shojin ryori - traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine

Shojin Ryori – Traditional Japanese Buddhist Cuisine

What comes to your mind when you hear “Japanese food”? I bet you have no trouble coming up with foods like sushi, sashimi or tonkatsu. But try to come up with Japanese food that is vegetarian or even vegan. That’s quite difficult, isn’t it? Well, meet shojin ryori – traditional Buddhist cuisine which is vegetarian / vegan and tastes amazing.

What Is Shojin Ryori?

精進料理 shōjin ryōri defines traditional cuisine of Japanese Buddhist monks. It first came up with Zen Buddhism during the Kamakura period (1192-1333). Shojin ryori is usually served at temples and is made without any meat, fish or other animal products. This makes it one of the best options for vegans, vegetarians but also your typical meat-eater. And most importantly, it tastes amazing.

shojin ryori - traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine

Buddhist Cuisine and Principles

Buddhist cuisine is based on the concept of ahimsa (non-violence). This means that Buddhists can’t use meat or fish in their food and many Japanese monks also extend that even further. For instance, you’ll hardly ever find strong-smelling plants like garlic, onion or mountain leek in traditional monk food.

Photo by Jean Vella on Unsplash

Equally important, they try to use simple, natural and local ingredients. And when they prepare a meal, they treat every ingredient with the same respect. This is said to be the reason why shojin ryori tastes so good. Because for the monks it’s not about the ingredients and how expensive they are but rather their quality and flavour.

That’s what makes Japanese monk food, taste so amazing, despite the simple ingredients.

What Does Shojin Ryori Look Like?

Well, I said that Japanese monks try to stay simple when they prepare food. But look at it! That’s not what I’d call “simple”…

shojin ryori - traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine

The art of preparing shojin ryori or traditional Japanese food, in general, is making the process of eating interesting. This means that every part of the meal gets it’s own little, colourful plate.

That allows you to experience every foods unique flavour and texture without “interruption”. For example, the soft tofu won’t get put on the same plate as deep-fried vegetables, because they are completely different in texture and taste and thus have to be eaten on their own.

Related article: Why do the Japanese use so many plates?

Typical Shojin Ryori Dishes

Japanese cuisine is based on the principle ichi ju san sai which means one soup, three side dishes. The goal of this is creating a balanced meal which includes all colours, flavours and macro-nutrients. 
shojin ryori - traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine

But how do you do this without any meat, fish or other animal products?

Well, traditional Buddhist cuisine often uses things like tofu, soy products, vegetables, daikon radish or mushrooms. The chef then tries to make the best thing out of that simple ingredient without adding too much sauce, sugar or other things.

Here are some pictures of typical shojin ryori dishes:

Where to Eat Shojin Ryori

If you want to eat real, authentic shojin ryori, you have to go to Kyoto. With its thousands of temples, it is the best place to experience traditional Japan.

But you can also find good vegetarian monk food in Nikko or Koyosan in Wakayama prefecture.

Important: Preparing shojin ryori takes a lot of time and practice. This means that it won’t be cheap. And I recommend you better spend a bit more and get real, authentic Japanese monk food. Don’t go to some random tourist restaurant which has “JAPANESE MONK FOOD!” written in front of it.

TLDR; Everything About Shojin Ryori

In conclusion: Shojin ryori describes traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine which doesn’t use meat or fish and is thus vegetarian and often even vegan. It uses simple ingredients like tofu, soy beans and vegetables to create amazing tasting vegan food that can be enjoyed by everyone. The best place to eat shojin ryori is Kyoto but other traditional cities like Nikko are also a great place to find it.

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