Shōjin Ryōri: Food for Thought, Food for Life

  • 8 min read


There are nearly as many philosophies connected to the ways in which we eat as there are people. There are ideas about what we eat, how we eat, and where we get our food from. In this way, food is not only a reflection of culture and history but is also representative of it.

One might even say the phrase “we are what we eat” can be applied in a more philosophical way. What we eat and how we eat shapes who we are mentally and emotionally, as well as of course becoming part of our physical being. There is undoubtedly an intangible effect that our eating habits have on ourselves and our surroundings. They inform the ways in which we behave and think and interact. 

Essentially, our ideas about food (the foundation of life) truly shape the ways in which we live. And while there are many diets that take a philosophical or mindful approach to eating, there are few cuisines that embrace this concept as much asshōjin ryōri (精進料理.)

What is Shōjin Ryōri?

Shojin Ryori

Sometimes referred to as “devotional cuisine,”shōjin ryōriis a form of vegetarian and vegan Japanese Buddhist cuisine rooted in teachings brought to Japan by Korean and Chinese monks in the 6th century. Initially, these practices were not codified but rather ideas based on key precepts of Buddhist beliefs, setting a strong foundation that Japanese monks would later build upon over generations.

It wasn’t until the 13th century with the introduction of Zen Buddhism that the founder of the Soto Zen sect, Dōgen, began to distill his ideas surrounding food’s connection to spiritual practice into an essayTenzo Kyokun (Instructions for the Cook) and what is known asshōjin ryōri began to take shape.

Upon close inspection, elements ofshōjin ryōri begin to resemble a belief system all their own rather than just as a profound approach to food. This is because there are the rules that not only dictate what one can and cannot eat, but it also includes ideas about how one is to prepare food, how one is to receive one’s food, and reasons for why and how these actions impact the ways in which we live and the world around us.

When looking at the Japanesekanji, or characters, forshōjin ryōri,this becomes even clearer. The first charactershō (精) can mean spirit, energy, and purification, while the second characterjin (進) means to progress or to advance. Together they have the meaning of concentration, diligence, devotion, and zeal in seeking enlightenment. The last two charactersryōri (料理)mean cuisine or food. By viewing the characters in this way one can see that shōjin ryōri is a form of cuisine meant for spiritual practice.

Principles of Shōjin Cuisine: What to eat and what to avoid

Sesami Tofu

In fact,shōjincuisine is based on the core beliefs of Zen Buddhist teachings. One major characteristic ofshōjin ryōriis the prohibition of meat and seafood (though it is debated whether other animal products like eggs and milk should also be prohibited.) This foundational element stems from the First Precept of Buddhism:Do not kill. This is taken to mean that one is to avoid both an active and passive role in the killing of other creatures. In other words, whether an animal is killed by one’s own hand or not, to consume meat is to participate in the killing of the animal nonetheless.

This characteristic ofshōjin ryōri comes as a rather radical departure from some foundational elements of Japanese cuisine, which while not as meat-centric as the Western diet, animal-derived ingredients likekatsuo bushi andniboshi are essential to even the most basic soups and broths. In place of animal-based ingredients,shōjinchefs focus on vegetables and plants, using dried ingredients likekombu (kelp),fu (gluten cakes), and shiitake mushrooms, fermented foods, and many varieties and preparations of tofu and countless vegetables.

Furthermore, the limitations don’t stop with meat but extend to a rather surprising group of ingredients: alliums. This means no garlic, onions, chives, and leeks, or in Japanese Zen practice,gokun (五葷)or the five pungent roots.Gokun are thought to excite the body and mind, stimulating worldly pleasures and throwing one’s mind out of balance and distracting one from their spiritual path. There are even some who believe that other ingredients like coriander, pepper, and ginger also fall into the same category. For that reason, some refer toshōjincuisine in Japan as being “thin” as the flavors are meant to be subtle rather than bold.

Clarity Through Simplicity

Despite these restrictions, the cuisine aims to invoke a sense of gratitude, balance, and awareness through the use of simple ingredients in specific ways. They do this by working to appeal to the five sense, doing so through color, flavor, and technique:goshoku (五色), gomi (五味),andgohō (五法). There are five colors (white, black, red, green, and yellow), five flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami), and five techniques (simmered, fired, grilled, steamed, and raw) used inshōjin ryōri.

All of these elements aim to give the diner an appreciation for each ingredient and the way in which it was prepared. In fact, this kind of gratitude can be seen at any Japanese dining table with the normal practice of sayingitadakimasu before a meal. In doing so, one is expressing thanks for all that has had to happen to make it possible to enjoy one’s food.

In this way, the balance brought on by eatingshōjin food extends not only to the diner, but also to the cooks ofshōjin cuisine.

According to Dōgen, by focusing onsanshin,or the three minds of Zen Buddhism, the chefs and cooks can (and need to) make the act of cooking a spiritual practice as well.Daishin(大心the big mind) is meant to help maintain a calmness and motivation for one’s work.Rōshin (老心the parental mind) is meant to be used to show love and respect to the ingredients and the diners. Lastly,kishin(喜心the joyous mind) is meant to help bring pleasure and gratitude to the cook.

While the flavors, appearance, and preparation are meant to invoke balance, none of that could be achieved without the ingredients themselves. This is where the connection of food, mind, and body becomes a connection to the natural world as well.

Seeing our World on Our Plate

Shōjin ryōri is traditionally a hyper-seasonal and hyper-local form of cuisine. This main philosophy stems from the Buddhist belief ofshindofuji (身土不二)or the belief that one’s body and mind are inseparable from one’s geography and surroundings. Essentially, by eating what is around you, you both become a part of that place and that place becomes a part of you, once again returning to the idea that you truly are what you eat. This philosophy is also meant to teach practitioners to be satisfied with what they have and to move away from the wants and desires of what one doesn’t.

Accordingly, the element ofshun, or seasonality (literally translated as a ten-day period) appears prominently inshōjincuisine. By focusing on what ingredients are available in the surrounding environment at that specific time of year, diners can work towards achieving balance within themselves by living in harmony with nature. This means taking no more than one needs and respecting the gifts of the natural world by using every last scrap of an ingredient.

This is where another philosophy in Japanese culture appears inshōjin ryōri:ichibutsu zentai (一物全体.)While difficult to translate, this phrase roughly means to use everything, or the whole thing. That means to use the stems, leaves, peels, and anything else that would ordinarily be tossed out. Key to this belief is the expression of appreciation and gratitude for the effort and life that has brought this food to you so that you might continue to live, but also key to this belief, is the creativity and innovation that can be seen inshōjin ryōri.

Shōjin Ryōri in the Modern World

While these philosophies might appear quite ascetic,shōjin ryōri has moved beyond the confines of Buddhist monasteries and has found its way into the mainstream of Japanese cuisine. There are now restaurants and schools throughout Japan focusing onshōjincuisine, including Michelin starred restaurants in Tokyo and a small school/community garden in Kamakura run by two elderly sisters.

With a focus on sustainability and the building of communities, the aims of contemporaryshōjin ryōriare more necessary than ever. By moving away for industrial farming, focusing on organic produce and ingredients, the cuisine can truly help to do what it was initially meant to do; bring people peace, clarity, and wellbeing. In an interview, one of the two sisters Satsuki Nakazono, explained that her drive to teachshōjin ryōristemmed from the sense of peace she felt when she first adopted the diet. She believes that as the circle of people she and her sister can bring together around this food grows, so will the possibility to achieve world peace.

To some this might seem like a lofty goal. However, when one truly thinks about the impact our eating habits have on ourselves and the world around us, it starts to seem a little more possible, if even on a small scale. Also, being mindful in this way, one can begin to appreciate what one has and feel gratitude for the simple privilege of being able to eat, which can have a profound effect on how one views the world.

While it might be a large task for many of us to try and implement all of the philosophies ofshōjin ryōri into our lives, maybe adopting a few might help bring us some peace and health, which we all need right now. Moving away from processed and conventionally processed foods whenever possible. Substituting out meat for tofu, balancing out our flavors and preparations of ingredients to enjoy them more naturally, and leaving room for mindfulness when cooking. These might be a few that we can implement as we all search for our ownwa, our harmony, in our kitchens.

Kevin KilcoyneAbout the author: The spark that lit Kevin Kilcoyne’s interest in Japanese culture began in elementary school through a friendship with his then classmate Keisuke. Since then, that passion has evolved and bloomed to encompass more than just video games and manga, leading Kevin to live in Japan as a participant of the JET program. During his time in Japan, Kevin sought out as many foods as he could, the experiences and taste memories lingering long after they had gone. Now he is forging a path to link his passions for Japanese food, history, and visual culture and is planning for his return to live in Japan once again. For now, you can find Kevin on Instagram (@waruishouten) where he posts his photography and illustration work. Keep an eye out for more posts and updates as Kevin delves more deeply into his passions for writing and food!



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