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  • Writer's pictureThe World Digested

Ripe for Vegetables

“Eat more vegetables.”

We have all been told at one point, or at multiple points, in our lives – by overbearing mothers at dinner tables, by gleaming doctors in glassy magazines, or by chatty yoga teachers while pretending to be corpses in the final resting pose of savasana. Kale, spinach, broccoli: anti-oxidant, vitamin-rich, full-of-fiber and yet low in calories – what’s not to like? It is, after all, not the Dark Ages for the greens anymore. The vegetables no longer suffer at the hands of Mrs. Beeton[1] or her disciples where the standard method of torture was a slow and protracted boiling, so that no dangerous rawness or dubious flavor could possibly be left behind; and just as a cautionary measure, occasionally, further mashing was advised by Mrs. B so that no detectable form would be left untreated. Neither leafy greens nor knobby roots are still undergoing a painful and embarrassing adolescent vegetarianism, advocated by hirsute hippies, brandishing carrots sticks on squares after square of bland tofu in the name of love and peace.

Those were the early days. Misconceptions and prejudices were abounding. It was even suggested and suspected that vegetarianism was just another form of a new paganism, bordering on the devil worship: funny – considering one of the litmus tests to weasel out the early Christians was to see if they followed a vegetarian diet.

However, in the 21st century, the vegetarians are in a Golden Age – a veritable vegetarian Renaissance. As the Italians re-discovered Greco-Roman art, the world has re-discovered vegetarianism. It is indeed a resurgence, a rejuvenation and a re-discovery. In fact, the ancient Greeks believed that meat would rot in the gut and cause wars and fights, so that many famous philosophers – among which Pythagoras – recommended a vegetarian diet. Later in the Roman times, despite all the decadent feasts devoured semi-supine on the klinai, where scantily clad youths made rounds with pieces of feather to tickle the gorges for easy vomiting, there were still a few vegetarians around, notably, Seneca and the previously noted early Christians. As a matter of fact, even the gladiators, voluntarily or involuntarily, ate a vegetarian diet.

Move over Atkin’s diet! Make way for the neo-vegetarianism: lacto-ovo-vegetarian, lacto-vegetarian, vegan and rawtarian.[2] This Vegetarian Renaissance could trace its roots to Monsieur Alain Passard: bored with red meat, he scraped it off from the menu of Arpège’s in 2001. Since then, starred chefs have followed suit and started seeking inspirations from fresh, vibrant but non-moving vegetables – e.g., Noma, Blue Hill – (although none is strictly vegetarian as they do retain ocean-derived protein or broth to certain extent). Even as early as 1996, the unfortunately named, Charlie Trotter[3] had published a recipe book, tilted “Charlie Trotter’s Vegetables” (not meant for the faint-hearted). More recently, the star-studded Alain Ducasse had turned his Plaza Athénée semi-vegetarian, and now even the pork belly king, David Chang of Momofuku, has started serving a veggie burger, bloody, rare or medium. No longer would we be presented with a tempura-battered whole broccoli stuck into a mound of brown rice.

Culinary tribulations aside, even from the sociological, environmental and economic standpoint, vegetarianism is convincing world leaders to switch sides. What can be possibly more persuasive than a German minister’s decision to stop serving meat at official meals?[4]

Contrary to the nightmarish vision of slimy green monsters, a vegetarian diet is, in fact, often achieved without even a conscious thought. Imagine a day, a regular, common, working day: Getting up to some boutique granola[5] with Greek yogurt and grab a double tall latte on the way to work; a Mediterranean hummus wrap with a bag of chips at the desk for lunch, then a cappuccino and a chocolate chip cookie with a colleague at four o’clock. Instead of opening another can of Campbell’s cream of mushroom, you may go out to a cozy Italian restaurant and treat yourself to a crusty pizza Margherita and a creamy tiramisu. We, the modern citizens of the world, make intelligent choices and count the calories; some days, we indulge a little, and some days, we suffer a little. Thus, without aforethought or afterthought, a day or days can go by without putting any animals into our digestive system.

Furthermore, take a step back and let us remember: even before the recent resurgence of vegetarianism, many renowned dishes are, in fact, vegetarian. All the decadent French pastries – croissants and mille-feuilles – are lacto-ovo-vegetarian since butter and eggs are allowed in this form of flexible vegetarianism. Many of the famous Italian pasta recipes are lacto-vegetarian – truffled risotto, spaghetti Genovese and al Pomodoro, which can be easily improved upon by a hefty shaving of the Parmegiano Reggiano. Pick any Japanese sweet, and it will be vegan – e.g., yokan[6] and daifuku[7] – with the incidental benefit of being also gluten-free.[8] And, of course, the salads, needless to say, are rawtarian, if you stay away from the bacon bits.

So, why is it that the heart sinks at a dinner invitation to a vegetarian restaurant? Why is it that the eyes wander over beautifully presented garden of fresh green peas, yellow bell peppers and bright, red tomatoes in search of what is not there? What makes eating vegetables a penance or a punishment, rather than an enjoyment?

The why’s and what’s.

Which are not difficult to figure out. The primary goal of vegetarian restaurants is not the creation of sublime flavors and tastes. While it may be about ethics, economics, ecology, environment, equality – the five big E’s – and a million other worthy concerns, it is not about the basic and base concerns such as “flavor” and “taste.” Spirituality reigns above sensuality or sanity – the latter as one Argentinian dame, shaking her coils of coiffed hair, had pronounced, “vegetarianism is considered a malady, cheri, in Argentina.” Roughly speaking.

The critical difference is: choice vs. limitation. If we happen to end up choosing a Caesar salad without the chicken, that is fine; but if we are forced to choose between fried seitan and grilled tempe, then the eyebrows and forehead start wriggling. While a plate of “raw spaghetti” made of sliced zucchinis in a rich “cashew carbonara” sauce can be good conceptually and occasionally – if it is correctly labeled as a “salad,” it is definitely not comparable to the real toothsome, al-dente pasta loaded with butter, raw egg yolk and lardy pancetta. No, not even a poor imitation.[9]

Why use mock-anything when you have the real thing?

An argument for vegetarianism, outside of the big E’s, is, of course, the health. The Atkins, the paleotarians, the vegetarians, the vegans and the rawtarians can fight to the end of earth, proclaiming, protecting and protesting, which of them follows the true path to the hale and hearty health-hood. However, what is irrefutably true is that more vegetables and fruits do make us humans healthier. We can pretend to be young and reckless and dare-devils in public, but we are all closet food wimps, secretly and discretely counting calories and translating them into number of hours on the dreaded treadmill. Or, we will have to call in the early retirement and pick up cooking. Is there really no food that is health-conscious, taste-conscious and perhaps, even conscientious? We don’t have to be good 24/7, but perhaps we would sleep better if we, at least, are good, some of the times.

Fine. But how?

“Easy!” Someone would inevitably shout, “Eat Japanese food. Look at them; Japanese people are so thin.” Well, well – are they now? Data seems to corroborate: low ranking on the chart of world obesity and long life expectancy. Furthermore, the Michelin Guide, the venerable and venerated arbiter of restaurants has been handing out so many stars left and right to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and even Nara and Kamakura that the inspectors seem to be doing most damage, not to their rubber tires, but to the train tracks in Japan. And, not only for the Japanese cuisines, either: French, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Peruvian and Russian are all now registered in the little red book.[10] Good news: to eat well and healthy, either you stick to the Japanese diet or eat at restaurants in Japan, so book the next flight over.

However, data is history: it may indicate and predict but it is nonetheless history. Japanese government mandated the manual measurement of waistlines to combat the metabolic syndrome in 2008. The Mayor of Osaka publicly preached against the popular diet of coupling udon with rice just last year (to great public outcry and ridicule). Now why would the country be so paternalistic? Because Japanese diet is not healthy. Walk into any glitzy subterranean food halls – the famed depa-chika – and you will see that the Japanese food being healthy, is, after all, nothing but a myth.

The Japanese do not have a healthy diet. Their daily intake of sodium is shockingly high – the older generations liberally pour soy sauce over pickles – already salted, of course – with a dash of the magic special granules (a.k.a. the MSG) and gulp down miso soup laden with even more salt for breakfast. The younger, or not so young, are growing up and wide in saturated fat: karaage (fried chicken cubes), korokke (fried potato croquet), tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlet) are in a fierce competition for the No.1 national favorite dish. Rice is one of the very few remaining self-sustainable agricultural products in Japan, and the Japanese worship it so much that they would pair ramen with rice and udon with rice and soba with rice and spaghetti with rice and even rice with rice. And of course, they also love the noodles, if that is not evident yet. However, not all starches are created equal as they eschew the whole grains or other types of “healthy grains” such as millet, sorghum or barley as peasant food.[11]

Oh, the vegetables. The Japanese do not eat vegetables. Although salad bars are becoming the next Starbuck’s, that is happening ex-Japan. In fact, the “salads” sold in the deli counters in depa-chika are anything but vegetables: adorned with scallops and shrimps, chopped with chicken and cheese, mixed in with mayonnaise and macaroni and mashed potato, there is no room for vegetables. Granted, salads are a relatively new phenomenon in the Japanese diet, so what about the traditional recipes? Flipping around the menus at Japanese restaurants today, the vegetable dishes are relegated to the sidelines, with a lackluster and limited offering of ohitashi (boiled greens in dashi), nimono (stewed vegetables in dashi) and, of course, tempura (served with a bowl dashi) as you can batter and fry any vegetables into submission. Even these meager fares, however, all rely on the dashi – an all-purpose fish stock for flavor.[12]

What happened to the vegetables in Japan? Are they so insipid that they cannot stand alone? Partially so. The agricultural politics in Japan force the use of insecticide by refusing to accept imperfect-looking vegetables and fruits.[13] That is why the apples you see in depa-chika are so uniformly red and round and deplorably, unnatural. Appearance is the most important element of Japanese agriculture; and we all know, appearance can be deceiving.

Indeed, what has happened to the Japanese vegetable dishes? Paradoxically, for a predominantly Buddhist country,[14] the Japanese are staunch carnivores. Ever since the arrival of Buddhism in the 6th century, the country had had multiple official prohibitions against eating animals (ex-seafood). Even when not banned outright, it was still frowned upon as barbaric; and in those days, people often disguised meat-eating as a form of medication and used flowery names for the meats: cherry blossom for horse, peony for wild boar, red leaf for venison. Where there is prohibition, there is demand. However, meat consumption remained a rarity for economical, societal, and cultural and geographical reasons, which means the Japanese people must have subsisted on a more variegated vegetable-centric diet, arguably with a perennial pescatarian predilection, that is, before the arrival of the infamous Black Ship, demanding chicken and beef in 1853, which forced the nation to embark upon a national boot camp to macho-modernization and Emperor Meiji to lift the ban by eating meat in 1872.

Being surrounded by ocean makes Japanese cuisine naturally pescatarian – and heavily pescatarian. Every Japanese chef boasts the freshness and quality of their marine (and land) ingredients, so half of the meal is served raw. And, the other half is steeped in dashi as the scientists pump out even more reports on the umami – the newest “taste” to be derived largely from bonito and kombu kelp. Hence, a full course meal at any given Japanese restaurant progresses from raw fish, raw fish, raw crustacean, back to raw fish and, maybe some raw mollusk, then grilled fish, fried fish, a stewed shrimp ball and finishes with a soup with fishy stock. Even when no flesh of fish is visible, the ever-present fish-derived dashi is in everything as it is used even for chicken and pork. As a matter of fact, it would be harder to find a Japanese dish without the use of dashi. Coupled with the fact that the saltiness comes chiefly from the soy sauce, regardless of the type of dish – be it raw, marinated, stewed, boiled, grilled or braised or served as a soup – the flavor theme is fish-on-soy, fish-on-soy-plus-wasabi, fish-on-soy-minus-wasabi, fish-on-soy sweet, fish-on-soy-salty, so and so forth throughout the meal, where miso makes the occasional and necessary guest appearance to break the monotone. By the way, monomania is considered a virtue in Japan, if it is not already abundantly clear.

However, has this over-reliance on the marine resources killed simultaneously the Japanese vegetables and also the variety in flavors? By obsessing over the quality of the fish or meat (don't forget the wagyu), have the Japanese chefs turned themselves away from cooking because they want to present their prized ingredients pure and simple, and free from the taint of cooking? And, is that why other kinds of cooking – French, Italian, Spanish, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Portuguese, Peruvian and even Russian have flourished in Japan, because they allow the chefs to practice what he or she is supposed to be doing, the cooking?

Although forgotten and neglected, Japan does have a long and established tradition of vegetarian cuisine in the form of shojin ryori – the Buddhist vegetarian[15] cuisine. Now, what has happened to that? Every Japanese has heard of it, but no one seems to have eaten it. Will this mysterious shojin ryori be more creative since it cannot resort to feeding fish with soy sauce over and over?

Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the sixth century, and the government quickly banned meat consumption in temples. Although it is still debated whether followers of Buddhism must be vegetarian or not, and the Japanese monks, in vivo, are quite omnivorous, they were supposed to be vegetarian until the Meiji period. In addition, mourners and worshippers often needed to abstain from consumption of animals for certain prescribed periods to do shojin – the word, in fact, means to concentrate and to work and to stay away from impurity and uncleanliness.

Regarding the early flavor of shojin ryori, however, one of the first Japanese female writers, who was highly placed in court, had noted quite succinctly in her diary, “it is atrocious.”[16] In the Heian period (late 8th to 12th centuries) of her time, the over-enamored princes and concubines, dined on insipid food, which was neither fresh nor seasoned; the aristocracy of the yesteryears had to resort to the condiments of salt, vinegar, hishio (the precursor of miso) and, if it was their lucky day, maybe some sake and a sweetener made from a vine.[17] Therefore, for someone who was accustomed to such sorry state of food to actually call shojin ryori atrocious, the early form must have been seriously bad.

Mercifully, the foodscape began to improve in the next couple of hundred years. Along with the Buddhist teachings and holy scriptures, the diligent monks also carried back seeds of various legumes and vegetables and the latest food innovations from China – i.e., tea, tofu, udon and so-men noodles, manju (bun stuffed with red beans paste), yokan (red bean paste jelly), etc. If the modern versions resemble nothing of those Chinese originals,[18] we must bear in mind that much had been lost in translation, in transformation and, most likely, in transportation. These imports may appear quite rudimentary to the modern eye and palate, but they were the crème of the crème of the nouvelle cuisine chinoise. Back then, subsisting on and only on vegetables was no picnic – no food processor, no electric mills and no pressure cooker – and yet vegetables and legumes in their raw form were often unpalatable, hard to digest and difficult to consume in large quantity (i.e. imagine how many leaves and peas we would have to munch to get sufficient calories). Therefore, for example, the invention of easily digestible soy protein in the form of tofu, miso, soy sauce and the fermented soy beans of ill-repute (the stinky “natto”) – was quite a giant leap in the food technology, vegetarian or not. Yet, there was still no skilled hand to cook these new ingredients into a new cuisine.

Finally, in the 13th century, Dogen, the father of shojin ryori was born. Dogen traveled to China to study Buddhism in the early 13th century, and as an ideological youngster, he was put off by the labor and dedication the senior Chinese monks showed toward food preparation because he thought there were much better, higher occupations than cooking. Each time, the senior monk laughed and told Dogen that he did not get it (or so the story says). Yet, he did get it eventually since as soon as he returned to Japan, he proceeded to write a famous textbook[19] on the daily practices of the monastic life, including many chapters on food – including food preparation, technical – e.g. frying and sautéing – and food preparation and consumption, philosophical and spiritual.

The philosophy of shoji ryori lies simply in this: anything worth doing was worth doing well. For it was not decadence or pursuit of flavors that drove Dogen per se, but the idea that people could attain nirvana in more ways than by reading scriptures: self-realization could come at any moment in life, and the answers did not live in a vacuum, but within ourselves. Hence, every moment could be made into a studious path to realization; every chore, however mundane, was a study of Buddhism. Shojin ryori then was to create food, which would not only nourish the body, but also the mind, so that the study and practice of Buddhism would flourish. Serious thought, after all, could not be carried out on an empty stomach.[20]

Shojin ryori did not merely concern cooking in the temples, but it influenced the Japanese way of cooking by introducing the use of oil and various new ingredients. Unlike today, chefs did not travel abroad to study his craft, but (a few) monks did for his, and if he happened to pick up another trick or two, so much better for everyone concerned. In those days, temples were important cultural, political and economic centers, where the high and mighty would chant poems or scriptures, repose, meditate, hide and party in wabi-sabi. Incidentally, the famous tea ceremony was also born in temples, as there was much demand for the caffeinated elixir, understandably. Where there are people, there is food. And when the food meets power, a cuisine is born. Thus, shojin ryori has evolved and survived over the centuries, polished by restraints and refinements. It has paved the way for the Japanese cuisine today, and therefore, it is not a mere anachronism to delve into this forgotten culinary art: understanding of shojin ryori bores contemporary relevance and even importance in this era marked by the very lack of shojin.

In terms of contemporary, none can be more contemporary than Shigetsu, the Zen vegetarian restaurant owned by Tenryu-ji – a temple listed on the UNESCO world heritage list. Shigetsu has an English homepage subtitularly notifying the potential visitors that it was a “Bib Gourmand…a restaurant serving exceptionally good food at moderate prices” and little flyers of explanations for the uninitiated foreigners. Its “snow” course consisted of one soup, one rice and five dishes, in lacquered bowls and served on pedestals in the traditional style of honzen ryori.[21] The difference between a kaiseki ryori and a honzen ryori is, quite roughly speaking, the focus: the former is a series of dishes to be served with sake (and that is why the rice comes at the end), while the latter is a meal in that the dishes are to be eaten with rice and soup.

Shigetsu’s dining room was stifling with the steam rising from the hot pots. Lined up on two strips of red synthetic carpets on tatami were the diners – Italians, Americans, Chinese and Japanese – slurping soup, scratching behinds, spitting and shouting and snapping selfies. A simulacrum of what a mess in a Buddhist monastery must have been like – one of the few international places, well, maybe merely intercontinental, with the visiting Chinese and Korean teachers.

Soy milk hot pot @ Tenryuji's Shigetsu

Figure 1 Soy milk pot in paper

The Honzen Ryori Style

Figure 2 Honzen Ryori Style

The soy milk hot pot came first. Pieces of wheat gluten (a.k.a., seitan), bean curd skins, and a tiny brown ball made of lotus root floated in the milky bath. However, the marvelous sight of the “pot,” made out of folded paper, boiling above a burning blue flame captivated the attention longer than the stale flavor, as ponzu dipping sauce – soy sauce with citrus juice – was all there was for the entire pot. A goma-dofu – sesame tofu – is a typical delicacy of shojin ryori – made by churning a mixture of ground sesame seeds and kuzu (a root prized for its medicinal benefits) over and over clockwise on a low fire (so it is said, for over half an hour, depending on who is talking). Shigetsu’s sesame tofu was unguent but not too heavy, like a good panna cotta, and when warmed by the palate, it released a satisfying savory scent and filled the mouth with its full-bodied nutty creaminess. So far so good, until the simulated wasabi ultimately spoiled the dish. The stew was a large piece of round gluten in dashi, which had a uniquely smooth sweetness, emanating from none other than the humble toasted soy beans. Aha! Finally, there appeared a glimmer of hope on the horizon of this bonito-congested dashi haze. The best was saved for the last, however: a piping hot, big ball made of ebi-imo (a type of indigenous taro) and okara (the debris of soy milk – no waste in shojin ryori), stuffed and fried, then dunked into a silky sauce. Despite its formidable appearance, the velvety ball melted gently in the mouth, revealing the hidden gems one by one – a ginko nut, a lily bulb, a shiitake and a strand of kombu.

Sesame Tofu at Shigetsu

Figure 3 Sesame tofu

Ebi-imo & okara ball at Shigetsu

Figure 4 Ebi-imo & okara ball

While some of the dishes were plainly mediocre, their use of soy beans in the dashi and their attention to texture confirmed that the Japanese cuisine, the vegetarian version, was not dead. Not yet, anyway, if a commercially conscious Tenryu-ji could still produce such a high level of mass marketed shojin ryori.

The second pilgrimage was on a deadly blizzard day to a desolate corner of Kyoto, to a largely deserted house, which was the restaurant arm of Ajiro – a Michelin one-star caterer to the largest Zen temple in Japan, Myoshin-ji (and its subaltern temples). As it is still sometimes done in old-fashioned hotels, guests are greeted by their own names displayed prominently by the entrance – a practice obviously leftover from time before privacy was invented. Lacquered placement plates were already set on the table in lieu of the pedestal, awaiting, in a traditional but tired, fluorescent-lit tatami room. The course, also based on honzen ryori, commenced rapidly with a pickled plum water – tepid and tasteless – which failed its role as a non-alcoholic aperitif; and the sesame tofu was too dense to be considered a delicacy. A owan in Japanese cuisine is a clear soup, which tests the chef’s skill as the French consommé, regardless of whether it is Japanese kaiseki or shoji ryori. While Ajiro’s owan was doubtlessly clear, as it was clear of even dashi, it seriously tried and tested the diner’s patience and skill of chopsticks. The tofu skin ball in the clear soup was as slippery and bouncy as a rubber ball, that is, a rubber ball fallen into a bathtub full of bathwater, and just about as tasty.

Another Zen vegetarian staple, koya-dofu (a frozen and dried tofu), was chokingly sweet, which obscured the flavor of kombu and shiitake, if there were any. Its overreaching sweetness overwhelmed the hapless neighbors on the same plate – the presumably piquant rapini in mustard and sour radish pickle. The hiryouzu (literally, “the head of a flying dragon”) was a fried tofu ball, popular in oden (a Japanese pot-au-feu) due to its spongy texture for soaking up the dashi, yet the muddled head of Ajiro’s flying dragon swallowed too much salt water and seemed to have drowned in its own soup. The only interesting touch at Ajiro was the refreshing use of apple in the shiroae – a salad with pureed silken tofu – with Japanese celery and konjac jelly. However, the meal, having begun with the plum water and commenced with the customary two soups, had to end with even more water to fill the empty belly and emptier heart. The waitress ceremoniously presented a grilled rice ball in a tea pot, in lieu of tea leaves, and poured out the watery dreg and drowned any remaining hope.

Plum water at Ajiro

Figure 5 Plum water

Owan (clear soup) at Ajiro

Figure 6 Owan with minuscule radish

Grilled rice ball water at Ajiro

Figure 7 Yutou (grilled rice ball water)

All in all, there was simply too much water: on top of the two customary soups in honzen ryori, there were additional liquid supplements to befuddle the mind and to blur the distinction between a stew and a soup. Perhaps the ascetics monks used to fill up their growling stomachs with this much liquid, nonetheless, without their dedication or faith, the modern diners will surely find such a liquid diet to stretch their patience way too thin.

The third and final stop for this neophyte Zen vegetarian on a pilgrimage to discover Japanese vegetarian cuisine, or to uncover the original Japanese cuisine, was Daitokuji Ikkyu. Located next to yet another famous temple, its namesake, Daitoku-ji, it is known today more as the maker of the black and dry fermented soy beans called Daitokuji natto,[22] rather than a 500-year old caterer of shojin ryori. Perhaps that is why Ikkyu is, blessedly, Michelin-free. Ikkyu also served an adopted honzen ryori of two soups and five dishes, like the other two restaurants. As was typical of such style, rice and soup were served on the first tray, along with other dishes so that the diner could pair the salty dishes with rice, instead of sake, which was only appropriate in a temple setting. Instead of plain rice, however, Ikkyu cooked the rice with nutritious mukago (baby yams), seasoned lightly so that the subtle aroma of the earthy mukago could be savored along with its soft baby skin. The white miso soup was creamy and rich as a potage: in which, pieces of gluten, daikon radish and Japanese taro were cut into a circle, a square and a hexagon to signify Buddhist principles. The flat plate was composed in accordance with the shojin ryori principle of five colors: the white and the pink of the pickled radish, the orange of the confit of kumquat, the black of stewed mushroom and Daitokuji fu (a grilled gluten) and the green of the sprinkled seaweed. Not only visually pleasing, before the discovery of the vitamins and minerals, counting the colors provided an easy guidance for nutrition. Then, as if to wake up the diners from the lethargic slumber of the cold winter, the rapini in yellow mustard stimulated the tongue with a whirlwind of flavors – sweet, tangy, bitter and spicy all at once. It was sweet and yet not saccharine, spicy without being overwhelming, and the controlled use of vinegar augmented each flavor to the maximum. It was a grand homage to gomi – the principle of five flavors: the sweet, the salty, the sour, the spicy and the bitter.[23]

Honzen Ryori at Daitokuji Ikkyu

Figure 8 Rapini on the top right

Having elevated the palate to a new Zen height, the next several dishes sadly, forced it back to earth. The signature burdock raft was batter-fried burdock sticks whose originality was in the washing off of the oil after frying. Less oily, certainly, but the washing turned the fried burdocks sticks into limp and lumpy logs. As of to make up for the loss in flavor, another burdock dish using the robust horikawa burdock was roasted with too much soy sauce and sansho pepper. The ubiquitous sesame tofu, usually served cold, was steamed for a change at Ikkyu, however it was covered with a gooey kuzu sauce, which only made the lackluster sesame tofu to be even more bland. And, while the second soup ambitiously contained the five colors again, the taste was a misguided mismatch of bamboo shoot and matsutake – spring and autumn do not mix, even in the times of global warming.

Signature dishes at Daitokuji Ikkyu

Figure 9 Burdock raft

The meal at Ikkyu ended with a piece of yubeshi, a yuzu citrus stuffed with miso paste then steamed and dried under the eaves in the coldest months of winter. The saltiness of the miso had mellowed into a dusty smokiness, while the astringent yuzu became reserved. In fact, the yubeshi tasted of time ancient, of preservation, of preparation and also of perseverance, and it left a bittersweet memory for days on end.

Homemade yubeshi at Daitokuji Ikkyu

At the end of this tour of shojin ryori in quest of whether Japanese cuisine could stand on its own without overreliance on fish or meat and overindulgence in soy sauce, the answer is a qualified and theoretical yes. On the one hand, one of the big umami producer – bonito flakes – is missing from the shojin ryori, lack of fish, however, does not mean lack of umami because two other major ingredients for dashi are vegetarian: kombu kelp and shiitake mushrooms. Furthermore, while the five core seasonings – sugar, salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso – are the same for shojin ryori and otherwise, shojin ryori makes use of other condiments – such as the Japanese mustard, sesame seeds and different miso pastes – more prominently to help changing the otherwise all black tune.

On the other hand, it is undeniably true that shojin ryori cannot take advantages of the abundant fish available in its native land. However, is it really a disadvantage? There are various soy and gluten products available for use, if the heart is willing and the hands are able. In his book, Dogen wrote about the principle of Sanshin – “three hearts” – which prescribed that one should cook and serve with joy, pay due regard toward guests and have a heart big enough to overcome conventions. Yes, the conventions. We are bound by conventions and customs – which dictate how we eat – and biases and prejudices – which decide what we eat. In Japan, being vegetarian is, quite ironically, regarded almost like another pseudo-religion because the current conventions and customs are to eat meat and fish with every meal, forgetting that partaking such is essentially a luxury, to appreciate but not to take for granted.

Therefore, theoretically, the Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine has as much chance of being truly and transcendently delicious, but the question remains: is it possible to create such a vegetarian cuisine in the here and now and on earth? In a simpler world, the number “five” had proved to be a sensible guidepost for variations in cooking techniques and tastes, thus producing a nutritionally, esthetically and spiritually fulfilling meal. Yet, in this kaleidoscopic labyrinth we call reality, constantly bombarded with colorful and ephemeral information, even five seems like an oversimplification. Armed with all the gadgets and toys, the problem is no longer exactly the “the blind leading the blind,” but that there are just too many pairs of eyes all looking everywhere and nowhere. In Dogen’s Five Meditations in preparation to eating, he asks us to meditate on the efforts of the producers; on one’s worthiness in partaking the food thus produced; on one’s state of mind in consuming the food; on the spiritual fulfilment rather than the corporeal; and, of course, last but not least, on Buddha. Until we fully reflect on these, the divine revelation may just be standing right there, and yet unseen, and the shojin ryori, as we make and eat now, will continue to fail to assuage our insatiate hunger.

The vegetarian nirvana seems very far, very far, indeed.


Address: 68 Susukinobaba-cho, Saga-Tenryuji, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, 616-8385 Japan

Phone: (075) 882-9725



‪Address: 28-3 Hanazono Teranomaecho, Kyoto 616-8041 , Kyoto Prefecture

Phone: ‪+81 75-463-0221



‪Address: 20 Murasakino Shimomonzencho, Kita-ku, Kyoto 603-8215, Kyoto Prefecture

Phone: ‪+81 75-493-0019



[2] And, the fruitarians, but we will leave them alone.

[3] His lesser creation included a spoon bread, which was served like a miniature Zen garden on a wooden platform at his Chicago restaurant; so uncannily moss-like in its appearance that I had to ask the server which part of the garden was, in fact, edible. I had never eaten moss in my life, but I sincerely suspected that the spoonbread was a very close copy.

[4] Fearing for the Wurst.

[5] Dr. Kellogg was an early advocate of whole grains and vegetarian diet, among other more interesting and peculiar treatments.

[6] Azuki beans jelly made of agar-agar.

[7] Sticky rice cake stuffed with azuki bean paste.

[8] Incidental and imaginary benefit, more like, as most people only imagine that they have such intolerance.

[9] Having said that, once at a vegan restaurant in Taiwan, a stewed mock-lamb in a clay pot, almost fooled me. It wafted out ovine vapor – thanks to the young leaves of an indigenous tree, toona sinensis – so much so that the chef had to be called out to confirm that not even a hair of a sheep was in the dish.

[10] Including the Bib Gourmand section.

[11] Tithe was paid by rice.

[12] Katsuobushi (bonito flakes) is prized above all else lesser fish, but mackerel, sardines, flying fish are also used. The most common combination of dashi is bonito flakes + kombu kelp.

[13] In 2010, per one hector of cultivated land, China used 17.8kg, Korea 13.1kg, and Japan, which was five times more than the 2.4kg in the United States. February 23, 2016. Harbor Business Online.

[14] If funeral rite is the indicator of true faith.

[15] Historically, Japanese did not consume milk or eggs, so vegetarianism was essentially the same as veganism.

[16] Seisho Nagon, Makura no soushi.

[17] There was no soy sauce or sugar just yet.

[18] For example, yokan was originally supposed to be a stew made of goat; however, somehow and somewhere along its historical journey, goat became red beans and the savory soup was turned into a dessert.

[19] Tenzo kyokun.

[20] Strictly, my personal, modern interpretation.

[21] Honzen ryori prescribed the appropriate numbers of courses and the placement of those plates and the serving pedestals (Japan, traditionally, does not dine on tables and chairs) in accordance with the proprieties and custom of the samurai class. Largely forgotten and taken over by kaiseki ryori style, but at least the skeleton of this form of dining etiquette is continued in temples and weddings. Curiously, another place where the remnant of this custom persists is at home: a standard meal is thought to compose of one soup, one rice and three dishes.

[22] Not to be confused with the more common natto, which is covered with sticky and stinky spores. Closely related to the Chinese douchi, the prototypes of Daitokuji natto beans must have traversed the treacherous ocean with the monks on the wooden ships.

[23] Sometimes, the idea of a tanmi – not an actual flavor, but the lack of strong flavors in order not to obstruct the flavors of the ingredients – is grouped together to make it six.

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