I’ve long been fascinated by Japanese culture, ever since studying the ethnography of Japan for my degree in Social Anthropology. So as a foodie vegan interested in Zen Buddhism, it was only a matter of time before I came across Shojin Ryori.
Shojin Ryori, which roughly translates as “devotional food,” is a simple and seasonal diet that has been followed by Zen Buddhist monks in Japan since the 13th century. The monks view preparing and eating their food as a devotional act, thank nature for her bounty, and slow down to appreciate each meal. According to the Buddhist tenet of not harming other living beings, Shojin Ryori is free of animal products and is naturally vegan.
What can we learn from this way of eating and how can we translate some of the positive aspects of Shojin Ryori into our everyday lives?
One major aspect of Shojin Ryori is to follow the cycles of nature and look to the different foods growing all around us throughout the seasons. This helps deepen our relationship to the earth we live on.
In the West, it’s very easy to grab exotic fruit and vegetables from the supermarket whenever we feel like it, without giving much thought to the impact. The air miles that go into flying pineapples and mangoes around the world should be enough to make you stop and think—do you really need tropical fruit over an apple that was grown in your own country?
It’s important to pay attention to where your food comes from and try and eat as seasonally as possible. It’s also better for our health to eat according to the seasons. Usually the food our body needs for each part of the year is growing all around us.
A really good way to introduce more seasonal eating is to start foraging. You can take walks around your local area and notice which plants are in season. It’s a good idea to do your first foraging trips with an experienced guide, or make sure you have a really good edible plant book with you to identify local plants.
Another good way to begin eating seasonal fruit and vegetables, is to do some research. Find out what grows locally during each month and try to eat the fruit and vegetables that are in season. Of course, if you really crave something out of season, it’s fine to occasionally have that as well, but make it more of a treat than a habit.
A great way to eat seasonally and support local growers is to find an organic veg-box scheme near you. Even better, maybe start to grow some of your own veggies! If you don’t have a garden you can look for an allotment near your home.
One concept of Shojin Ryori is to follow a color chart when preparing your dish. The traditional color chart is to use 5 main colors of red, green, white, black and yellow. This food pyramid has been seen throughout Japan for centuries and is believed to provide a healthy balance of nutrients.
There’s also a big emphasis on eating simply, without too much flavor to the dish and really letting the vegetables take center stage. Once or twice a week it’s great to give our digestion system a break with more simple, lovingly prepared food.
Shojin Ryori also follows the rule of 5 in terms of flavors. The dishes should be balanced across the palate, with sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami flavors across the different dishes.
Shojin Ryori is simple, honest food that makes you slow down and really appreciate the gifts of nature while you eat.
You can begin by being more mindful in the way you prepare and cook your food. Take a night when you won’t be disturbed and try to cook in silence without any music to distract you. Really pay attention to each vegetable as you chop and give thanks as you prepare your meal. I really enjoy thinking about the journey my food has made and thanking each person who has made it possible for me to enjoy the fresh vegetables I’m about to enjoy.
Traditionally, these meals were shared by Buddhist monks in silence, to be really present while eating. We don’t have to eat every meal in silence, but it can be really nice to eat more quietly and really savor each flavor and chew your food well before you swallow. This is great for your mental health, but your digestive system will also thank you for chewing and eating slowly.
There’s also a big element of trying to reduce waste in Shojin Ryori. This can be done by being mindful of how much food you make and trying to eat it all. If you don’t finish your food, try and have it for lunch the next day.
If possible, recycle all your food scraps from the meal and buy vegetables that aren’t wrapped in plastic as much as you can.
Simple Shojin Ryori-Inspired Recipes
Kale with Crushed Sesame
You can also make this with any other vegetable that is in season where you are.
Salt, 200g of Kale (rough stems removed) 2 tablespoons of toasted sesame seeds, 1 tablespoon of soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of mirin, 1 teaspoon of sesame oil.
Bring a saucepan of water to boil and add enough salt that the water tastes a bit too salty (like seaweed). Add the kale and boil for just a few minutes, until tender but with a bite. Drain well and then toss with the soy sauce, mirin, sesame seeds and oil.
Serve with white rice.
4 tablespoons of miso, 600ml of dashi, 3-inch sliced ginger, ½ leek, sliced thinly, 2 tablespoons of dried wakame, 2 shiitake mushrooms -destemmed and sliced, 8 mangetout (substitute for another bean if not in season), ½ block of firm silken tofu sliced into 1 cm cubes, 2 pinches of sesame seeds.
Combine the dashi and ginger in a saucepan and bring to boil, then add the wakame, leek and shiitake to the pan, reduce to a simmer and cook for a few minutes, you want the leek to be soft and the wakame to be plump. Add the mangetout and cook for another minute. Remove the ginger from the soup, and take off the heat, whisk in the miso paste. Divide the tofu into deep soup bowls and ladle over the soup, garnish with sesame seeds.
Also by Rebecca: How Nada Yoga Can Bring You Balance During The Pandemic
Get more like this—Sign up for our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!
Photo: Takafumi Yamashita via Unsplash