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?
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
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:
- What is Shojin Ryori? (Complete!)
- Common Ingredients of Shojin Ryori (next week!)
- Preparing The Shojin Ryori Staples
- 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.