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The Japanese Table

Shojin Ryori: Vegetarian Cooking

by Itaro Enoki

A distinctive link between religion and food can be found in a variety of cultures. Here we look at the relationship between the Buddhist teaching of compassion for all living creatures and the development in Japan of a special type of vegetarian cooking known as shojin ryori. Japan's abundant supply of both wild and cultivated vegetables as well as a wide array of commercial vegetable products rewards this kind of diet with amazing versatility.

Taboo and History

The teachings of Buddhism forbid priests and other seekers of enlightenment from drinking alcoholic beverages and eating all types of meat (including fish), as well as the five strong-smelling herbs of the lily family (garlic, scallions, onions, shallots and leeks). Such religious taboos on specific foods are not confined to Buddhism but may be found in all religions. They should be understood as universal taboos based on religious faith. Eating meat is the most strictly prohibited, and in Buddhism this rule is derived from the teachings about compassion. Buddhism stresses in particular the precept forbidding the destruction of life. Valuing the lives of other living creatures as we do our own, we should not kill. This teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha is fundamental to Buddhist thought.

In the period of Early Buddhism, in India, the home of Shakyamuni, the taboo on eating meat was not strictly observed. Some one hundred years after the death of the historical Buddha, the prohibition of the taking of life came to be taken up as the first of the five precepts of Buddhism, and the idea that whoever embraces Buddhism must not kill was thoroughly inculcated among the priesthood. The prohibition on eating meat led to a vegetarian diet, which accorded perfectly with Buddhist doctrine and was considered to be a visible form of the daily strenuous endeavor (shojin) to perform good deeds in seeking Buddhahood. Hence, the diet came to be called shojin ryori, and the strict rules applied to cooking and eating are considered to be a form of shugyo (acetic practice).

The shojin ryori was originally served in the priests' bowls at mealtime in the temple. Gradually, guests and other visitors to the temple also began to partake, and eventually certain prescribed foods were served in utensils placed on a tray with legs (honzen). Even today shojin ryori is served in honzen style in many temples throughout Japan.

As the chanoyu (tea ceremony) flourished from the late Muromachi period (1333-1568) onward, shojin ryori began being served at tea ceremony events, such as those held in memory of someone who has died. Called kaiseki ryori, this style of cuisine remains today in various forms.

Influence on Home Cooking

Kyoto was the home of the imperial court and the political and cultural center of the country for about one thousand years after the capital was moved there in the late eighth century. The location of many noted temples, Kyoto was also the historical center where Buddhism flourished and developed. Shojin ryori prepared at the kitchens of the famous temples in the city was probably the object of great interest among the populace. These kitchens may have been something like today's cooking schools. The wives of temple parishioners actively visited their temples, asked priests for all sorts of information on the recipes for shojin ryori and, upon returning home, made vegetarian foods and served them as part of their regular family meals.

Home-cooking of vegetarian dishes, however, had little of the original Buddhist connotations of shojin ryori, and the prohibition against eating meat was often overlooked in ordinary households. Housewives used the same ingredients as those in the temple's shojin ryori, but they knew how to improve the taste of dishes, such as cooking the ingredients in soup or stock made from meat or fish. This enhanced the attractions of vegetable cooking in a different way from that of genuine shojin ryori. The flavoring of vegetable ingredients using meat or fish seasonings is a basic principle of cooking. It was admirable that vegetarian diets thus advanced in a category essentially different from shojin ryori, which was in a sense restrained by the Buddhist dogma of compassion.

Under the influence of the shojin ryori prepared by and for Buddhist priests, vegetarian food became part of the daily meals of ordinary households, and a major contributing factor behind this was the rich variety of ingredients both share. Typical of the processed ingredients indispensable to vegetarian cooking are tofu and abura-age (fried soybean curd). Numerous others include goma-dofu (sesame tofu), koya-dofu (dried tofu), yuba (soy milk film), fu (wheat gluten; fresh, dry, and fried fu), natto (fermented soy beans) and konnyaku (cakes or strips made from the starch of a rum root).

Among the seaweed products used for vegetarian cooking are konbu kelp, wakame sea greens, arame, hijiki and nori. All vegetables, except the five strong- smelling herbs of the lily family, are usable when they are in season, products of the regular cycle of the four seasons. Also used are edible wild plants such as warabi (fiddlehead fern), zenmai (flowering fern), tara-no-me (angelica buds) and kogomi (ostrich fern). Many kinds of edible roots and mushrooms are also prized. Beans are rich in variety (boiled bans are always stocked by temple kitchens). All these natural delicacies, including fruits and nuts, are ingredients that home vegetarian cooking shares with shojin ryori.

The techniques of cooking, processing and preserving these ingredients could not have enriched ordinary household meals without the wisdom and guidance of the cooking priests of Zen and other Buddhist temples. In that sense, the history of the development of shojin ryori is also an integral part of the cultural history of Japanese people.

Author's Profile

Itaro Enoki, head chef of the famous Warabi No Sato restaurant in Kyoto, studied shojin ryori as a follower of Soto Zen Buddhism. Winner of awards from the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Labor, he is still actively involved in food research.