Ahead of a Guardian event at Birmingham’s Warehouse Cafe, chef Sachiko Saeki explains the Buddhist cuisine and how to use it at home
Wednesday 20 January 2016 08.00 GMT
Shojin ryori is the Japanese term for Buddhist vegetarian cooking and is one of the daily activities for some practising Buddhist monks. I became interested in it after chefing at Warehouse Cafe, a vegetarian restaurant in Birmingham. This job prompted me to find out more about vegetarian from my own culture, and so in 2011 I visited Koya-san, a famous group of Zen temples in Wakayama prefecture.
Generally shojin is very simple cooking. Eating seasonally, gentle seasoning and reducing waste as much as you can. Some ingredients are typical such as soy, tofu, kuzu (mountain starch). A shojin meal often consists of a soup and three dishes. This is termed ichi ju san sai. If you’d like to try it at home, cook boiled rice and soup, then add three vegetable dishes. These can be steamed vegetables, tofu and pickles.
Shojin teaches us how to receive. In theory, the cuisine does not include meat but how we eat, sensibly and thankfully, is perhaps seen as more important than what we eat. In some temples there are strict rules for what types of vegetables can be used. Often these are part of house rules or the stage of a monk’s training. Such ideas make shojin distinct from other sorts of cuisine. Because of those ideas, shojin cooking has minimum decoration, not too fancy. It is simple, honest food.
Going back to its Zen form, shojin ryori forms an important part of a monk’s overall training, for those who practise this type of food preparation. Some recipes, though light and beautiful in appearance, require physical strength and stamina to produce. For example, making sesame paste, a common ingredient, involves many hours of grinding using a traditional pestle and mortar. Carrying out these repetitive movements could perhaps be seen as an extension of meditation practice.
Over many centuries, specific skills and techniques have been evolved to transform the limited ingredients found in the environments surrounding Zen temples. These methods have influenced other practices within Japanese culture such as the tea ceremony and another Japanese cuisine called Kaiseki.
Shojin’s methods remind me how I should care about those ingredients and the relationship between what I do and the environment. Although I don’t follow the rules, they do interest me. Monks should not make any sounds while eating, or leave any food behind. Pickles and tea are always served with meals. They are used to clean your plate or bowl at end of the meal, as though they’ve been washed.
I also love the fermentation. In the making of miso and pickles lies process and alchemy, while fermenting seasonal vegetables puts me in a cyclical time. Pickling is a very special activity. What I am doing as a chef is also part of my family history, too. I often remember particular foods or dishes my parents, grandmother and auntie used to make. These are also why I am here.
Try this at home
One of the concepts of shojin cooking is eating the whole. So try to use both skin and leaf. When you boil vegetables, for example a chopped carrot, use minimum water to boil, a couple of tablespoons will suffice along with a small amount of salt and with the lid on. You will find intense natural flavour. In general cooking there are five flavours, but shojin cuisine adds a sixth. This is termed subtle flavour which means drawing out the natural flavour of the ingredient using minimum seasoning.
A dish that friends love is a simple sesame dressing over blanched vegetables – broccoli, kale, fine beans etc.