Shojin-ryori is the traditional dining style of Buddhist monks in Japan and grew widespread in popularity with the spread of Zen Buddhism in the 13th century.
As the cuisine is made without meat, fish, or other animal products, it can be enjoyed by vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike.
A typical Shojin-ryori meal is centered around soybean-based foods like tofu along with seasonal vegetables and wild mountain plants, which are believed to bring balance and alignment to the body, mind, and spirit.
This simple meal contributed to Japan’s elegant haute cuisine called "Kaiseki", and today can be eaten at the dining halls located in Buddhist temples across Japan.
In days bygone, "Shojin" originally meant zeal in progressing amongst the path of enlightenment or pursuing a state of mind free of worldly thoughts and attachment.
In this way, the act of preparing Shojin-ryori is an essential practice of Buddhism that expresses one’s devotion to religious discipline.
The Basic Principles of Shojin-Ryori
Shojin-ryori was introduced to Japan from China by the monk Dogen, the founder of Zen Buddhism, whose practice emphasizes seated meditation.
Buddhist tradition forbade killing animals for human consumption, which was believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation.
As a result, the meals they ate were made without meat or fish and also abstained from the use of pungent flavors like garlic and onion.
These principles became the foundation of Shojin-ryori.
5 Colors and 5 Flavors
Despite the lack of meat, fish, or strong flavors, Japanese Buddhist cuisine is far from bland. The monks use the “rule of five” when cooking so that every meal offers five colors (green, yellow, red, black, and white) as well as five flavors (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami), which are drawn out naturally from the ingredients rather than added via additional flavorings.
This balance in color and flavor is believed to provide nutritional balance while also bringing the body into balance with the seasons.
For example, in the summertime, cucumber and tomato provide refreshment to cool the body, while in the autumn and winter, root vegetables warm the body.
Shojin-ryori is meticulously prepared so as to minimize waste, with even the carrot and radish peels and leafy green vegetable tops being used to make simple soup broth to accompany the meal.
Japanese white radish
Shojin-ryori is based on simplicity and harmony and so the preparation methods follow these principles. For example, dishes are prepared with balance in colors and flavors taking into consideration, so that each meal must have a balance of 5 different colors and flavors.
Nutritional balance is central to the preparation of these dishes and in addition, nothing goes to waste when preparing the dishes.
Every last piece of each ingredient is somehow incorporated into the meal.
Garlic, onion, and other pungent flavors are not used in Shojin-ryori, while standard vegetarian and vegan recipes do not prohibit the use of such ingredients.
The main ingredients used in Shojin-ryori are popular vegetarian Japanese foods like tofu and other soy-related products—abura-age (fried soybean curd), Koya-dofu (dried tofu), and Natto (fermented soybeans).
Fu, a traditional wheat gluten food, is also frequently used, along with Konnyaku, a thick gelatin-like food made from the konjac plant.
These ingredients are joined by various vegetables that change with the seasons-tomatoes and eggplant in the summer, kabocha squash and sweet potatoes in the fall and daikon radish and root vegetables in the winter.
In the springtime, tender wild mountain greens such as Fuki (butterbur) stalks and buds and the flowering Nanohana (rapeseed) plant provide a gently astringent flavor.
The main types of seasonings used for Shojin-ryori are dashi stock made with kombu kelp, as well as soy sauce, sake, mirin (sweet rice wine), miso (fermented bean paste), vinegar, and sesame oil.
However, the seasonings are used sparingly and are only meant to draw out the true flavors of the vegetables, rather than mask them.
Eggs and Milk
Eggs and milk were not traditionally used in Japanese cuisine because historically they were scarce in Japan.
However, these days Shojin-ryori may use dairy products because modern monks believe that the use of milk is not harmful to the animals.
If you’re vegan, be sure to ask ahead to be sure you’re getting a dairy-free meal.
Typical Shojin Ryori Dishes
A Shojin-ryori meal is usually structured around the principle of “Ichi-ju San-sai”, or “one soup and three side dishes” plus rice and pickles.
The soup can be anything from a creamy carrot or pumpkin soup made with soy milk, to Kenchinjiru, a type of clear soup made with root vegetables, vegan dashi, and tofu. The side dishes are typically small dishes like Goma-dofu (sesame tofu) garnished with freshly grated ginger or wasabi and a bit of soy sauce.
Other vegetarian Japanese food that appears commonly in Shojin- ryori dish is vegetable tempura, made with seasonal vegetables.
In the case of Shojin-ryōri, there is a commandment not to eat "beasts, fish, birds", so ordinary tempura uses all vegetables.
However, Spicy, odorous and energetic foods such as garlic, leeks, and Chinese chive are prohibited as they interfere with rigorous training.
Tempura coating is usually used in Eggs and Dashi (fish soup stock) but "Shojin-ryori" is eggs are not used in, and Dashi made from kelp and shiitake mushrooms.
Side Dish Example
When eggplant is in season, Nasu-Dengaku is also popular, a dish of deep-fried eggplant topped with a rich miso glaze.
A Shojin-ryori meal may also contain traditional Japanese salads like ”Shiraae”: a salad of mashed tofu and vegetables flavored with soy sauce and sesame.
”Namasu”: a raw-food salad made with julienned vegetables like daikon radish and carrot seasoned with vinegar.
Where to Eat Shojin Ryori in Japan
A traditional city filled with over a thousand temples, Kyoto is one of the best places to enjoy Shojin- ryori in Japan.
Other places to enjoy Shojin-ryori include the famous Buddhist retreat Koyasan in the mountains of Wakayama prefecture, as well as specialty restaurants in major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, where the vibrant colors and healthy dishes make shojin ryori especially popular among health-conscious young people.
Koya-san - is one of the most unique and authentic experiences you can have while visiting Japan is to visit Koyasan, a small town located in Mount Koya. It is the center for Shingon Buddhism, a religion that was introduced into Japan in 805.
At Koyasan, you can stay in one of the temples and experience the life of a monk by staying at the Buddhist monastery and partaking in morning prayers and meditations.
You will also be able to experience a strict Shojin-ryori diet during your time there.
There are over 50 temples in the Koyasan area serving as shukubou, or temple lodging for tourists and visiting pilgrims.