Shojin ryori, put simply, is Japanese Buddhist cuisine. Written 精進料理, the first two characters indicate devotion, diligence, and an adherence to a vegetarian diet, while the latter two characters indicate a cuisine. If you imagine a Venn diagram with one circle representing washoku (Japanese cuisine) and a second circle representing the general concept of Buddhist cuisine that spans many countries across Asia, shojin ryori exists in the overlap. Buddhist in origin and motivation, Japanese in execution.
There are many varieties of Buddhist cuisine, changing across not just national or regional borders, but differing from one school or sect to another. It is usually vegetarian, sometimes more strictly vegan. There may also be prohibitions on certain strong-smelling ingredients (garlic, for example) that are thought to inflame the senses.
I first knowingly encountered Buddhist cuisine when teaching in southern Taiwan. A coworker introduced me to a sort of vegetarian buffet a block or so from the school. There was the typical buffet setup with a large variety of dishes in warming trays. You’d go down the line with a paper takeout container, choosing the things you wanted before taking it to the register, where the proprietor would calculate the price by weigh and add a scoop of rice.
It was cheap, it was delicious, it was healthy. It took a little while for me to catch on that this was actually vegetarian food (many of the bean curd or seitan dishes were styled to closely resemble meat or fish). I also didn’t realize initially that it was a Buddhist thing, though I later noticed the swastikas1 above the door.
That was back in 2011, and though my interest in Buddhist cuisine was still theoretically present, it faded into the background of my mind when I left the country and was no longer surrounded by it. It has only reemerged as a topic of interest for me in about the last year or so, this time with a more specific focus on the Japanese version of it.
During the weird, extended downtime of the COVID-19 pandemic, I have had the opportunity to really reexamine my life and contend with some areas of dissatisfaction.
I think most of us have some deeply held personal concepts of who we are, and of what version of that identity we’re aspiring to actualize and grow into. And sometimes we have to admit that those things aren’t really reflected as well as we’d like in the life we’re actually living. Which is where I am right now. I’m dissatisfied with a bunch of stuff, and when you have that realization, you can either carry on as before and grumble about it, or you can actually do something about it. Diving into shojin ryori is an element of doing something about it.
For nearly twenty-five years, I’ve had an interest in Buddhism in general, in particular Zen (and if you really want to get specific, the Soto sect of Zen). My study and practice has always come and gone, but when it’s an active thing, it always energizes and grounds me in a way few other things ever have.
Over the last ten years, I have also become ever-more immersed in cooking. I love it. I love doing it, thinking about it, planning it, learning new techniques, refining my knowledge of this or that, watching food shows, reading books about it, and talking about it with anyone who shares the interest. Cooking is a creative act, and one that I never tire of. It is also a loving act – cooking for someone is a bid to help keep them alive.
But what I love about it, perhaps most of all, is that cooking and food are inextricably tangled up with culture and history. You cannot sincerely study cooking without learning about the ingredients and the techniques, their origins and story, their significance within a culture. This is especially true if you’re studying not just some dishes, but a whole cuisine.
Food, more than anything else, has fueled my exploration of Japanese culture and led to more learning and joyful discovery than any other topic. If you really look closely at any dish, even the most seemingly mundane thing, you’ll eventually discover that it has all kinds of stories to tell you. These are interesting stories, but more than just entertainment. These stories will teach you about agriculture, chemistry, biology, philosophy, geography, economics, and so much more.
A bowl of miso soup, for example. In its most common form, you have the cloudy broth of the soup with some sliced green onion, bits of seaweed, and some cubes of tofu floating around in it. Simple, right? But even in that simple form, you still need eight or nine different organisms to make that bowl of soup happen.
Let’s look at just the soup base. The liquid part of the soup is composed of dashi (a clear broth) and miso paste. The most common form of dashi you’ll find is katsuo dashi, which gets its flavor from kelp and from katsuobushi: skipjack tuna which has been smoked, dried, and fermented before being sliced into shavings so thin they’re transparent. The kelp is pretty straightforward. But the katsuobushi? First you need the fish. And then you need the trees to provide the wood for smoking the fish (three types of wood are common). Finally, you need Aspergillus glaucus to ferment it. The miso paste requires soybeans fermented with the help of Aspergillus oryzae, and often some rice or barley to serve as a medium for the fungus.
So even before we get to the solid matter in the soup, we’ve already recruited the help of seven different organisms, to say nothing of the industries and workers that make the production of these things possible, or the regional and historical variations of every single thing that goes into that simple bowl of soup.
See what I mean? Everything has a story to tell. Every food has connections to other things that run in many fantastic directions. Which brings us back to shojin ryori.
I love cooking. I love culture and history and philosophy and the rest of it. And I love the study of Buddhism, which has contributed much to my life over the years. So it seems obvious to me now to throw myself into the study and practice of shojin ryori, which begins with food, but which will teach me so much more than that. It’s an opportunity to bring together multiple, overlapping interests into a single pursuit, which, in my experience, almost always yields excellent results.
But it’s not just for me. As I learn and explore, I fully intend to share it with as many people as I can. Because when you find interesting and enriching things in this life, why be selfish? Why not spread the joy of that discovery to as many other people as possible?
My personal philosophy has for some time now been expressed in these two two statements:
- Everything is interesting.
- I’m here to learn, explore, and share.
With that in mind, I am embarking on a pursuit that I sincerely believe will be deeply interesting and highly generative, and I’m inviting you with me.
I want to eat more mindfully and healthfully, with a lower environmental impact. Shojin ryori opens a door to that. I want to improve my Japanese language skills. This study opens a door to that as well. I want to further refine my skills as a photographer and writer on cultural topics. Another open door.
Join me, won’t you? Come through those open doors with me and explore what’s on the other side. I don’t see how this could be anything less than a fantastic time.
I am building a home for all of this now. It will have its own site at eatlikeabuddhist.com. It’s not published yet, but I’ll let everyone know once it’s public.
- The swastika, an ancient spiritual symbol with a history going back over 10,00 years, is still easy to find across East Asia. ↩︎