In part 1 of this series, I gave you an introduction to Shojin ryori (aka Japanese Buddhist monk food). We went over how it was all vegetarian / vegan, some of the philosophy behind it, and then talked about the other parts in this series. In part 2, I want to go over the ingredients. While this may sound totally boring at first, it’s quite important! It’s kind of like the foundation to all shojin ryori cooking, sort of like learning hiragana before learning to read kanji in Japanese. Knowing about one will help the other.
Over the last week I’ve been cooking various shojin ryori dishes so I’m starting to feel comfortable about what is used and what isn’t used, so, I’m not going to tell you every ingredient ever that you could buy. If I did that this list would be quite a bit longer. Instead, I’ll attempt to use the 80/20 rule and narrow this list down to the ingredients that get used 80% of the time, so to speak. Basically, these are the ingredients you’re going to want on hand if you plan to start eating like a Buddhist monk anytime soon.
Let’s go over each ingredient. I’ll do a bit of explanation if explanation is necessary (for example, I bet you know what a carrot is already). I’ll also break them up into sections based on where you’ll store them and how long they’ll last, giving you a better idea of what you can have on hand for a long, long time, and what you should get and use right away.
These ingredients will be found in your produce section (or, hopefully they will). If you’re particularly tricky, you can grow a lot of these yourself, too. Many of these are actually very easy to grow, and even someone as terrible at growing as me can manage some of these. Plus, you’ll be getting yourself into the shojin ryori spirit: Fresh and seasonal!
Daikon is great. It’s a root, and it soaks up all kinds of awesome flavors. Oh, and did I mention it’s excellent for your health? These guys tend to be pretty huge and pretty cheap as well. That’s a lot of veggie for your buck, right there. You can use them in almost anything, though I think they go particularly well with soups, stews, and pickles. You’ll also find them used as a garnish quite often as well.
While shojin ryori shies from really strong tastes (like onions, for example), ginger does have its place in the shojin ryori kingdom. It’s used as a garnish and just adds a little bit of taste while not dominating. You won’t see any / many overly gingery things in shojin ryori, though you will see ginger quite a bit. It goes great with tofu, for example, and it will last for a really long time in your fridge.
Pro tip: Use a spoon to scrape the skin off. It’s way easier than a knife or peeler, and leaves you with a lot more ginger.
This could be slightly difficult to find depending on where you live, though I’m seeing it more and more in regular grocery stores. Gobo (or Burdock Root) is used in a lot of stews and soups in shojin ryori. It’s a ridiculously long root and pretty tough. You’ll want to be sure to peel the skin off before eating it most of the time. Often, you’ll want to parboil it too (boil it a bit before cooking it with everything else). Gobo has a sort of earthy, mild taste to it. It definitely has a warming effect when you eat it, as well, making it great in stews and soups.
Shitake mushroom are probably something you’ve seen and heard of before. They’re probably the most important mushroom to get when it comes to shojin ryori. There are other mushrooms as well that would be nice to have, and I’ll include them below, but if you can only get one, get this, because shitake mushrooms are used in a lot of recipes. If you can’t find fresh shitake mushrooms (or they’re too expensive), you can also get them dried. In fact, either way I’m going to recommend getting dried shitake mushrooms in addition to fresh ones. If you can manage getting both then you get double the mushroom fun.
Lotus Root is a large eggish shaped root that looks kind of terrifying on the outside. Then, when you shave the skin off and cut into it you get a nice, crisp, clean looking thing (as seen in the image above) that tastes oh-so-delicious. Lotus root adds a bit of fresh crispness to any dish you add it to. In stews, you definitely get pleasure from the texture of it. It’s kind of like an apple without the apple taste, and definitely a staple of the shojin ryori diet. Plus, as long as you don’t cut them, they’ll last a pretty good amount of time in your fridge.
Pro Tip: If you have any left over cut lotus root, store it in some water with a bit of rice vinegar. This will prevent it from turning brown.
Carrots are awesome. I think you know what carrots are, right? Orange? Long? Delicious? These are going to go in stews, pickles, tempura, and more. Plus, they last forever in the fridge, so they’re always worth having.
Potatoes are another thing you probably know all about. I’d recommend, in general, getting those white or yellow potatoes. Yukon Golds are pretty good. Of course, there are other kinds of Japanese potatoes as well that might be worth getting, but those are harder to find for most people and good in more specific situations. Regular old potatoes are in plenty of recipes and turn out really, really tasty. Grab a bagfull and hold onto them. They last a while and will make good side dishes to go along with anything you make.
Japanese eggplants are a little different from Western eggplants. They’re smaller, straighter, and have less bitterness. You also don’t have to peel them, either, because of their supple thin skin. Japanese eggplant is the centerpiece of many shojin ryori dishes, so you won’t go too long without using them.
Optional Fresh Produce
Now let’s get into the produce that isn’t totally necessary but “nice to have.” There are some good dishes for all of these things, though I wouldn’t necessarily call them staples (though I can see where some people would disagree with a few of my categorizations).
Kabocha pumpkins are a Japanese pumpkin. Warning: They are a pain to cut, so be careful! If you have a choice, the Kikuza or Kurokawa varieties are best, but most likely you’re just going to see something that says “kabocha” at your grocery store (if you see anything at all). These are great steamed, stuffed, tempura’d, and more. You get a meaty texture without any meat and they have a very unique taste. I think a lot of people either hate it or love it, so hopefully you’re on the “love it” side! If you see a kabocha pumpkin, just grab one and hold onto it. They’ll last quite a while.
Yamaimo and Nagaimo
These are two Japanese potato varieties that are used in a decent number of recipes. These will probably be tough to find if you don’t have an Asian produce mart, and sometimes turn out to be pretty expensive. These are on the “nice to have” list, but totally not necessary. I probably won’t show you any recipes that use either of these potatoes, though I do have some in my fridge so I’ll definitely be eating them. Maybe a meal or two will change my mind :)
It hurts me to put these on the “optional” list due to my love of shiso, and while I personally would never make them optional, I don’t think this is something a lot of you will be able to find. That being said, it’s very easy to grow in any temperate climate. The plants outside on my patio won’t stop growing and I can’t eat the fresh shiso leaves fast enough. These are a great addition to a lot of stuffings and also make great garnishes. Also, they’re great to just pop in your mouth to chew. I love you, shiso
Okra is in a few things and is nice to have. I would say don’t worry about it unless it’s seasonal, fresh, and delicious. Otherwise, it’s best not to force okra.
Japanese cucumbers are a bit different from other cucumbers (though quite similar to English cucumbers, so substitute with those!). They have a thin skin and edible seeds, meaning you don’t have to do any work and they’ll taste good. These are going to be good for side dishes and pickles. If you’re going for a whole course, then you’ll want to have Japanese cucumbers on your ingredients list. If you’re just going for main dishes, Japanese cucumbers fall to the “nice to have” list. That being said, they’re really nice to have, and add a freshness to every meal.
Enoki, Shimeji, and Button Mushrooms
These mushroom varieties are nice to have along with shitake. Enoki is going to be the easiest and cheapest to find so start with that (plus, enoki really matches with a lot of things). The other two (Shimeji and Button) become slightly more optional. These mushrooms will make great toppings and add a lot to a lot of dishes. You can’t go wrong with mushrooms!
If you have a few lemons on hand you can make your own ponzu. Ponzu made fresh is way better than ponzu from the bottle. If you don’t want to carry lemons, get ponzu in the bottle, but I’m warning you, it’s not as good.
This section is full of things that will last forever (or a really long time). Many of these are dried. Many of these are liquids. All of these belong in your pantry.
This is probably the most important ingredient. Without it, you can’t make your konbu stock, and konbu stock is used with nearly everything. That being said, you can substitute this with “vegetarian dashi” though it won’t be as good, I think. Dried konbu not only makes your stock, but you can eat it too. It will be in some soup and stew recipes that use the stock you sucked from its once dry, lifeless corpse. If you’re really lucky you can get it fresh. Really it’s just kelp from the ocean and almost nobody in the West thinks to eat it (kind of like fish collars, you guys are missing out!).
Pro Tip: Wipe your dried konbu with a damp paper towel. It will get the sweet white powder that develops on the top, but not get too much of it. You don’t want to get rid of it all, so don’t wash it (but you don’t necessarily want it all there, either). Wipe!
Get some sesame oil. When it comes to oils, I think sesame has the most flavor. Some dishes just don’t taste right with out it. I like roasted sesame oil, personally. It has a lot more flavor, if you’re into that sort of thing. If you can buy this at an Asian market it will be 10x cheaper.
Sesames seeds don’t have quite the taste as sesame oil, but they are used in a lot of dishes. Get a bag or container full of them and they’ll last you quite a while.
Pro tip: Roast them in a pan first if you want them to be more flavorful.
Grab some of this while you’re in the soy sauce aisle. Like all of these sauces, buy it at an Asian market for 400% savings.
Mirin & Saké
Also grab some of this. Mirin is basically sweet saké, I think, and is often one part of a great marinade or sauce. While you’re at it grab some cheap regular saké to cook with. Saké is part two of the “good marinade or sauce” train. The third part is:
Shoyu (Soy Sauce)
I’m going to call it shoyu from now on, so get used to it. Shoyu is in pretty much everything. Don’t get a dinky table-sized shoyu (unless you want something to pour shoyu out of). Get a half gallon or gallon jug (maybe not the 5-gallon barrel, though). If you cook enough shojin ryori you’ll go through it like it’s nothing. Plus, you save a ton of money. Also, don’t buy the low sodium stuff. You’re already losing the taste of fish and meat in shojin ryori, so you need that extra 30% sodium, in my opinion.
This isn’t used as much as dried konbu though it’s nice to have. If you make miso soup (like, real miso soup, none of that instant stuff) you’re going to want some dried wakame to put in it. It’s used in a few other recipes as well, so it’s nice to have. Plus, wakame is a cancer murderer.
Dried shitake is sometimes better than fresh shitake. You can use it to make shitake stock or make konbu stock better have a little more umami. Plus, it lasts forever whereas fresh shitake will go bad. It’s a nice backup to have in case you forgot to get regular shitake. It’s also less expensive by quite a bit depending on where you’re buying your shitake from.
You can’t eat something Japanese without rice. Although many shojin ryori chefs will have other non-white grains in their rice, for the simplicity of this series I’m sticking with white rice though there are some good rice recipes to be had. I’d recommend buying slightly more expensive rice (don’t get the really cheap stuff, it tastes cheap). I also hear rice from the South East United States has higher rates of arsenic in the rice, so I usually avoid rice from there. Whatever you get, it’s going to go with every single dish you make. Just don’t overdo it on the white rice or you’ll get the diabeetus.
Flour, Sugar, Baking Soda, Salt…
I’m going to assume you already have a lot of these, but just in case… you know? Buddhist monks use flour too, sometimes, though it’s rarely for birthday cakes.
I’m going to put this in the dry goods area just because that’s probably how you’ll find it if you find it at all. First of all, it’s not actually a pepper. It comes from ground up sansho (prickly ash) berries. It has a sort of earthy tangy taste to it, and is responsible for some unique flavors in shojin ryori. If you find this pre-ground, then that’s fine. If you can find the berries and grind them, even better. If you can grow this little guy yourself (not too hard to do, I hear), harvest the berries, dry them,then grind them, then double-thumbs up to you. If you can’t get your hands on this it won’t be the end of the world, though everything’s better with sansho, as they say.
Refrigerated & Processed
Let’s move onto the last section. These are things that will be in your fridge. They are processed for you so you don’t have to go out and make your own miso from scratch, which is pretty nice. All of these ingredients are pretty important, and quite a few last for a long time.
Konyaku usually comes in blocks in plastic packaging (like the photo above). It’s made from the corm of the konjac plant (thus konyaku) though for some reason most people think it’s made from yams. Strangely, konyaku is nearly zero-calorie (doesn’t taste like it!) because it’s mostly water. That being said, it goes well in a lot of soups and stews in shojin ryori dishes and is used quite often. Grab yourself a few packages of konyaku and you’ll be using them soon.
The first kind of miso. Red miso is going to have a stronger taste because it gets fermented for longer and has a higher percentage of soybeans. When it comes to miso soup, I prefer red miso. It’s good for having a strong miso flavoring, if that makes any sense.
The second kind of miso. White miso has a milder taste and is quite different from red miso (why it’s good to have both). It’s a bit sweet and is used in various sauces and dressings. This is good to have when you need a softer miso taste.
In terms of processed foods, tofu is going to be the most important thing on the list. It’s used in almost everything and is the source of protein. If you’re not having tofu somewhere it’s not going to feel like shojin ryori. There are many types of tofu you can buy too. For shojin ryori, just get some silken and some firm. You’ll find recipes that require one or the other, and both are pretty common. Don’t buy medium. Medium is for people who want everything but then end up getting nothing.
Umemboshi may be on your “nice to have” list, but it’s on my “need to have” list. I think I’m an addict. Like natto (below) a lot of people aren’t a fan of umeboshi. I like people like that, because then I get to eat their’s. Umeboshi is known as “pickled plum” in English. When you spend more it generally tastes better, but you should find out if you like it first. Umeboshi makes for a nice little (salty) dessert at the end of your shojin ryori meal. It also can be mushed up and used in sauces to make things a little tastier. Personally, I prefer seeing how many I can fit in my mouth at once, but that’s just me. Perhaps next year in the spring I’ll hand craft another batch of umeboshi myself and do a write-up so you can do it too. Truly, homemade umeboshi are the best umeboshi.
Last but not least is Natto. Personally, I’m not a fan. Natto is made from fermented soy beans and tastes… different. I think I heard somewhere that half of Japan hates the stuff and the other half loves it. Seems about right. It tastes better when you add a few other ingredients to the mix, though. Natto isn’t going to be something you use a ton, though you can choose to use it as much as you want. It’s easy to prepare and ridiculously healthy for you… almost too healthy. I’m suspicious.
Putting It All Together
Looking at this giant list of ingredients may seem a little overwhelming, but hopefully I was able to simplify it for you a bit. There are, of course, a ton more ingredients you could be using that I didn’t include on this list, just because it would be too much. If you have these ingredients, you can make most shojin ryori things. After that, it’s up to you to grab what you need on a per recipe basis.
So, these are the ingredients you’ll need. Next week I’m going to go over putting some of these ingredients to use, covering the staples: stock, rice, sauce, and so on. If you don’t make good staples you can’t make good food. In shojin ryori, these staples ore doubly important, just because you have to make something delicious tasting without meat (oh meat, you make cooking so much easier!). I’ve been experimenting with a lot of different stock strategies, trying to come up with the perfect combinations, so hopefully a week from today I’ll have something good for you. Until then, think about these ingredients! You’ll be able to use them pretty soon and begin your transformation to full-on Buddhist monk food.
P.S. Want a list of the above ingredients you can take to the grocery store? Here’s one I whipped up for you.