Eat like a Buddhist Monk,
The art of Japanese Temple Cuisine
Part of the joy of veganism is discovering beauty and artistry of plant-based cuisine in all its
forms. Plants are the basis for every diet, so there is no country without its own collection of plant-based recipes, but there is perhaps no more refined expression of plant-based cuisine then that of Japanese temple cuisine or shojin ryori.
Shojin ryori is has a history dating back to the 13th century, and is usually entirely vegan. In addition to animal products, monks also abstain from alcohol, as well as garlic and onion.
Food is considered an essential part of a devotions – medicine for the body, but also one that should bring enjoyment. Even a simple dish should be made with care and attention – cooking tasks should be performed mindfully, with an appreciation for the ingredients and consideration for the people who will eat it. Likewise meals are to be savoured slowly, appreciated and enjoyed.
Nothing should be wasted. All the edible parts of an ingredients should be used. Portions are small to ensure no excess, and there are no wasteful dipping sauces that go uneaten after a meal. At the end of the day any remaining food byproducts are mixed with leftover rice to make porridge for the evening.
This philosophy of appreciation finds expression in simple dishes that aim to highlight the quality of the ingredients. Fresh, local and seasonal vegetables are the foundation of this diet, as well as being the basis for good health.
It is also believed that seasonal vegetables have specific health benefits, uniquely suited to each season – think of the bitterness of spring greens, watery summer vegetables, and hearty root vegetables in winter. Eating this way encourages us to slow down, and appreciate the transience of life, and the changing cycles of nature.
Ingredients are take from the mountains, the oceans and the earth – so that farmed vegetables, grains and pulses, are supplemented by foraged wild greens and “sea vegetables” – considered a normal part of a healthy diet. These might be dried, like seaweed and shiitake mushrooms, to provide high nutritional value and concentrated flavor.
Soy beans are featured in a variety of forms – both as a seasoning in soy sauce and miso, as well in a wealth of different tofu products.
A typical meal would consist of rice, soup, and three side dishes, with pickles as a staple addition. There are five foundations of spirituality in Buddhism and meals are planned around this number. Meals aim to include the five colours: green, yellow, red, white and black or purple. There are also five cooking methods: raw, steamed, grilled, boiled, and fried. And every meal should include the five tastes: sweet, hot, bitter, sour and salty ( with savory sometimes included as a sixth taste).
By understanding these principles we can see how any give meal might be constructed – soft tofu paired with crunchy tempura and fresh fruit. Black sesame seeds over white rice, a yellow pickle and steamed spinach. It’s a study in contrasts, but because the ingredients are all seasoned lightly the natural flavours work together in harmony.
Each distinct flavour is savoured. Even raw fruit is elegantly cut and presented, with each dish served individually. Beautiful crockery is mixed together in a variety of different colours and shapes, with each piece chosen to compliment the beauty of ingredients within.
Aromatic tea finishes the meal and provides another chance for reflection. The meal ending as it began – as an integral part of life’s daily devotions.
The five reflections:
- I reflect on the work that brings this food before me; let me see whence this food comes.
- I reflect on my imperfections, on whether I am worthy of this offering.
- Let me hold my mind free from preferences and greed.
- I take this food as an effective medicine to keep my body in good health.
- I accept this food so that I will fulfill my task of enlightenment.
“Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat” by Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle, 2005.
“The Enlightened Kitchen” by Mari Fujii, 2005.
Shojin Ryori, Culinary Fundamentals in Zen By Fujii Sotetsu
- Restrictions on animal products do vary considerably among different regions and different Buddhist sects.