Zen Diet

April 17, 2004

by Noriko Ueda, Atsue Onishi & Madoka Shimizu

Zen diet (Vegetarian diet)

The Zen diet was originally eaten by Buddhist monks in training. Zen Buddhism commands that its followers not kill creatures, live in honest poverty, and practice asceticism. To keep these commandments, there are rules governing their food.

1 Don’t kill creatures—Don’t use meat or fish.

2 Honest poverty——-Use all parts of an ingredient.

3 Asceticism————-Don’t use strongly flavored food such as leeks, shallots, garlic, or onions.

Monks prepare the Zen diet by matching the five tastes (hot, sour, sweet, bitter, and salty) with the five colors (green, yellow, red, white, and black) by the five ways of cooking (fresh, boiling, roasting, frying, and steaming). The flavor of the ingredients is brought out to its fullest. Also, because ingredients in season are lower in price and more nutritious, they are usually used. Some may feel the Zen diet is too plain because it doesn’t use many spices.

In fact, there are a variety of sects and commandments in Buddhism. Some are allowed to eat meat. And now, they are not so strict, but they are all similar in showing thankfulness for the food and in emphasizing the presentation of the meal as well as its taste.

The Zen diet you can eat now in restaurants is not the food monks in training eat but the food prepared when entertaining guests. Their real diet has fewer dishes and is simpler.

Creative Cooking

Is this meat? Or not?

Of course, we shouldn’t eat meat or fish in the Zen diet, but we can eat creative imitations of meat or fish. Imitation meat or fish is made from tōfu, konnyaku, and wheat gluten cake (fu). These include no trace of meat or fish.


1. “Grilled beef”— This is made from beans. The beans are mashed to imitate meat’s texture.

2. “Uncooked fresh fish cut in thin slices (flatfish)”— This is made from konnyaku cut in thin slices. The sliced konnyaku looks like uncooked fresh fish cut in thin slices.

3.“Grilled eel”— This is made from tōfu, yam and toasted laver (nori). Tōfu and yam are mashed, and then fried with toasted laver on one side. It looks like grilled eel.

4. “Grilled ayu”—This is made from fried tōfu . It’s shape imitates ayu’s or sweetfish’s shape. When Japanese eat real grilled ayu, we add a particular vegetable (tade) beside ayu. In case of imitation ayu, Tade is also served.

5.“Sea hedgehog”— This is made from tōfu, and is seasoned and grilled.

6.“Common freshwater clam”— This is made from tōfu and may have a slightly strong flavor.

7. “Chicken meat”— This is made from tōfu and various vegetables. We call it “Ganmodoki” or “Hirousu”. This is the most popular imitation meat or fish, and we eat it in daily life. Because “Hirousu” has many vegetables, it is very good for children who don’t like vegetables very much.

All the dishes of the Zen diet require much effort to prepare. As you can see, the Zen diet treasures the appearance of the food as well as the taste and ingredients. Some people say an ascetic’s training includes cooking too. In other words, people can realize and appreciate eating, living and a blessing through ascetic training.

Report on Zen diet restaurants


It was the first time for me to eat a Zen diet meal. I like meat and don’t like vegetables very much, so I didn’t expect much from the Zen food, but my first Zen meal was great! I could realize the deliciousness of vegetables again.

We went to Izusen in Daitoku-ji. There are two Izusen restaurants in Daitoku-ji. One is inside of the Daitoku-ji premises, and the other is near Daitoku-ji. The one that we went to is the former, and its being located inside a temple’s premises is rare. It is a bit difficult to reach Izusen because it is in a slightly obscure location.

We reached Izusen at around 11:30. At first, there were no customers except us, but at noon many customers came. We were fortunate to reach the restaurant at an early time.

We call the Zen monks who travel on foot Unsui-san. Unsui-san carry a bowl and go about asking for alms. The plates which are used at Izusen are made in the shape of the bowls which Unsui-san use. All the plates are red and beautiful. Please enjoy looking at the plates too. When you finish eating, please try to pile all the plates up. All the plates are of different sizes, so they can nestle one inside another!


1. shimeji rice

2. tempura (sweet potatoes, a shiitake mushroom, somen noodles, and various vegetables)

3. sesame tōfu

4. raw fu, tōfu, a slice of fried lotus root, mekabu (seaweed), and agar

5. yuba, taro, hirousu, string beans, and baked fu

6. vegetables with white miso and other seasonings

7. boiled Japanese radish

8. rolled sushi

9. broth (yuba, rape blossoms, and yuzu [a citrus fruit] )

10. pickles


I went to Youshuji in Kurama at the foot of Yuki Shrine. It is a small and homey place. I waited for the course I had ordered, drinking hot tea. Then, six dishes, Japanese pickles, rice, and melon were brought. They were served in red bowls on a red tray. How cute it was! Every dish was good. I became full and was satisfied with them. But…the taste was as homey as the atmosphere. I thought it was like my mother’s cooking. The Zen diet has many faces, from gorgeous to simple. What I ate that day was quite simple. I had thought it would be a special meal, but I was wrong. Some dishes are familiar to us. We eat them in our home without noticing.

Ingredients of Zen diet

I’d like to introduce some ingredients and their preparation.


Many of the ingredients tell us of the coming of spring. We are happy to have these after winter.

  •  rape blossoms

We eat them when they are still buds. The common recipe is boiling and mixing with other vegetables or seasonings such as miso, vinegar, and sesame.

  •  bamboo shoots

They are boiled with rice bran to remove the scum, and then boiled with seasonings. The tips are especially soft and tasty.

  • bracken

It is also necessary to remove the scum. They are boiled with seasonings, and sometimes kelp is boiled with them. They are also prepared as tempura.

  •  butterburs

The scum must also be removed. They are boiled with seasonings.

  • udo

They are also boiled to remove the scum and mixed with other vegetables or seasonings such as miso, vinegar, and sesame.


  •  Kamo squash

They are boiled with seasonings.

  •  pumpkins

They are boiled with seasonings. They are also fried as tempura.

  •  eggplants

There are several kinds of eggplants. One is the Kamo eggplant which is a traditional vegetable of Kyoto. There are many ways to cook eggplants. They are boiled; roasted and then the skin is peeled; roasted and served with miso on top; and fried as tempura.

  •  sweet potatoes

They are boiled with sugar or rice. They are also prepared as tempura.

  • Suisen (kudzu vine)

Kudzu vine powder is kneaded, cooled, and sliced. It is cool visually.


  •  shimeji mushrooms

These are boiled and mixed with other vegetables or seasonings. They are also boiled with rice.

  • chestnuts

They are boiled with sugar or rice. They are also boiled with the inner skin.

  •  matsutake mushrooms

They are roasted and sprinkled with sudachi (a citrus fruit). They are also boiled with rice, or used in broth. Japanese people love them very much because the fragrance is good.

  •  ginkgo nuts

They are boiled with seasonings or vegetables, or fried as tempura.

  • taro
  • They are boiled with seasonings.


  • Horikawa burdocks

This is one of the traditional vegetables of Kyoto. They are boiled with seasonings.

  •  Shrimp taro

This is another of the traditional vegetables of Kyoto. They are boiled with seasonings.

  • Mibu greens

This is one of the traditional vegetable of Kyoto. They are often put into a pot to boil with other ingredients.

  • Kintoki carrots

The color is redder than usual carrots. They are boiled with seasonings. One of the most famous dishes is Namasu. This is a traditional Japanese dish, which we eat in the New Year. The carrots are mixed with Japanese radish and vinegar. The combination of colors, red and white, symbolizes happiness in Japan.

  • Japanese radish

They are often boiled with seasonings. Another common dish is grated radish.

Others (All year around)

  •  tōfu

There are many tōfu shops in Kyoto because there are many temples. Tōfu is a daily food for Japanese, but it is an important source of protein for monks. It is the ingredient of Age and Hirousu (Gammo).

  •  raw fu

Fu is made from gluten of flour. Now baked fu is common. Raw fu is soft and elastic. It is skewered, roasted, and served with relish. It is sometimes fried.

  •  yuba

It is made from soymilk and has a plain taste. This is also a good source of protein. It is served either steamed or roasted. This is one of the famous foods of Kyoto.

Zen diet restaurants

I’d like to introduce some Zen diet restaurants in Kyoto.

1. time of opening and closing of the restaurant

2. regular holiday

3. the nearest station or bus stop

4. telephone number

* This information may change, so please check before you go.


1. 11:00-18:30

2. Wednesday

3. Kyoto City Bus: Myoshinji-mae

4. 075-463-0221

Daitokuji Ikkyu

1. 12:00-18:00

2. variable

3. Kyoto City Bus: Daitokuji-mae

4. 075-493-0019


1. 11:00-16:00

2. no holiday

3. Kyoto City Bus: Daitokuji-mae

4. 075-491-6665

Tenryuji Shigetsu

1. 11:00-14:00

2. no holiday

3. Keifuku Railway: Arashiyama

4. 075-882-9725


1. 10:00-17:30

2. Tuesday

3. Eizan Railway: Kurama

4. 075-741-2848


1. 11:30- (only lunch time)

2. variable

3. Eizan railway: Miyake Hachiman

4. 075-781-5027


1. 11:00-17:00

2. Thursday

3. Keihan Railway: Sumizome

4. 075-601-4138


1. 11:30- (only lunch time)

2. variable

3. Keihan Railway: Oubaku

4. 0774-32-3900

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