Japanese meals are known for being well-balanced and healthy - utilizing seasonal ingredients. With so many recipes, it’s easy to create delicious Japanese inspired dishes. But for those who don’t consume fish or meat, finding Japanese vegetarian or vegan options can be challenging. Fortunately, the Buddhist plant-based cuisine known as Shōjin Ryōri has been around for more than seven centuries and is a healthy yet simple ritual that nourishes the body and soul through food.
Shōjin Ryōri: A way of preparing and consuming food as a spiritual discipline
Shōjin Ryōri is a process of cooking and eating practiced amongst Buddhist monks to cultivate spirituality. Following Buddhist precepts,Shōjin Ryōriexcludes the consumption of alcohol, animal products and strong-odor vegetables. It is a guide to practice the right mindset of gratitude and self-reflection before, during and after a meal.
Buddhism was first introduced to Japan during the mid-sixth century, although only a few Buddhist temples practiced Shōjin Ryōri at that time. A few centuries later, a Zen monk named Dogen Zenji published a text calledTenzo Kyōkun (Instructions for the Cook), which helped to spread the practice of Shōjin Ryōri throughout Buddhist monasteries in Japan.
Tenzo is the name of the honorary monk who is responsible for preparing meals for trainee monks. Meals are prepared followingSantoku Rokumi (three primary virtues and six flavors).Santokustands for light orkyonan (adjusting both the texture and size of the food to be easily consumed); clean orjoketsu (food should be sanitary and fresh); and dignified ornyoho (follow the manners and Buddhist precepts such as refraining to consume alcohol and animal products).Rokumi are the six flavors to be considered when preparing the meal: bitter, sour, sweet, spicy, salty, and natural (best described as a gentle or plaintaste that complements the other ingredients’ flavor).
Forbidden and permitted foods inShōjin Ryōri
Shōjin Ryōriforbids the use of animal products such as meat, fish/shellfish or dairy. While it is considered plant-based cooking, there are five prohibited vegetables: garlic, Japanese shallots (rakkyo), onions, Chinese chives and sand leeks (wild rocambole). Pungent smells are considered to disrupt the spiritual practice and trigger unwholesome desires and aggressions.
Vegetables such as radish (daikon), taro root (satoimo), eggplant and lotus root are common ingredients which can be found pickled, simmered and fried. Tofu is the primary source of protein and is transformed into many different forms. Themodokistyle of cooking is used, where plant-based ingredients are made to mimic the flavor and texture of meat and seafood.
Kelp (konbu) and dried mushrooms (shiitake) are essential ingredients used to create a broth calleddashi, with the left-overs being used for side dishes to avoid waste.
Modern day Japanese food influenced byShōjin Ryōri
Miso "dip" made of gourds, eggplants, ginger, andperilla leaves (shiso).
Firm pudding-like dish made from ground sesame and arrowroot (kudzu). Making goma-dofu is part of the spiritual training for monks, requiring patience and dedication to grind the sesame into a paste.
Often served in school lunches, this hearty vegetable soup is typically made from a kombu or shitake broth, although some people use miso. It’s named after theKencho temple where monks utilized vegetable scraps to make the soup.
Made of wheat gluten preserved into dry pieces similar to bread. It is often used as a meat substitute and best served in simmered dishes so that it can be thoroughly soaked to resemble juicy meat.
While modern day Shōjin Ryōrifound in some restaurants can be elaborative, the traditional meal eaten by Buddhist monks consists simply of rice, miso soup and one or two side dishes. To eat for well-being, we learn that what we eat is equally important as how we eat it and how it is prepared.
Mary Hirata McJilton
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.