Food & Drink | NATURE'S PANTRY

Why is vegan shōjin ryōri cuisine so deeply compelling?

by Nancy Singleton Hachisu

Contributing Writer

Japan’s vegan temple food, shōjin ryōri, is rooted in hundreds of years of tradition. It is unselfconsciously light, flavorful and utterly delicious. Even dedicated carnivores will come away from a shōjin meal not mourning the lack of meat or fish, but feeling satisfied and well-fed in both mind and spirit.

The Japanese characters for shōjin ryōri (精進料理), indicate this almost 1,000-year-old vegan repast is rooted in following one’s “pure heart.” In its full glory, shōjin ryōri consists of a multicourse seasonal plant- and legume-based meal that often features foraged wild herbs. Like its more elegant counterpart, kaiseki ryōri (upscale Japanese cuisine, originally tied to the tea ceremony), there is a prescribed flow and mandate for what types of dishes make up a shōjin ryōri meal.

It’s traditionally served in red or black lacquer bowls on trays with zen (small feet). Zensai (small bites) share one plate, while the other dishes — such as aemono (sauce-dressed), nimono (simmered) or yakimono (grilled) — come in lidded dishes the diner then unveils. To close, kanmi (a last light, often fruit-based bite) is served with tea. This method of cooking has an inherent restraint, but that does not mean the food lacks substance. It’s a kind of mindful meal that showcases veganism at its very best.

Alfresco: The open dining space at Harumi Kawaguchi's temple allows diners to experience Japan's 72 microseasons in both food and environs. | NANCY SINGLETON HACHISU
Alfresco: The open dining space at Harumi Kawaguchi’s temple allows diners to experience Japan’s 72 microseasons in both food and environs. | NANCY SINGLETON HACHISU

The richness in shōjin ryōri comes from the delicately fried morsels of vegetables; sesame- or walnut-dressed dishes; and tofu in all its forms — fresh, fried, dried or fermented. Rice vinegars, mirin (sweet fermented cooking alcohol) and ume (plum) are key components for playing off sweet and sour while miso and shoyu have fermented, salty notes for depth of flavor. But it’s in the variety of dishes and the gorgeousness of the colors where temple food is most deeply compelling.

Seasonality has been an inextricable cultural force throughout history in Japan, and is still an essential way to approach art, poems, bonsai plant sculpting and food. Japan breaks down its four seasons into 72 microseasons that catalogue the minute changes in land and sea. And despite the prevalence of supermarkets selling supposedly seasonal produce year-round, and the phenomenon of simply eating what’s convenient, the theory of, and reverence for, seasonal eating is an undeniable goal of many Japanese — though sometimes out of reach in urban Japan.

Historically, the Japanese diet has not included much meat, so it’s still a footnote to most meals today. Fish is the main protein and vegetables are a crucial part of all Japanese meals. Western countries have a long-rooted relationship with meat, but in our current climate there are concerns about the sustainability of such an eating practice. Worldwide, farmers are working to give back to the land and raise animals responsibly.

Beyond that, even consistent meat eaters often look for a cleaner way to eat, and protein is no longer a prerequisite to a fine meal. Embracing the tenets of shōjin ryōri is one solution for those searching for another way of sustainable eating.

In present-day Japan, making shōjin ryōri dishes at home is often viewed as beyond reach or intimidating. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s true that shōjin ryōri is often found at Zen temples or special restaurants, not considered daily food to be made every day, but shōjin ryōri cookbooks are readily available and dish preparations are as easily approachable as those for other Japanese foods. Even at home, you can make just one or two dishes, or get lost in preparing a whole meal.

The first cookbook I purchased upon arrival in Japan was a shōjin ryōri cookbook, and I set about devising a menu from it to cook for my Japanese friends. The ladies at the local food store were tickled by the foreign girl searching for gourd ribbons and kōyadōfu (freeze-dried tofu), but eagerly took me under their wings. Most of my friends had never actually eaten shōjin ryōri, so the party was a great success. Over the years I’ve continued to seek out temples where I can experience this lovely, compelling cuisine myself, and feel nourished to my core each time I do.

When I make a too-rare visit to my Zen nun friend, Harumi Kawaguchi, at the Okayama Prefecture temple where she cooks, she installs me in a room adjacent to the kitchen and adjures me to wait while she prepares my meal.

After a couple of hours pass, she slides open the shoji screen and beckons me to follow her to a large room overlooking a garden courtyard. In this gloriously tranquil spot she serves me a classically authentic shōjin ryōri meal using the traditional set of red lacquer dishes, each one designated for a specific style of cooking, all carefully arranged on a red lacquer tray.

Kawaguchi’s approach and plating is subdued, never overthought or contrived, yielding brightly delicious marvelous bites of a myriad different and subtle flavors. Spring menus are always an interplay of the season’s quintessential bitter and mild ingredients — her bamboo shoot dumpling on a bed of young wakame seaweed puree and a square of bracken fern with vinegary mustard-miso are standout preparations.

As it should be, the food is both soulful and healing. Words fail me as I slowly partake of each dish, bite after bite washing over me like a soothing balm. The experience is transcendent.

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