Shojin ryori or the vegan cuisine of Zen Buddhist monks in Japan makes for a meal that is a combination of simple processes and surprising flavours
If you look up the phrase shojin ryori online, the most simplistic translation would be vegetarian food. Typically, the term refers to traditional Buddhist cuisine that spread from China in the 6th century. Described as ‘devotional cooking’ or ‘Zen Buddhist temple food’ by various sources, it is generally associated with the vegan food cooked by Buddhist monks across Japanese temples. Not surprisingly, food cooked in this style is a reflection of the disciplined and meditative lifestyle of the monks. For instance, it is largely driven by the idea of eating local and seasonal – as one travelogue puts it, ‘one should be able to recognise the season by eating it.’ Similar to Sattvic cooking, they avoid pungent ingredients such as onion, garlic, leeks, etc. Since it’s based on the principle of ahimsa, the monks don’t cook non-vegetarian food as well as dairy products. The latter could also be due to the predominance of soya milk and soya products such as tofu in Japanese cuisine as opposed to dairy-based foods.
Seated at ITC Gardenia’s Japanese restaurant, Edo, we are presented with a tray containing about 10 tiny platters laden with small portions of food ranging from varieties of seaweed and mushrooms to tofu. As Kamlesh Joshi, assistant master chef at Edo, comes out to talk to us about his rather artistic creation, we learn that there’s more to this beautiful platter than meets the eye. Take, for instance, the vibrant colours that pop up at you. “According to shijon ryori, there should be five different colours on your plate,” Joshi says. Similarly, each meal must include the five cooking methods – boiling, frying, simmering, roasting as well as a raw ingredient. Typically, each meal must contain a rice dish, a soup, pickled vegetables and about three side dishes. Tofu is an important element and it appears on our platters in different textures. There’s koyadofu, a freeze-dried tofu, which has to be soaked in water before cooking. With a spongy texture, the chunk of koyadofu on our plates comes topped with sweet miso paste. “With a meaty texture, this protein-rich tofu compensated for the lack of meat in their diet,” chef adds. Then there’s aburagae or sweetened fried tofu pockets that comes stuffed with Japanese rice sprinkled with yukari or plum powder. Yuba or tofu skin is another popular variant.
Like the many textures of tofu, we are presented with three types of seaweed. Since the monks don’t use seafood, broths are often flavoured with seaweed which tastes of the sea. Joshi talks about three varieties of seaweed they’ve imported. There’s mozuku from the legendary Okiwana, an island in Japan that’s best known for its inhabitants’ long lifespan. The slimy brown strings of algae are purportedly packed with antibacterial properties. The fresh green wakame marinated with sesame, on the hand, has a crunchier texture. But the most intriguing seaweed is the umebido that look like miniature bunches of green grapes (hence the moniker of sea grapes). Teamed with the piquant ponzu sauce (yuzu-infused soya), the little ‘berries’ burst in the mouth instantly.
While there are no set rules about eating in any particular order, the whole idea is to practise mindful eating where you chew and savour each bite. The pickled vegetables act as palate cleansers. Appreciating the food and understanding its benefits, is a process of enlightenment in itself. “The one rule that I am aware of is that the monks have to be seated on tatami mats placed on the floor and have their meal (usually in silence),” chef adds. The food in the temples is prepared by the monks themselves and many a time they eschew electronic gadgets for traditional methods. For instance, there are many references to the meditative practice of grinding black sesame seeds into a smooth paste in a mortar and pestle – a process that could take well over an hour. The idea is also to be connected to the food you consume and being part of its transformation.
Another important concept is not wasting any part of the fruit or vegetable. This means that often vegetables are used whole rather than peeled; stalks and leaves are sometimes used to prepare broth. Blanching vegetables or cooking them with very little water is a small but important element in the cooking process that draws out maximum flavour from the ingredient. Other classic Japanese foods that form a part of shojin ryori are vegetable tempura (made with seasonal vegetables and leaves) and braised daikon and mushrooms such as shitake, enoki and shimeji. For the tempura, the vegetables are often marinated in miso-flavoured water before being batter-fried so that each piece is flavourful enough to be eaten without dipping sauce.
Interestingly, many Japanese temples have dining halls that are open to outsiders who can partake of a traditional shojin ryori meal on their premises. For a cuisine that’s largely associated with seafood and meat, shojin ryori is a delightful departure from the norm. No less flavourful from what is perceived as typical Japanese cuisine, this truly is (en)lightened food.