How To Eat Like A Japanese Buddhist Monk, Part 1: What Is Shojin Ryori?

It’s really tough being a vegetarian in Japan. That being said, I’m not a vegetarian around 25% of the time (BACON), so I can’t really speak from experience, but it’s so obvious. Unless you’re willing to eat fish, being a vegetarian is a huge pain in the neck.

There is hope for vegetarians in Japan, though, and that comes from a type of cooking known as shojin ryori (精進料理) which I guess sort of translates to “devotion/self-discipline cooking.” The idea is that this type of food will put you in the best frame of mind to understand Buddha’s teachings.

Over the course of several articles, I’m going to go over shojin ryori. In fact, I’ll even be eating and preparing shojin ryori food for your pleasure (I’m so bad at cooking) and education over the next few weeks. But first, we need to learn more about the philosophy behind it. Let’s find out.

Why Shojin Ryori?

shojin ryori

Besides being the most delicious vegetarian food on the planet (by a lot, mind you), shojin ryori is incredibly good for you. Eating like this, while difficult, is going to make you more energetic, feel better, and probably prevent 50 different kinds of cancer (while only giving you 3 or 4, nice trade). You do have to consider the salt intake that comes with this type of eating, but in terms of trade-offs shojin ryori is a very healthy option (you stop your scoffing, raw food vegans, or Buddha will smite you with his giant metal foot).

Really, though, when foods are fresh they tend to be healthy, and shojin ryori is (traditionally) all about the freshness of foods. While you and I just walk down to the grocery store to buy apples and naners any time of the year, Buddhist monks practicing shojin ryori harvest only seasonal fruits and vegetables even though the nearest Lawson’s is probably only three blocks away. But convenience isn’t the point! The point is that local seasonal foods bring you in flow with nature. Not only that, but the foods that grow in different seasons are supposedly the foods your body needs during that season. Mari Fujii who wrote “The Enlightened Kitchen” says it best:

The slight bitterness of spring buds and shoots [...] is said to remove the fat the body accumulates during the winter. Summer vegetables from the melon family, such as tomatoes, eggplants and cucumbers, have a cooling effect on the body. Fall provides and abundant harvest of sweet potatoes, yams, pumpkins and fruit, which revive tired bodies after the heat of summer. In winter, a variety of root vegetables, such as daikon radish, turnip and lotus root, provide warmth and sustenance.

The thing is, these kinds of foods are also extremely healthy for you. You won’t be digging up any McRibs (even though they’re seasonal too) in the ground around any Buddhist temple. Besides, McRibs contain too much sentient animal meat, and because Buddhists believe that all sentient life can achieve Buddhahood, they don’t eat said sentient life. So, shojin ryori is going to be plant based (includes sea plants). As shojin ryori chef Keizo Kobayashi says:

The abstention of eating flesh (meat, fish, fowl, etc.) and the limiting oneself to a vegetarian diet is a discipline of “right effort.” it is based on the precept of non-killing, for all sentient (living) beings have the potentiality of Buddha-hood. We realize that it is not possible to survive without sacrifice of living beings, for plant life is included, also. Through this practice, we strive to develop true awareness, reverence and appreciation of the interdependency, or oneness of all life.

So, it’s not just being vegetarian to be vegetarian. It’s really more about the state of mind you’re put in. You have to think about what you eat. You have to think about where the food comes from (and often get it yourself). The food as well as the preparation of the food prepares you for Buddha’s teaching. Not only does the food make you feel better, but it also makes you think.

Preparing For A Month Of Shojin Cooking

shojin ryori ingredients

It wouldn’t be particularly easy for me to spend the month cooking seasonally fresh vegetables, not to mention that the things that grow in Japan don’t necessarily grow here, so I’m going to rely on my local Asian grocery store to bail me out. I went through a couple of shojin ryori recipe books before heading to the store, writing down all the ingredients. I then went through to find the most common fresh ingredients (80/20 rule, baby), the ingredients I could buy once and use for a long time (konbu, sesame seeds, etc), and the fresh ingredients that only appear occasionally. I then went shopping, buying a ton of ingredients for around $100. It’ll come out to be quite cheap, all in all.

Over the next week I’ll be attempting to prepare several dishes, starting pretty simple. I’m going to focus on ingredient management and the pairing of dishes, since shojin ryori tends to be comprised of several separate pieces. Then, hopefully I’ll get better through trial and error.

Out of all the types of food I’ve had in Japan, I wouldn’t say this is the thing that I like eating the best (though it’s way, way up there). It is however the type of food I’m most fascinated with. Making something this delicious without meat or dipping sauces is quite remarkable. If I was to go all-in vegetarian, this would be the kind of food I’d eat. While it’s way more difficult to prepare than most vegetarian dishes, it is by far the best tasting.

So, I want to learn how to do it. Along the way I’ll share the process as well. I’m thinking this series will go something like:

  1. What is Shojin Ryori? (Complete!)
  2. Common Ingredients of Shojin Ryori (next week!)
  3. Preparing The Shojin Ryori Staples
  4. Meals You Can Try To Cook Too!

So, I hope you enjoy this little journey with me. Being a terrible cook, I’m not sure how pretty it’ll be, but I do hope you learn something. Maybe you too will be able to give all this a shot (there’s not too many resources out there on the internet, anyways). I’ll also always try to go into the ingredients and more into the philosophy of this kind of cooking as it comes up. There’s so much more to know about shojin ryori. Really, this is just the surface.

So, here’s my question to you: Have you eaten shojin ryori? I know many of you have been to Koya-san. The temples there have some great shojin ryori. You’ll also find it all around Japan at many other Buddhist temples too. If you’ve had it, share your experience and how you thought it tasted. Best vegetarian food in the world, ammiright?

P.S. Should you want to follow along, I’ll be following the books listed in the “sources” section below. The first book is easy to get, the second one a little harder. I’ll be mixing and matching as well as modifying recipes, so if you’d like to follow along or try this on your own, I’d recommend these two books to start (especially number 1).

Anyways, time to go make some konbu stock. I hear I’ll need a lot of it.

[hr]

Sources:

Shojin Cooking, The Buddhist Vegetarian Cook Book, by Keizo Kobayashi
The Enlightened Kitchen
, by Mari Fujii

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Hmmm, suspicious use of quotes… hmmm….

  • DAVIDPD

    Tis a good thing one does not need eggs for making authentic tempura. Batter can be made from chilled soda water, baking soda, ap flour, ice cubes, salt. You can also cheat and oven bake them with a panko crust.

  • korina

    You could use a mixture of flour and water to make the flour stick to the veggies :) At least it works very well for celery root and breadcrumbs.
    So Shojin Ryori is all vegan if no egg is allowed? :D Going to Japan next year and I’m really interested in trying some traditional cuisine WITHOUT the fish in in.
    Really looking forward for your cooking :D

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Glad to hear you’re getting back to your troll roots, Mescale.

  • FoxiBiri

    Ughh right… by the time I knew what dashi was it was too late >.>
    My japanese friend took me out for okonomiyaki and I asked her what the dancing flakes were on top. She told me they were good and to eat them, I was suspicious but because in the past she had always gone to great lengths to find vegetarian food I trusted her. That cunning beotch >.>
    I still get karma points for right effort though ne? I mean, Dashi is probably floating around in the Japanese air Dx

  • ジョサイア

    That is why you can’t find it anymore…

  • ジョサイア

    Dum dum dum…

  • Chester

    I am friends with a Buddhist monk. I’ve seen him down half a liter of sake without even wobbling, and he absolutely loves izakayas and kyabakura. For those of you who don’t know, kyabakura means “cabaret club,” otherwise known as “hostess bars.”

    Just wanted to throw that out there – not all monks are the same. This particular monk is the abbot of a small temple deep in the countryside. He services his area, and he is loyal and good.

    So, why does he drink so much sake? Well, see, sake is left at the temple as an offering. But Buddha doesn’t really come down from heaven to drink it. So the monk collects it and sets it aside. It’s not his to drink, but when he has guests, it’s his duty to entertain them. So, notice he drank half a liter of sake – my friend drank the other half.

    In other words, you might think that he’s breaking all the rules of Buddhism, but for his particular temple and his particular sect, his duty is to his people first, and that means taking them out for meals and giving them good sake to drink. And, believe it or not, if it is classy enough, a kyabakura is a perfectly acceptable place to take a business associate in Japan for a quiet drink. The women are there to break the ice, and they have to abide by some pretty strict rules if you’re at a classy place. You can also do karaoke. So there’s that.

    Anyway, Japan is awesome, woo! Drunk monks!

  • Kiriain

    Don’t tell me you raided Anzen Hiroshi.

  • Pepper_the_Sgt

    I once visited a Buddhist temple in Japan that was on a mountain. At the bottom of this mountain there was a BMW. Me and my friends thought “how funny would it be if that was a monk’s?” Then we saw a monk in full garb walking in the direction of the BMW and we starting joking amongst ourselves some more. Then the monk got in the BMW and drove away. Nothing more needed to be said. The scene finished better than we could have hoped.

  • http://www.facebook.com/sarah.cassidy.184 Sarah Cassidy

    Thanks. I will pretend I don’t know what’s in dashi then… Good luck with the cooking.

  • Jan Hicks

    Hi Sarah, my husband and I are vegetarian, too. We struggled a little in Tokyo, but most other places we’ve visited have had veggie choices. We used the Happy Cow site as well to track down genuinely vegetarian restaurants. Mikoan in Kyoto is a favourite as is Bon in Taito-ku (near Asakusa in Tokyo they serve a form of Shojin Ryori, it’s pretty expensive but worth it – 13 courses served over 2 hours).
    Happy Cow: http://www.happycow.net/
    My blog post about Bon: http://nihonnozasshi.wordpress.com/2012/06/27/bon-taito-ku-a-shojin-ryori-delight/

    Jan

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    H-Mart, Anzen’s never has very fresh produce :(

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I don’t think it’s all vegan. I believe there’s some recipes that use honey, but it’s pretty darn close most of the time.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    “Dashi is probably floating around in the Japanese air Dx”

    Hahaha, this sums up Japan really well

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Yeah, like everything is calling for konbu dashi. I’m making small batches for now, though, trying out different methods for making it. There’s a surprising amount of variations on times, heat, no-heat, etc, so I want to figure out what makes the best!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    Yeah, Buddhist monks can be pretty interesting. It’s often just a job like any other. Some interesting monk stories:

    – Walked in on a monk reading a porno-mag, luckily that was all he was doing.
    – Like you mentioned, Monks with Mercedes / BMWs
    – Played amateur baseball with a team of Buddhist monks (plus a few other non-monks, like me)

    Monks are pretty sweeet.

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    I hope so!

  • http://www.tofugu.com koichi

    This sounds like a very complicated thing :( But yeah, you’re right. I have recipes with baking soda / water / potato flour, though I don’t think they get as fancy as how you do it!

  • Koichinist, the Believer

    Porn? Really? Where do I go to become a Buddhist monk? Do I get accomodation and food? And internet access to Tofugu?

  • Peter Stanton

    Second to last paragraph (before the postscript) – “there’s” -> “there’re”. Cheers.

  • nagz

    good one! i assume after this you will lean back to some westernized type of vegetarian diet. (i was a serious meat eater. about 1 year ago i went lacto-veg and never looked back:) i’m a good cook too when it comes to japanese/chinese/indian food (but then again, i’m only scrapping the surface here)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=692660975 Sheila Mazur

    Great article! Looking forward to reading more of them about shojin-ryori. My wife and I are “5 day vegetarians”, inspired by Graham Hill’s TED Talk. We’ve been doing it since April and although there haven’t been any changes in our health, we do feel our conscious alleviated having cut down our meat consumption by 80%. We do include eggs, cheese and occasionally fish, which is probably why we’ve stuck with it for so long (you can have my cheddar when you pry it from my cold, dead hands)!

    Our approach was not to try and make every day items vegetarian (no tofu hot dogs), but to draw from dishes that are already vegetarian from different ethnic cuisines – from Asia to European Lenten meals – and save the burgers/steaks/buffalo wings for our two “meat days” as a treat.

  • http://twitter.com/LocalMonster ローカル・モンスター

    I’m very curious for this article series! First of all it’s been a while since I saw a Koichi article I think, and secondly I’ve been wondering about vegetarianism/veganism in Japan since I’m planning to move there one day and am vegan myself (well, I could probably go back to pescetarian if it’s too much hassle).

    Two wishes in one, great! :D

  • http://www.tadaimatte.com/ Ashley Haley

    Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I’m actually considering doing this for a month. I’ve never even considered going vegetarian, but it sounds like a great challenge!

  • TokyoVeggie

    Hi Sarah. I have been a vegetarian my whole life and I have lived in Japan for 4+ years. Let me tell you that I have had to “bend” my vegetarianism! Even dishes that say “vegetarian” often have dashi or some chicken, beef, or pork extract. Also, most waiters don’t know about vegetarianism, so if you tell them that you are a vegetarian, they will look confused. At best, they will tell you there is no meat in a dish, then serve it with shrimp, fish, or dried bonito covering the top… :( Your best bet is to be flexible about dashi and extract, at least. And when you go to restaurants, make sure to ask “Niku haitemasuka, sakana haitemasuka, she-fu-do haitemasuka”? They may look confused about seafood, so you can ask “ebi, kani, taku, ika, kai haitemasuka?” if you are really worried.
    Hope that helps! Good luck!

  • TokyoVeggie

    Being vegan in Japan is really, really difficult! You can check out the happy cow site or plan to visit a lot of (expensive) Shojin Ryori restaurants. I have never heard of a cheap Shojin Ryori restaurant, and regular restaurants do not offer these dishes, as far as I know. As a lifelong vegetarian living in Japan for 4+ years, I honestly suggest you try to make an exception for fish dashi at least for this trip. And remember that if a person tells you something is vegetarian, it sometimes will have egg, fish broth, meat extract, or seafood in it… Good luck on your trip!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeremy.rawley Jeremy Rawley

    “All sentient life”…animals lower than mennish beings aren’t sentient. Fish-eating doesn’t count as vegetarianism–FISH AREN’T VEGETABLES!

    I could never be a Buddhist, Hindu, Jew, or a Muslim. Any religion that has a thing about what you can and can’t eat is nuts. I can say this because I’ve worked for Muslims.

  • nyluvsme

    You will find more vegan restaurants (Shojin Ryori) in Kyoto, Koyasan (Wakayama) and Nara. Kyoto is the MUST place for sightseeing while Tokyo is nothing special, just a large city.

  • nyluvsme

    Being vegetarian or vegan is not difficult if you choose to eat Japanese stuff. Of course dashi could be problems at some places though. Much variation than being rest of the world.

  • http://twitter.com/emination Emin Köklü

    I have to ask, WHAT! I’m German and Turkish, cheese is almost like rice for me… Ok, I think, Japan is not a good place to live xD

  • Ki-chan

    There is a broth used in place of dashi; it’s made from mushrooms, and just as easy to make.

  • Jo Somebody

    Why did you omit Christian?
    Also, fruit aren’t vegetables either… If people don’t know the word ‘pescetarian’ (apparently Chrome’s dictionary doesn’t!) then let them adjust ‘vegetarian’ as they see fit.

  • Maria

    I’m vegan been here for a month so far, the beginning was tough but now it is super easy!!!! I think it depends on commitment and creativity :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/YokaiAkito Gerran Coppin

    Thanks for sharing this series! I can’t wait to try out some of the recipes! <3

  • ncha

    hi koichi :) i’m taking shoujin ryouri for my 卒論. but i have problems with the literature, could you please help me? i could’t find keizo kobayashi’s book at the library in my country, and if i have to buy it, it’s way to expensive for a student like me :( waiting for your reply :)

  • chikoi

    Good. I will preach the Koichi Sutra. ^^

  • LunaPenumbra

    This is so interesting, I think this would be a great endeavor long term. I find different cultures and their food fascinating so this kind of satisfied the curiosity I had about shojin ryori. Being hispanic it’s nice to get away from the tacos and and pork dishes – while they are satisfying they can be heavy.