Although I love most styles of Japanese cooking, my favorite is shojin ryori, or temple cuisine.
This style of cooking, practiced primarily in Buddhist temples, came to China from Japan along with the Zen Buddhism. Since Buddhist practice forbids killing animals for consumption, shojin ryori contains no meat or fish and also eschews the use of “exciting” or “pungent” ingredients like garlic and onions.
Meals are seasonal in nature and feature local produce. Shojin ryori focuses on aligning the body with nature and the seasons, and the dishes served vary accordingly. For example, an autumn meal might feature mushroom soba:
While the noodles served in summer might be cold, and accompanied by tomato, cucumber and corn:
Another important principle of shojin ryori is lack of waste. Whenever possible, meals use every part of the ingredients. Even peelings and leafy tops–often discarded in the West–are used in soups, condiments, and sauces (if not in the dish itself).
The soup above contains a vegetarian dashi (broth), yuba (tofu skin – which may sound horrible but actually tastes fantastic) and leafy greens.
Shojin ryori follows the “rule of five”- each meal should contain five colors (red, yellow, green, black, and white) and five flavors (salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami). Since meals contain no artificial flavorings or colors, these tastes are derived entirely from the vegetables and permitted seasonings (which are used as a secondary component, to draw out the vegetables’ natural flavors).
Some people think vegetarian food can’t hold a candle to dishes made with meat–but after eating temple meals, I disagree. Shojin ryori offers a wide variety of delicious tastes and textures, and since the dishes change with every season (Note: Japan recognizes more seasons than Western calendars do, based on the plants, flowers, and vegetables that reach their peak at specific times of year), shojin ryori offers a far wider range of offerings than many meat-based meals do, especially in the West.
I’m looking forward to the temple meals I’ll eat in Japan while traveling on my 100 Summits quest to climb the nihon hyakumeizan (100 famous peaks of Japan) in the coming year. And I promise to bring you with me–in photos and stories–each step of the way!
Have you ever eaten shojin ryori? If not, is it something you’d like to try?