For the Zen Buddhist, the ritual of cooking the daily meal is a true expression of their religious discipline, and that is how shojin ryori got its name, which means ‘to progress the spirit'.
As one of the basic precepts of Buddhism is ‘thou shalt not kill', the killing of any animal, fish or insects for food is shunned, as is the use of animal products such as eggs or milk. So, essentially the cuisine consists of grains, vegetables, soya beans or soya based products such as tofu, as well as sea vegetables. The use of pungent flavours such as garlic, onion or strong sauces is also frowned upon. Although this may make shojin ryori seem very limited, it is in fact a complex and tasty cuisine which embraces the essence of every ingredient it includes.
Indeed, it is said that just to make the perfect gomadofu (sesame tofu) - a blend of ground white sesame, kuzu and water - can take up to ten years, not because it is a difficult dish, but because you need to respect the ingredients you are working with, treating them with care and contemplation.
The art of shojin has a long history in Japan, being introduced at the same time as Buddhism in the 6th Century, but it really started to flourish in the 13th Century with the arrival of Zen Buddhism. Since then the cuisine has become ever more elaborate.
As with many of the traditional cuisines of Japan, shojin is based on the philosophy of balance, harmony and simplicity. Each group of seasonal ingredients is carefully combined to create the perfect blend of tastes, colours and cooking methods. It is also a cuisine in which nothing is wasted; every last lettuce leaf or radish top can find a place in a dish and each dish is exquisitely presented despite the humble ingredients. They also play great attention to ensuring that each dish is nutritionally balanced.
Perhaps the best place to experience shojin ryori is Kyoto, the heart of Buddhism in Japan, where you can still sit by a temple garden looking out onto a pond filled with carp and contemplate the beauty, harmony and flavour of the dishes in front of you. If you are not in Kyoto, it is also possible to sample shojin ryori at temples in other towns or if you happen to be in Tokyo there are a couple of restaurants and a cookery school specialising in it. On occasion it is even possible to try it in London, as the British Museum has given demonstrations before.
Typical shojin ingredients:
Typical shojin dishes:
Yudofu, gomadofu, nishime
By Celia Plender