Today, we live in a world where many things have gone wrong with the diets of many people. These include inhumanely raised meat and poultry laden with antibiotics and hormones, and mass-made products laced with preservatives and artificial coloring and flavoring agents. Since these foods are cheap, convenient and readily available, people may consume too much of them, contributing to ever-increasing problems with obesity in the population. These are complex problems with no quick and easy solution, but there is a path that we can take to guide us toward a better way of preparing and consuming our daily food.
Shojin ryori: The backbone of Japanese food culture
Let us take a journey to search for the spirit of shojin ryori, the venerable Japanese vegetarian cuisine. The ideas behind this vegetarian cuisine were introduced to Japan by the famous monk Dogen, who traveled to China in the 13th century to study Zen Buddhism, then returned and founded several temples in Japan. Only monks at the temple followed the strictly vegetarian shojin ryori diet; the rest of the population depended on a diet of grains, fish, legumes, vegetables and fruit. However, the spirit of shojin ryori deeply penetrated the lives and dining styles of ordinary people and became the backbone of Japanese food culture — why we eat, how we eat and what we eat.
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Dogen prohibited the monks at his temples from slaughtering animals for human consumption, in the belief that killing is an inhumane act that interferes with the training of the monks who meditate in order to attain enlightenment. Shojin means a process of continuous meditation; ryori means cuisine. Zen Buddhist monks meditate at the temple throughout the day — even the time for preparing and consuming meals is an important period of meditation. To the monks, meals are not for enjoyment or satisfying hunger, but for sustaining their health so they can continue to meditate.
At each meal, Zen monks recite five teachings. This is the essence of that recitation:
1. We offer great thanks to nature that has brought us food to this table. We offer great thanks to the people who made our meal possible at this table, especially thanks to the monk-cooks who devoted their labor and time to prepare the dishes and to the farmers who produced this bounty.
2. We reflect to ourselves before consuming a meal, “Do we deserve to receive this meal?”
3. We do not bring human desires, including greed, anger or other emotions, to the table.
4. Our meal is like medicine for us. Our humble, but balanced meal nourishes both our mental and physical health.
5. Mealtime is the extension of meditation time. As we eat we continue to train ourselves in order to become a better person.
Offering thanks to those who brought meals to our tables
When I was brought up — not at all in a monastery — these five teachings were a part of my family’s life, and the lives of everyone we knew. We Japanese had no choice as to what we were served at our table. Our mothers prepared meals using ingredients that were given to us by nature, each in its own season. We were taught to offer thanks to everyone who brought the meals to our table, including the forces of nature, the farmers, the truck drivers, the fishermen and the workers at food stores.
Our mothers utilized every part of the ingredients and instructed us not to waste food. Our foods were not necessarily cheap, but were always the highest quality that the household could afford. And the food was always safe to consume. Mothers repeated these five teachings at each mealtime to make sure that we were properly satisfied and nourished.
Unfortunately, today in Japan highly processed, chemically laden foods are as ubiquitous as in the U.S. But the teachings of the monks and the food practices of my youth remain as valid today as they ever have been.
By introducing and practicing in our lives the spirit of shojin ryori that I have described, we can change our attitude toward why we eat, how we eat and what we eat. Here are a few more valuable concepts to add to our practice to complete and complement the spirit of shojin ryori.
Shojin ryori balances five colors, five flavors and five preparation techniques in order to create meals that nourish all of our five senses as well as our bodies and minds. The five colors are white, green, yellow, black and red. Think of employing as many of the five colors as you can for the vegetables in your meal. Using this idea, developed long before food chemists validated it scientifically, we can balance the nutrients in our meal.
The five flavors are sweet, salty, bitter, acid and spicy. These flavors should, whenever possible, come naturally from ingredients, and not by separately adding excess sugar, salt, acidity or spiciness to the prepared dishes.
The five preparation techniques are raw, simmered, grilled, deep-fried and steamed. The use of these cooking techniques produces different and pleasing textures and flavors in the meal. Deep-frying, which doesn’t have the best reputation these days, is a necessary technique, especially when we are cooking only vegetable dishes. It adds calories and nourishment in the prepared meal. And try to use all parts of the ingredients. They have, after all, given up their lives for the sake of nourishing us. If, for example, you are preparing a root vegetable, use both the leaves and root, including its skin.
A simple dessert with an appealing flavor
Now I want to share with you a delightful, delicious and nourishing dessert recipe, mineoka dofu. Mineoka dofu is derived from one of the most popular and ancient shojin ryori preparations called goma-dofu. Goma-dofu is prepared by cooking kelp stock and ground sesame paste along with kuzu, arrowroot starch. Monks at Zen temples spend more than two hours preparing this very simple dish, using the time to perform additional meditation. This mineoka dofu recipe, which can be prepared in much less than two hours, was created in the 18th century. Though the name has the word dofu, or tofu, in it, the dish does not contain tofu. This recipe uses milk (but not kelp stock), so the flavor will be very appealing to us. The recipe is from my book “The Sushi Experience.”
½ cup brown sugar plus ¼ cup granulated sugar, or ¼ cup light molasses instead of both sugars
2 tablespoons kuzu (arrowroot starch)
2 cups whole milk
¼ cup heavy cream
½ cup white sesame paste (available in Japanese stores, or substitute tahini, available in Middle Eastern stores)
2 cups small strawberries cut into halves
1. Make the molasses syrup first with the sugars and 1¼ cups water. If using light molasses, dilute with a little warm water if necessary.
2. Mix together in a bowl the kuzu, milk, cream and sesame paste and stir with a whisk. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a medium pot. Place the pot over medium heat and cook 2 to 3 minutes. At this point the mixture becomes sticky. Turn the heat to low and cook an additional 20 minutes.
3. Transfer the mixture into a mold and cool. Cover the mold with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Before serving, divide the mineoka dofu from the mold into dessert bowls. Pour the molasses syrup over the mineoka dofu and top with the strawberries.
There is a very good shojin ryori restaurant in New York City called Kajitsu. There you can experience real Zen temple vegetarian cooking. Such restaurants may be found in other large cities. Ask and be sure that they serve traditional shojin ryori, and not simply “vegetarian” dishes. If you call them and they don’t understand when you ask if they serve shojin ryori, try another place.
Main photo: The first course of a shojin ryori meal, including goma-dofu, in Kyoto, Japan. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo