Shoujin-Ryouri

April 16, 2004

by MIYANO Miku

The Cuisine of Devotion:
Shoujin-Ryouri

Kyoto is famous for its marvelous food, and the local culture features various styles of cuisine: there is yusoku-ryouri (dishes for people of the Imperial Court), kaiseki-ryouri (tea-ceremony dishes), shoujin-ryouri (diet for Buddhists), and obanzai (the daily diet of ordinary people). In this article I’ll focus on shoujin-ryouri.

The word shoujin came from Buddhism, and one of its meanings is total training, or devotion. Ryouri simply means cooking. So, shoujin-ryouri has a close relationship to Buddhism, and in Kyoto, one can find excellent restaurants featuring this kind of food within the grounds of famous temples such as Nanzen-ji. Many overseas visitors love the food as well as the atmosphere in which it is served — sometimes even outdoors in a lovely garden setting.

Shoujin-ryouri basically consists of vegetarian meals. While it’s true that some set meals, such as ekiben (the lunch boxes sold in train stations) occasionally include some meat or fish even if they are called “shoujin-bento,” it’s important to understand that vegetarianism is one of the vital ideas of Buddhism, a philosophy which preaches mercy towards living creatures and forbids killing them.

Buddhism was introduced into Japan from India through China in the 6th century. In India, early Buddhists prepared vegetarian meals for themselves, but they would eat anything provided for them by other people, even if it was meat or fish. The basic idea was a middle course: strict adherence to a rule was not a virtue in this view. And since in those days Buddhists in India did not have the custom of working or to producing anything, they mostly had to rely on the food which others gave them. Thus they would gratefully accept anything, from whoever would give it — the king, a farmer, a child, etc. In India, moreover, monks were not allowed to work all the time. But when Buddhism came to China, the number of believers increased greatly and, unable to live only on the food which others gave them, they had to cultivate foods for their own diet. This was the beginning of shoujin-ryouri, when Buddhists started to regard cooking and other chores as training. They made many rules for themselves and practiced them with devotion. These Buddhists decided that sleeping, eating and cleaning had the same value as the Buddhist training itself. This point of view is most important when we consider why shoujin-ryouri developed so deeply in Japan.

The nature of Japanese people, living in a small island country, was very well suited to this view. People who lived in Japan also had to have the power to dedicate themselves to one thing, especially in their daily work. And indeed Japan does, even today, have many fine artisans of cooking implements such as kitchen knives, graters, Japan ware, and so on.

Shoujin-ryouri needs a lot of work and preparation time, and there are also many rules. The dishes can be cooked in five ways: raw, boiled, cooked over a fire, fried, or steamed. There are also five basic flavors: piquant, acidic, sweet, bitter, and salty. And finally, there are five colors: blue, yellow, red, white, and black. These colors each have meanings: blue is for leafy greens, yellow for roots, red for soybeans, white is for rice or wheat, and black is for seaweed or mushrooms. Buddhists have long cooked shoujin-ryouri while following these ways. Their biggest goal, however, is that even if the humble ingredients are not of highest quality, one should make the best of their flavors and eat them deliciously.

Gomadofu (chilled sesame tofu) is one of the most famous of shoujin-ryouri dishes. The way of making it is very simple but one needs endurance. First, roast sesame seeds over a low heat to prevent burning. After turning off the fire, knead the sesame again and again. Some people say we must knead it until we have blisters on our hands! Then, boil it while stirring continually. Finally, pour it into a vat and chill Among Buddhists, it is said that a person cannot understand the spirit of shoujin-ryouri until they have been making gomadofu for 10 years! Now, that’s devotion!

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