meat, neither flesh nor fowl. No fish. No dairy or eggs. Even
garlic and onions are verboten. And just forget about those
ready-made meat substitutes. The ingredients used in shojin
Japanese Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine are extremely limited--and
yet, one bite and you will be stunned by the profound deliciousness
of these humble vegetable dishes.
shojin cuisine appears simple, its taste trumps any expensive
gourmet meal--and it's all accomplished using only the natural
flavors of the freshest of vegetables, which are delicately
seasoned. Learning to prepare shojin cuisine is one aspect
of Zen training, and the cook's entire personality, not just
his cooking skill, should be reflected in the taste.
cuisine was introduced to Japan, along with Buddhism, from
China, almost 1,500 years ago. One of the five precepts of
the religion is Fusessho (Thou shalt not kill), so monks and
believers naturally shun killing animals for food. Shojin
cuisine spread through Japan in the 13th century when the
Zen sects arrived. Zen monks have continued to follow the
strictest edicts of shojin cooking, even though other sects
have gradually forgiven meat consumption.
Buddhists describe the daily cooking routine as one of the
most important ways to practice religious discipline, and
that is why they call it shojin, which means "zeal in progressing
along the path to salvation." Dogen, the founder of the Soto
sect of Zen, wrote that shojin cooks must exhibit deep faith
in Buddhist teachings, have a wealth of experience and possess
righteous and benevolent hearts.
I cook, I am always amazed at how beautiful the vegetables
are," Koei Hoshino, abbess of Sankoin temple, a nunnery in
Koganei, western Tokyo, said. "All of the vegetables are full
of energy, and they reinvigorate us. I feel Buddha in each
plate, and appreciate the vegetables' offerings all the time."
71, is one of the most respected shojin cooks in the country.
She entered Sankoin temple when she was young, and learned
the art of shojin cooking from the late abbess, Soei Yoneda.
offers shojin lunch courses in a quiet, peaceful setting,
surrounded by trees and a bamboo grove. All the meals at Sankoin
maintain the shojin spirit--the menu is always seasonal. For
example, in late autumn, fukiyose--braised seasonal vegetables,
mushrooms, nuts and leave-shaped fu (a type of wheat gluten)--reflects
the view of the garden with its colorful autumn leaves, chestnuts
and ginkgo nuts.
to Hoshino, shojin cooking never wastes ingredients.
cooking eggplant, the stems are usually discarded as inedible,"
Hoshino said. "But we cut them into tiny leaves and put them
in the soup as a decorative garnish. They are edible, of course."
the differences between shojin and vegetarian cuisines, Hoshino
said shojin should have a sixth taste in addition to the regular
five tastes of bitter, sour, sweet, hot and salty.
bring out the sixth taste, delicate, shojin cooking has become
as simple as possible. However, that doesn't mean it's easy.
was told that it takes 10 years to learn to make a perfect
sesame tofu," recalls Aya Nishii, who entered Sankoin to study
shojin cooking eight years ago. Sesame tofu, which resembles
tofu in texture and presentation, is actually made of a mixture
of pulverized white sesame, water and kuzu ko starch. The
cooking technique is simple, on the surface--grind the soaked
white sesame, mix with water and thicken with kuzu over heat.
"I can understand how to do that, of course," says Nishii,
a former French cooking teacher who studied at Le Cordon Bleu
in Paris. "But if I don't immerse myself in the process, I'd
never be able to make it properly--I'd either end up with
a mess in the pot or something that tastes awful."
said that although she is not religious, she now believes
that she couldn't cultivate her ability to cook shojin without
following a lifestyle free of distractions, as Zen Buddhism
teaches. "Sesame tofu represents the Zen spirit," Nishii said.
Hoshino smiled, and added, "It reveals the depth of the cook's
Toshio Tanahashi, owner-chef of eclectic shojin restaurant
Gesshinkyo in Harajuku, Tokyo, also believes strongly in sesame
tofu. "I never use a food processor to grind the sesame,"
he said. "I start my day by grinding sesame in a suribachi
(Japanese ceramic mortar), using a surikogi (wooden pestle)
by hand for about 30 minutes. This time is an essential process
in cultivating my spirit. Of course, it requires a lot of
work, but we can't achieve enlightenment without this kind
age 27, Tanahashi decided to serve as an apprentice at Gesshinji
temple outside Kyoto, a nunnery famous for its abbess' excellent
shojin cooking. He trained there for three years and then
opened his own restaurant 10 years ago.
about his style of shojin cooking--preserving the essence
of the ingredients, but mixing them up to create a kind of
culinary adventure, as in miso soup with sugar tomatoes or
mochi pizza--has spread by word of mouth. These days, the
only way to get a seat at Gesshinkyo (along with Sankoin)
is through reservations. And many of Tanahashi's customers
are people who usually think shojin cuisine is too orthodox.
want to share my joy of cooking vegetables with as many people
as possible," he said. "As a cook, I believe no food is greater
than vegetables. Their colors, shapes and flavors are an art
form all by themselves."
portions are generous, and diners at Gesshinkyo can experience
Tanahashi's love for vegetables through set dinners, which
may use as many as 40 different seasonal ingredients. He also
showcases the beauty of traditional local vegetables, mainly
from Kyoto, served in simple Zen style.
Gesshinkyo is not just a place to enjoy meals. Tanahashi built
a traditional wooden Japanese residence to house his restaurant.
He lives there himself, and tries to keep his living space
purified, so that guests can experience the spiritual side
the morning, I take a cold bath to purify myself, a necessary
step for cooking pure ingredients like vegetables. "Also,
I clean every nook and cranny in the restaurant by myself.
It's not a business for me. I want to show my belief in shojin
and the traditional Japanese way of eating," he said.
worries that Japanese have discarded the shojin tradition
of eating mainly grains and vegetables.
popularize shojin cooking, Tanahashi holds a biweekly cooking
class. Last year, he demonstrated shojin cooking at London's
Victoria and Albert Museum, and is currently planning a similar
demonstration in New York next year.
are a lot of negative consequences to eating too much meat,
such as environmental damage and contributing to famine,"
Tanahashi said. "Eating vegetables could solve those problems,
and I think shojin cooking is the best way to enjoy both the
taste and the benefits of vegetables."
(03) 3796-6575 Sesame tofu
|Recipe: Sesame Tofu
|400 g white sesame seeds (untoasted)
8 cups water
less than 2 cups Yoshino kuzu starch
1 cup sake
soy sauce and grated wasabi to taste
seasonal garnishes for decoration
| Soak sesame seeds in plenty of water overnight.
Strain and rinse. Strain again.
|Place the sesame seeds into the suribachi.
Add 4 cups of water and grind thoroughly. Move the surikogi
in a circular motion until the mixture takes on a smooth
consistency (you will notice the sound of grinding getting
| Add 4 more cups of water and blend. Pour
mixture through a bleached cotton cloth into a large pot.
Make sure to squeeze out all the liquid.
|Place a small strainer in the pot. Put
kuzu, salt and sake in the strainer. Blend the mixture
by hand until all lumps disappear.
|Remove the strainer and place the pot over
high heat. Stir continuously with a wooden spatula, making
sure not to let it burn. After approximately 10 minutes,
the mixture will thicken. Keep stirring vigorously for
10 more minutes, until the mixture becomes completely
|Pour the mixture into a slightly wet mould
(16.5 centimeters by 21 centimeters by 4.5 centimeters)
and let cool. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and
place the container in cold water. After about one hour
in winter (two in summer), transfer the sesame tofu to
a wooden cutting board. Cut into 16 pieces and place in
a bowl of water. Serve on a plate with soy sauce, topped
with grated wasabi. Decorate with something seasonal,
such as an autumn leaf.
|Recipe from Toshio Tanahashi of Gesshinkyo
By Hiroko Kato
Copyright 2002 Hiroko Kato. All rights reserved.