Vegan options are on the rise in Japan due to its perception as a healthy alternative. For example, obento and ramen are just some of the foods that are being transformed by the vegan trend. Despite these new creations, the ultimate vegan dining experience is still undoubtedly the traditional vegan cuisine, shojin ryori (Buddhist cuisine). Whilst it was originally only enjoyed by the Buddhist monks, it is now enjoyed by vegans and meat-eaters alike. This article will explain what shojin ryori is, and where you can enjoy it.
Shojin ryori: A special type of Vegan Food
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Shojin Ryori literally translates to ‘devotion cuisine’, which represents the pursuit of enlightenment in Buddhism. The first two characters, 精進 (shojin), means “to refine and advance”. The last two characters, 料理 (ryori), means “cuisine”.
Shojin ryori first arrived in Japan with the introduction of Buddhism in 500 AD. However, it wasn’t until the 13th Century when Buddhism gained popularity that the meal spread to all corners of Japan.
Shojin Ryori does not use any meat products because Buddhism believes that any harm to animals should be minimised; killing an animal will obstruct a person’s way towards enlightenment. Therefore, none of these meals contains any animal products. Instead, it has plenty of soybean-based foods and seasonal vegetables. If the right ingredients are used, body, mind, and spirit will be fully nourished.
Principles of Shojin Ryori and the Common Ingredients
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Principle of Shojin Ryori
Having the five colours and flavours present at each shojin ryori meal is crucial. If all elements are present, the body will be in harmony with the environment and the season. There are five colours and flavours:
Colours: red, yellow, green, white and black
Flavours: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savoury (umami)
In addition to the colours and flavours, there are five preparation methods for shojin ryori. This includes boiling, roasting, steaming, stewing, and eaten raw. Shojin ryori is prepared in a way as to minimize waste, so vegetable scraps such as the skins or tops are reserved and used to enhance flavours of the soups.
- Soy-related products: tofu, fried soybean curd, tofu skin, natto, etc.
- Fu: wheat gluten (meat substitute)
- Konnyaku: jelly made out of konjac potato
- Wakame: seaweed
- Seasonal vegetables
- Summer – tomatoes and eggplants
- Autumn – pumpkin and sweet potatoes
- Winter – daikon radish and root vegetables
- Spring – sprouts and shoots of spring vegetables
Seasonings are used to a limited extent to ensure the natural flavours of the vegetables can be savoured.
- Soy sauce
- Kombu dashi: Japanese seaweed kelp stock
- Sake: Japanese cooking wine
- Mirin: Japanese sweet rice wine
- Miso: fermented soybeans paste
A shojin ryori meal consists of one soup and three sides, accompanied by rice and pickles. This is based on the principle of 一汁三菜 (ichi ju san sai), “one soup, three sides”. Here are some of the common dishes.
- Soy milk-based carrot/pumpkin soup
- Kenchinjiru: clear soup with root vegetables and tofu
- Goma-dofu: a tofu-like dish made out of ground sesame paste, water, and kuzu powder
- Vegetable tempura
- Nasu Dengaku: sweet miso-glazed eggplants
- Traditional Japanese salads
- Shiro-ae: mashed tofu and vegetable salad seasoned with soy sauce and sesame
- Namasu: pickled julienned vegetable salad
When it comes to shojin ryori, how you eat is just as important as what you eat. Thus, each meal should be eaten with sincerity and gratitude. Here are some things to keep in mind when enjoying your meal.
- Use both hands when handling the chopsticks and the dishes.
- Chew slowly and concentrate on the flavours of the food
- Stay quiet throughout the meal
Where can I try shojin ryori and vegan food?
The best places to try shojin ryori is at the Buddhist temples. Some may even provide an opportunity for you to cook shojin ryori yourself. Kyoto, one of the most traditional cities in Japan with over a thousand temples, is one of the best cities to taste this cuisine. The number of restaurants specialising in shojin ryori in major cities have also surged due to the health benefits and the attractive appearance of shojin ryori.
Whilst the original shojin ryori was strict on using no animal products, the rules have softened over the years. In addition, many people do not consider fish as meat in Japan. Therefore, some places may use eggs, milk, or stock made from dried skipjack tuna. Please check the shojin ryori served is truly vegan or not before you go.
Shojin ryori will only get more and more popularity as time goes on. Not only is it healthy and delicious, it is also kind to the animals and the environment. Through this one dish, you get to experience the unique Japanese cuisine and culture. If you have any questions or comments, please let us know below!