Shojin Ryori: Buddhist Temple Cuisine

In Japanese, shojin ryori (devotional cuisine) refers to a style of vegetarian cooking practiced at Buddhist temples.

Kumagaiji Breakfast

Like most forms of Japanese cooking. the dishes served in temples change with the seasons, and generally utilize local vegetables and regional specialties. Some temples offer abundant meals with dishes worthy of five-star chefs, while others serve more simple fare, but the shojin ryori visitors can taste in  Japanese Buddhist temples generally adheres to a few universal rules:

— The meal will not include any animal products. (This includes dairy products like milk and cheese as well as meat, fish, and eggs.)

— Dishes do not include garlic, onions, hot peppers or other spices or pungent vegetables that unduly “excite the senses.”

— Meals include “five colors and five textures” in order to ensure a balance of visual and textural elements. 

Ekoin dinner

— No edible waste is created – every part of the vegetable is used in one dish or another.

— The meal will contain multiple dishes, each with a different focus, texture, color, and flavor designed to complement the others and create a unique and memorable experience.

Some temples do bend the rules on occasion when serving overnight guests. For example, this breakfast I ate at Tatsueji, on the island of Shikoku, included an egg in addition to the standard dishes the Buddhist priests receive:

Tatsueji Temple Breakfast

However, many temples serve overnight guests exactly the way they do the priests. Meals are usually served in the guest room, allowing the visitor to enjoy and appreciate the dishes in am unhurried manner, either in meditative silence or in conversation with the other members of their group.

While many people think vegetarian meals are bland or unpleasant, shojin ryori focuses on creating spectacular dishes that feast the eyes as well as the palate. The meals are filling and delicious. In fact, all of the meals I’ve eaten in Buddhist temples rank among the very best I’ve eaten anywhere in Japan.

In the days to come, I’ll take you on a virtual tour of several shojin ryori meals. Stop back on Wednesday for breakfast at Tatsueji, on sacred Mount Koya!