The Original No-Waste Kitchens: Japan's Shojin Ryori Cuisine

Greta Samuel / © Culture Trip
Photo of Greg Goodmacher
29 April 2020
View

Not one drop of water or gram of ingredients should be lost in the preparation of shojin ryori, a Zen Buddhist cuisine that embraces core aspects of the religion’s teachings. Over 1,000 years old, shojin ryori is still mindfully prepared by monks across Japan, including Monk Hojyou.

“Refraining from violence and killing is fundamental,” says Monk Hojyou, a spry and thoughtful 73-year-old Soto Zen Buddhist. Here at Fusaiji, his temple in Murakami, Niigata, he teaches Zen meditation and serves shojin ryori – a variety of Japanese cuisine entwined with Buddhist philosophy – to parishioners and visitors.

“Since killing and consuming animals is forbidden,” Hojyou adds, “meat and seafood are taboo ingredients.” Nearly all shojin ryori dishes are vegan – although depending on the Buddhist sect, the season and the location, some shojin ryori cooks utilise dairy products and eggs. Soybeans and soybean products such as tofu and yuba (soy-milk skin), as well as fu (wheat gluten), tend to be prominent among a range of plant-based ingredients.

The spread of shojin ryori in Japan

Korean Buddhist monks introduced Buddhism and their spiritual philosophy regarding food to the Japanese in the sixth century. In the 13th century, Zen Buddhists from China formed a second wave spreading shojin ryori and other aspects of Buddhism throughout Japan.

Greta Samuel / | © Culture Trip

Although shojin ryori has evolved over the centuries, the underlying philosophy has not changed. Today, the shojin ryori dishes you can find in restaurants and even supermarkets across Japan are similar to the ones eaten by Buddhist monks over 1,000 years ago. Classic elements in shojin ryori meals include sesame tofu or simmered bamboo shoots.

There are similarities between vegetarianism and shojin ryori, but Hojyou explains that “the philosophy is different. The preparation of shojin ryori mirrors a belief system. Being satisfied with what one has is part of that thinking. Cooks should not waste ingredients.” In his temple’s kitchen and in the monastery where he studied as a novice, cooks do not discard any part of ingredients. For instance, the leaves and bruised portions of daikon all become ingredients.

Shojin ryori is also an extension of another important Buddhist belief: one should be satisfied with one’s surroundings,” Hojyou continues. In terms of cooking, this means that shojin ryori chefs utilise seasonal and local ingredients. Different monks and cooks, though, follow this policy to varying degrees. Autumnal shojin ryori meals are likely to include mushrooms, and spring dishes tend to incorporate the shoots and sprouts of mountain vegetables.

Buddhism for the belly

Hojyou points out that the kanjis used to write shojin ryori express significant Buddhist values. Sho, written 精, means purification. Jin, written 進, expresses advancement or moving forward. Ryori or 料理 means food.

A significant ingredient in the shojin ryori experience is mindfulness on the part of the diners and cooks. Sarah Hodge is an American living in Japan who practices zazen and cooks shojin ryori at home. “Preparing and eating shojin ryori is closely linked to my practice of Zen and the concept of mindfulness,” she says. “As you focus on preparing the food, not a single grain of rice, scrap of peel or drop of water is to be wasted. We reflect on the origins of the very vegetables and the grains we are preparing, thanking the land and farmers who made this meal possible.”

The number five has significance for members of most Buddhist sects. There are five main rules of behaviour, and many ancient Buddhists believed in the following five elements: earth, water, fire, wind and space. The rule of five extends to shojin ryori: all meals should offer five colours (green, yellow, red, black and white) and five flavours (sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami). Temples that serve shojin ryori to guests are likely to provide dishes that follow the rules of five colours and tastes.

(Hojyou says that he does not take these rules too seriously, however. For instance, most of the temple dishes in winter are preserved foods, lacking such colourful variety and flavours.)

Shojin ryori is found the length and breadth of Japan. Some 750km (466mi) south of Hojyou’s temple, at Shukubo Sanrakuso on Mt. Daisen in Tottori, Goken Shimizu – also a Buddhist monk – serves both traditional and more innovative interpretations of the cuisine. Sanrakuso is a lodge for Buddhist pilgrims and travellers interested in learning about Buddhism. Visitors can experience zazen meditation and the ‘Zen Burger’. The ingredients include tofu, soy sauce, rice, lotus root, and other vegetables. It is a modern – and very tasty – example of what Sarah Hodge calls “edible Zen”.

The recipe below is for a typical Japanese vegetarian dish that can be shojin ryori if both cooks and diners follow the principles above.

Greta Samuel / | © Culture Trip

Kinpira Gobo

Ingredients

100g burdock root (gobo in Japanese)

50g carrots

2 green (bell) peppers

1 yellow (bell) pepper

1 tbsp black sesame seeds

2 tbsp soy sauce

1 tbsp sugar

1 tbsp mirin

1 tbsp sake

1 tbsp sesame oil

1 tbsp vegetable oil

Method

Clean and cut all vegetable ingredients into strips about 1 inch in length and about one-quarter inch in width.

Soak burdock in water for about five minutes.

Remove the burdock from water.

Heat a frying pan.

Add vegetable oil.

Stir fry the carrot and burdock strips on medium heat for two minutes.

Add the other vegetables. Stir-fry for one minute. Add soy sauce, sugar, sake and mirin.

Briefly continue to stir and mix until the seasonings and vegetables.

Add the sesame oil and mix again.

Sprinkle sesame seeds on top and serve.

Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel – and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.

Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.

Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Epic Trips, Mini Trips and Sailing Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travellers and friends who want to explore the world together.

Epic Trips are deeply immersive 8 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and enough down time to really relax and soak it all in. Our Mini Trips are small and mighty - they squeeze all the excitement and authenticity of our longer Epic Trips into a manageable 3-5 day window. Our Sailing Trips invite you to spend a week experiencing the best of the sea and land in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm – and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.

Cookies Policy

We and our partners use cookies to better understand your needs, improve performance and provide you with personalised content and advertisements. To allow us to provide a better and more tailored experience please click "OK"