In part 1 I introduced the philosophies of shojin ryori. Part 2 went over the ingredients you’ll need. Part 3 talked over the staples, getting you ready for the actual cooking. Can you guess what part 4 is? Yeah, we’re going to go over cooking.
The plan for this article is twofold. First, I’m going to go over a couple recipes to get you started. These are things that I think are good, solid, all-around meals that you can do at home. After that, I’ll go over the things you need to know to get started yourself (so that you can cook any number of shojin ryori dishes!).
A Few Shojin Ryori Recipes
Although this is just a drop in the bucket in terms of what you could potentially be making, these are recipes that will get you started. Although I put these together with the idea that they’d make a nice “set,” the first two can be cooked on their own as an entire dinner. When you eat shojin ryori at a temple or restaurant, usually you get a ton of different little dishes. If you want to eat shojin ryori like you’re supposed to, though, you eat a main dish, a side dish, and some rice. This keeps things simple so you can concentrate on being a Buddhist monk, in theory.
P.S. If you like these recipes, be sure to subscribe to the Tofugu newsletter. I’ll be adding another simple recipe to that in the coming weeks.
Kenchinjiru (Kenchin Soup)
Kenchin Vegetable soup comes from Kenchoji Temple and is a great dish for the colder winter months. The interesting thing about this dish is the tofu, I think. It’s crumbled into the soup instead of cut into pieces. This came to be when a temple acolyte dropped a block of tofu, shattering it to pieces. Instead of wasting it (boo boo in shojin ryori), he cooked it with some vegetables and people seemed to like it (I bet he didn’t tell them he dropped it on the ground until after). Ever since then, this soup has been known as “Kenchinjiru” or “Kenchin Soup,” named after the temple it came from.
- 4-6 dried shitake Mushrooms (fresh is okay too)
- 150g (5.5 oz) gobo (Burdock root)
- 2.5 cups water
- 300g (10.5 oz) daikon, peeled and cut to bite sized wedges.
- 1 block of konyaku, cut into bite sized pieces
- 200g (7 oz) carrots, peeled and cut into bite sized pieces
- 3-4 tablespoons sesame oil
- 100g lotus root (3.5 oz), peeled and cut to bite sized pieces.
- 2 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce) for sautéing
- 2.5 cups konbu stock (see staples)
- 4 tablespoons saké
- 1 block firm tofu
- 4 tablespoons shoyu (soy sauce) for soup
- 2 tablespoons red miso (or 3-4 tablespoons white miso), optional but recommended!
- 100g of greens (i.e. baby spinach, collared greens, etc)
- Small amount of ginger juice
There are a lot of ingredients here, but the important thing to know is that you can substitute many of them. Kenchinjiru is typically a soup you make with leftovers, meaning you can do nearly any kind of vegetable. This also means that the amount of vegetables doesn’t have to be exact, either. Experiment and play around with it, adding more of the vegetables you enjoy most!
- Soak the shitake in the water for 10 minutes. Drain. Soak for another 30 minutes in the 2.5 cups of water. Remove the mushrooms but keep the water as you will use it later. Remove the stalk and cut into thinnish bite-sized slices.
- Peel the gobo and cut into thin bite-sized slices. Soak them in cold water for 5 minutes to remove bitterness. Drain and put aside.
- Cut the daikon into bite sized pieces and soak in cold water for 10 minutes to remove bitterness.
- Cut the konyaku into bite sized pieces and boil for a couple of minutes. Drain and remove.
- Heat up the sesame oil in your soup pot (or in a separate pan) and stir fry the gobo, shitake, konyaku, daikon, carrot, lotus root, and shoyu (2 Tb) for around five minutes.
- Add the shitake water, konbu stock, and sake. Bring to a boil. Cook on low heat until vegetables are tender (30-45 minutes). If there’s any scum / froth forming on the top, remove it with a spoon.
- Crumble the tofu block into the pot and mix it in. Add the 4Tb of shoyu and 2Tb of miso. Stir gently for a while until you think the miso is dissolved.
- Add your greens and cook them lightly. Add a small amount of ginger juice to taste.
When you serve this, you can add a little more shoyu to individual bowls as well (to taste) depending on how addicted to salt you are. This soup is great served fresh and gathers more taste over time. Goes really well with a side of freshly cooked rice.
This recipe’s a bit tougher. It’s one thing to make tempura using egg. It’s another to make it without egg, and that’s exactly what you have to do with shojin ryori. If you get it right, I think it tastes much better. In fact, you shouldn’t need any sauce to dip it in (shojin ryori isn’t too into sauces).
The great thing about vegetable tempura is that you can tempura just about anything, so long as it’s fairly solid. What you use is really up to you. Here are some examples to get you started:
- Kabocha, cut into thin slices
- Carrots, cut into thin slices
- Fresh shitake caps
- Sweet potatoes, thinly sliced
- Wherever your imagination takes you!
No matter what you choose, though, you’re going to need some stock ingredients to actually cook these vegetables with:
- 1 cup cake flour
- 1 pinch baking soda
- 1 pinch of salt (optional)
- 1 cup ice water
You’re going to want to take the three above ingredients and mix them together. Don’t overmix it – some lumps are okay. This concoction shouldn’t be too thick, otherwise there will be too much batter on your vegetables (should be thin and see-through when you apply it).
Heat up some oil to 170-180 degrees. Oil should cover the bottom of the pan (or, if you have a deep fryer you can probably use that). Dip the vegetables in the batter, lightly covering. You should be able to see through the batter easily. If you want to be fancy, green colored things look good with only partial batter, leaving some green showing. Fry both sides until it looks cooked (lightish brown), remove, and put on some paper towels. Pat the oil off.
Tempura is best served right after it’s finished, so serve right away!
Ringo Umeboshi Ae
Mmmm. Time for dessert! If you’re lucky enough to have picked up some umeboshi off the shojin ryori ingredients list, then lucky you! You can probably make this. Feel free to double the recipe if you want more. You’ll need:
- 1 medium apple (how about Fuji?)
- 4 large umeboshi
- 2-3Tbs of sugar
- 1 tsp Mirin
The tricky part about this recipe is the umeboshi, though. Umeboshi vary in terms of how sour they are. If you have a very sour umeboshi, poke some holes in them and let them soak in water for a few hours. Alternatively, you can add some more sugar. It may take some playing around and experimentation to get this recipe right depending on your personal taste preferences and the umeboshi you have gotten. Here’s the standard recipe, though.
- Cut and peel the apple, then cut into bite sized pieces.
- Rinse the apple in lightly salted water. This will help the apples keep looking youthful and fresh. Blot dry with a paper towel (we don’t really want to add extra saltiness, here).
- Remove the umeboshi pits and turn the rest of the umeboshi inside out. Add sugar and mirin, then heat on low until things are nicely blended together. Let it cool a bit.
- Mix the umeboshi sauce with the apple slices to serve. Yum!
This is a pretty standard style shojin ryori dessert experience. You won’t see any cake (it’s a lie, after all) or anything overly sweet. Desserts usually consist of something fairly mild, or even sour (like umeboshi!). Fruits are great for this, and you’ll see apples served as dessert quite often.
Bonus: Take some hot water (180 degrees Fahrenheit) and squeeze some ginger juice into it to make ginger tea. It’s a nice compliment to this dessert. You can also use ginger shavings from the ginger you used with the Kenchinjiru.
So How Was A Month Of Shojin Ryori?
I gotta say. Cooking shojin ryori style is a lot of hard work. There’s a lot of ingredients and they take a lot of tender loving care. You’ll be spending a lot of time running back and forth from pantry to cutting board to stove to recipe book, frantically putting things together while everyone patiently waits for dinner. In fact, the term “gochisou sama deshita,” which you say after a meal in Japan to express your thanks for it, literally means “running around.” Why? Because this is exactly what you have to do when you are making a shojin meal. Experience goes a long way, here. I found that as I was able to manage more tasks and focus my care on the food, the food got better as well. I’m sure I still have a long ways to go. Just be sure to not give up after the first try. It takes a while.
Besides the actual experience of cooking, eating nothing but shojin ryori food for breakfast and dinner (I just ate vegetarian regular food for lunch) had its health benefits as well. Although I didn’t keep track of weight or anything, I’m definitely a little less chubs, all while ignoring calories, because numbers, eugh. I don’t have any experience with dieting, but this seems like a really healthy and steady way to shed some pounds. Do this for a year and you’ll be feeling pretty damn good, I think.
I definitely found that after two or three weeks Ifelt better as well. Things like miso, seaweed, and root vegetables are just so great for you. I have more energy and I feel more concentrated. Oh, and did I mention my hipster jeans fit better? So good for squatting down to take pictures with a Holga Polaroid.
All that being said, do I recommend it? It’s definitely not an easy lifestyle choice to carry through with. It’s a lot of work and the food isn’t going to taste good for a while (until you get better at this kind of cooking). It’s just hard work, and although I’m a huge fan of this type of food I also wish I could chain a Buddhist monk to my kitchen to cook all this for me. That being said, you get faster with time and it’s not all that bad. If I had to go back and do it again I definitely would. Also, going forward I’m going to keep making shojin ryori food and stay vegetarian 6 days a week, or so. It just comes down to how much healthier I feel now that this month is over.
Getting Started With Shojin Ryori
So now you’re convinced. You want to put yourself through the trials and tribulations that are shojin ryori. Okay! I can help you get started. These are the books that I used (especially the first two). They’ll keep you busy for a long time and get you easily through your first month of cooking.
This was actually the book that got me interested in this idea. I came across it in the bookstore and leafed through it. It made me remember all the awesome shojin ryori food I had had in the past and made me realize that I could make some of this food myself! It’s written by a lady who’s married to a shojin chef in Japan and has a mix of traditional and modern. It’s a great getting-started book because it caters to the Western reader without jumping the shark. If you only buy one book I’d recommend this one, though after a month or two you’ll be craving for more, I think. [Amazon]
This book is a bit old and was written by Keizo Kobayashi, someone who went around gathering recipes from various Buddhist monks and temples. I like this book a lot because it’s no frills and very simple. Sometimes it’s too simple, though, not giving enough information for a newb like me to cook the dish properly the first time. That being said, I’ve always been able to figure things out though, and the things I learn during that process have been invaluable. This book is full of traditional recipes. If you’re planning to be very diligent about this point, “Shojin Cooking” is your kind of book. Still, I’d recommend learning the basics from Fujii’s book (above) before diving into this one for a better overall experience. [Amazon]
Kansha is written by Elizabeth Andoh, who also wrote Washoku (a similar Japanese cookbook that includes meat-things). Kansha is all vegetarian though it doesn’t necessarily focus on shojin ryori, though it never claims to do so. It does, however, have plenty of shojin ryori recipes, not to mention many other vegetarian recipes as well (almost as good, right?). What I like about Kansha is that it doesn’t get too fancy. It stays pretty simple and traditional most of the time, the food is good, and it has a lot of pictures and recipes. I haven’t had time to go through this book as thoroughly as the first two, though I’m excited to try out many of the recipes in here. I’d recommend this as your third book should you exhaust the first two, though it is very good. [Amazon]
Last is Nobu’s Vegetarian cookbook. Nobu’s sort of a big-time chef, and I think that shows in the cookbook. Many of the recipes are too fancy for my taste, though there are plenty of gems in here as well. I learned a lot about the science behind Japanese vegetarian cooking which gained me a deeper understanding of how everything goes together (which has helped tremendously). I’ve also done a couple recipes out of this book and they’ve turned out nicely. Although I’m not really into the fancy “modern” vegetarian cuisine in this book I have found it useful. I’d recommend it as the fourth book in your collection of Japanese vegetarian cook books. [Amazon]
So there you have it! A month (plus a little) of shojin ryori experience down on paper for you all to read. I’m not particularly good at this whole shojin ryori thing yet, but I do hope to get better. If I can’t live in a temple on Mt. Koya, this is the second best thing, though it’s a very, very far second.
So, are you going to give it a try as well? Let me know in the comments what you think, and I’m happy to try to answer any questions as well, if I can.