The Enlightened Kitchen
The classical Japanese temple cuisine,
shō jin ryōri, first came to Japan in the sixth century with the spread of Buddhism from nearby China and Korea. Once Zen Buddhism gained a following in the 1300s, this ‘devotion cuisine’ was modified to be strictly vegetarian, prohibiting completely the consumption of all meat and fish products. This practice is known as ‘the enlightened kitchen,’ a reflection of the meaning of shō jin as refraining from evil, learning to do good, and awakening the mind. There is no effort to hide its roots in the ascetic Zen principles of simplicity, purity, harmony, and respect for nature. But shō jin ryōri is much more than just food for the Buddhist monks.
The owner of the prize-winning restaurant SAKI Bar & Food Emporium in London is a young, dynamic businesswoman by the name of Ayako Watanabe. She explained to me, Ole, that the enlightened kitchen is more than, and different from, purely vegetarian food. It is a concept that is underpinned by strict rules, which can be learned only over the course of many years. Furthermore, there are very few places in Japan where one can train to become a proper
shōjin chef. She said that she had the good fortune to have been able to latch onto a newly trained chef, Yoshitaka Onozaki, from the best and most traditional shōjin restaurant in Japan, Hachinoki, in Kamakura, south of Tokyo.
At the time of my visit, Yoshitaka-san had been in London for about three years and was the head chef at SAKI. As he sat across from me with his hands folded, erect and with a serene expression, I could see clearly that for this chef making food was more than a job; it was a calling and a way of life. This was the point at which he had arrived after having completed two and a half years of extra training in addition to his conventional education as a chef. Turning out genuine
shōjin dishes requires hard, physical labor every day. Using sweeping gestures, he illustrated the hour’s worth of work that it takes to make fresh sesame ‘tofu’ ( goma dōfu) out of sesame seeds and Japanese arrowroot ( kuzu) using a mortar and pestle.
Chefs trained according to the precepts of
shō jin ryōri are taught to draw out umami from purely vegetarian ingredients: vegetables, seaweeds, cereals, legumes, wild plants, and fungi. Creating delicious tastes in this type of temple cuisine presupposes that the chef has an intimate knowledge of the raw materials and how they impart umami when handled with both understanding and expertise. An example is lotus root, which has large quantities of glutamate, about 100 mg per 100 g. Another aspect of this cuisine revolves around the skillful use of dashi, the mother lode of umami. Other important ingredients are shōyu, miso, and fu (wheat protein). There is also great emphasis on what is succinctly referred to as gomi, goshoku, gohō, meaning ‘five tastes, five colors, five ways’ of preparing food. Meals, therefore, tend to feature ingredients with each of the basic tastes, having five different colors—namely red, white, green, yellow, and black—and being prepared in five different ways— either raw, boiled, baked, deep fried, or steamed.
SAKI specializes in serving
shō jin kaiseki, a very high-level version of ordinary temple food. In contrast to the much simpler daily monastery fare, which includes only three dishes—a little soup, a bowl of rice, and an accompanying side dish— kaiseki consists of many. The Japanese expression for this elaborate meal embeds elements of respect ( kei) and purity ( sei), an indication that it was never intended for the monks, but rather for their important guests, often from aristocratic circles. Kaiseki is sometimes also served as part of the traditional tea ceremony ( cha-kaiseki).
The secret at the heart of
shō jin ryōri is an approach to cooking that is essentially the opposite of that of Western cuisine. In much of the latter, the flavor of a dish depends on adding spices and herbs in the course of preparation or at the very end, just before the dish is served. Many recipes sign off with the instruction ‘season to taste.’ In shō jin ryōri, the taste elements are introduced right at the beginning and almost always lead off with dashi, the soup stock that, as we know, is almost pure umami. It works its magic on vegetables and prepared products such as tofu, yuba (the skin from heated soybean milk), fu, cooked rice, and soups and is even incorporated into desserts.
Because temple cuisine cannot make use of fish, the
shō jin dashi depends on fungi, particularly shiitake mushrooms, to interact synergistically with the konbu to impart an intense umami taste. The perfect gustatory balance is then achieved by adding dried daikon (Chinese radish), a little salt, soy sauce, mirin (sweet rice wine), yuzu (Japanese lemon), toasted tofu, and a special seven-spice combination. This spice is called shichimi and is a mixture of sanshō pepper, white and black sesame seeds, red chile, dried ginger, ao-nori (a green alga similar to sea lettuce), dried mandarin peel, and hemp seeds.
Ayako-san is convinced that the reason why the much-vaunted French nouvelle cuisine of the 1970s did not really catch on is that the combination of ingredients of exceptionally high quality and simplicity and minimalism in their preparation is, in itself, just not sufficient to ensure that the food is delicious. She feels that what was missing was the use of dashi from the very beginning. Even though the rules that govern the preparation of
shō jin ryōri are very strict and steeped in traditions that go back for centuries, there is still room for innovation and renewal. Otherwise, things would become a little boring. She added that experimentation with new vegetables is permitted. In fact, it is natural and even necessary to use a whole range of non-traditional ingredients in order to adhere to the important idea of using what is locally available. A key element in applying this to vegetarian dishes is to tease out, possibly with the help of a little dashi, their characteristic tastes, which often change in the course of the growing season. And, of course, discovering new taste impressions along the way is always encouraged.
It was also a revelation to learn from Ayako-san that the avoidance of meat and fish does not mean that one has to deny that one feels a need and desire to eat foods other than those that come from plants, algae, and fungi. Many
shō jin ryōri dishes are actually named after meat and fish dishes, and serious effort goes into preparing them so that they will look the same. For example, they might resemble sushi and sashimi or mimic the appearance of fried eel. On top of that, it is absolutely acceptable for them to taste like meat or fish and to have a similar mouthfeel. Grilled shōjin kabayaki: ‘fried eel’ made from lotus root