Shojin Ryori - Gastro Obscura

Shojin Ryori

Japan's traditional temple cuisine features meals that are nutritionally and visually balanced.

The idea of religious devotion might seem at odds with elegant, delicious food. But for almost a millennium, Japanese Zen Buddhists have cooked shojin ryori, or “devotion cuisine.” Made without meat or fish, these meals are often served in temple restaurants, especially in the ancient city of Kyoto. 

Shojin ryori stems from Chinese Buddhist cuisine, which Chinese monks brought to Japan in the 13th century. Killing sentient creatures for food is forbidden in many Buddhist traditions, and milk and eggs were not commonly eaten in Japan before the 19th century. As a result, shojin ryori relies heavily on soybeans in many forms as well as both fresh and preserved vegetables. It does, however, eschew onions and garlic (since they’re considered impure). Usually, meals are intensely seasonal, and sometimes feature foraged foods, such as wild greens and mushrooms. Typical dishes include goma-tofu, or sesame-kudzu tofu, and kenchin-jiru, a tofu-vegetable soup. Often the dishes are served in red bowls and on a tray with a raised edge. According to food writer Alex Halberstadt, red is an auspicious color, while the edge of the tray symbolizes that the meal is taking place in a sacred space.

The process of making a shojin ryori meal can be laborious and time-consuming, but those aspects are often embraced by the cooks as meditative. As Halberstadt puts it, the purpose of eating such a meal is to “prepare the body for hard work and meditation.” Careful attention is paid to ensure that the final meal, typically a soup and three sides, presents a variety of colors and flavors. In Japan, many Buddhist temples have attached dining areas and inns for visitors. But even restaurants can serve the cuisine, occasionally with chefs that learned their skills in temples. The ultimate result is a supremely balanced meal: One that’s beautiful to the eye, delicious to the palate, and good for the soul.

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Written By
Anne Ewbank Anne Ewbank