A particular visit to the local public library last summer serendipitously introduced me to shojin ryori, the vegetarian culinary tradition practiced in Japanese Buddhist temples. On that day, having failed to locate my desired book, I glanced aimlessly at the shelf opposite me, thinking vaguely of alternative reading material. My gaze stopped at the yellowing plastic cover of a book titled, Good Food From a Japanese Temple (1982) by Soei Yoneda. Immediately engaged by the straightforward title and curious about what Japanese temple food entailed, I slid the book from its snug little nook and found the subtitle--a 600-year tradition of elegant vegetable cookery--even more appealing. Indeed, after reading the introduction, I became so interested in shojin ryori that I brought the cookbook home, prepared several recipes, and promptly fell in love not only with the book itself, but the cuisine in general. The interplay of Zen Buddhist philosophy, cultural tradition, and seasonal ingredients felt so compatible with both my world view and dietary preferences; as a philosophical, spiritual, and aesthetic approach to preparing and consuming food--inherently vegan, as it utilizes no animal products--it held so much appeal for me. I especially appreciated the lovingly informative way the author (a Buddhist nun who details authentic recipes from Sanko-in Temple) describes the culinary tradition and recipes shared. Unfortunately, after renewing my loan twice, it was time to part with this impressive tome. I want to eventually add a copy to my ever-growing cookbook collection, simply because it has so far proven to be the most comprehensive print reference for shojin ryori I've encountered.
In the meantime, I tracked down a copy of Mari Fujii's The Enlightened Kitchen: Fresh Vegetable Dishes from the Temples of Japan (2005). As the title suggests, this in another book about plant-based, Japanese temple cuisine. The tenets of shojin ryori are still the focus here, in a fascinating and tasty fusion of traditional and contemporary cuisine. Although Fujii's book is not as extensive as Yoneda's, The Enlightened Kitchen benefits from an updated spin on traditional vegetarian Japanese food and beautifully vibrant photographs to accompany each recipe. The author mentions that although the food in her book illustrate the plant-based nature of shojin ryori, not all of the recipes are vegan; but all are at least vegetarian, with only a handful featuring ingredients such as honey or yogurt, which are easily substituted to suit vegan diets. Having recently gifted my copy to a friend sharing an interest in Japanese culture and food, I no longer have this lovely resource readily available. However, I was able to attempt several of the recipes while I still had it in my possession, and enjoyed each result. I still actually refer to Fujii's method for preparing stocks (konbu and shiitake versions) whenever I need dashi. Here are a two (among many) recommendations:
The concepts of balance and harmony are apparent in the dishes of shojin ryori, indicative of its foundation in Buddhism. The uncomplicated nature of this cuisine does not detract from its beauty and reminds me that satisfying food need not always feature dozens of ingredients.
Now to work on regaining copies of those books...