp), soy sauce, sake, mirin, miso and vinegar. These seasonings are used to draw out the natural flavors of the ingredients without overpowering the dish.
A shojin ryori meal will usual include one soup and three sides, known as the principle of ichi ju san sai. These may also be accompanied by a bowl of rice, pickled foods known as tsukemono and tea.
The meals are prepared with the same meditative practice found in other aspects of Buddhist life. Everything is hand made using repetitive motions, with careful attention paid to every detail and the overall harmony of ingredients and presentation.
A memorable meal not to be missed while in Japan, shojin ryori will transform the way you view the beautiful role of simplicity.
About the author:
Co-founder of Kokoro Care Packages. Lillian is a half-Japanese, half-British Canadian currently living in LA. She spent almost a decade in finance (capital markets) before co-founding Kokoro Care Packages with Aki Sugiyama in 2018. She is passionate about sharing her Japanese heritage and preserving the traditions of Japan. She believes in the power of community and connections, nature and wellness, and the importance of a good night's sleep