The Power of Five

Shojin Ryori the heart of seasonal Buddhist cuisine.
The word Sho in Shojin means to focus on and I find that preparing a Japanese meal in my own tiny kitchen helps me be more mindful. Despite the meals being of humble ingredients the vegetables used relate to the seasons helping us focus on the hear and now. In summer we may use cooling watery cucumber and tomatoes, in the winter pumpkins and root vegetables like daikon and potatoes warm and fuel our bodies.

Locally grown vegetables for sale outside a restaurant in Kyoto 

When cooking Japanese temple food, a temple chef known as “Tenzo”makes sure the menu has 5 colours of ingredients:  Green such as leafy vegetables, red could be azuki beans, yellow such as root vegetables, white, as rice and tofu, and black (purple) such as mushrooms and kelps. By including 5 colours, the menu is considered tastefully balanced.

This can be taken further still, temple chefs should prepare every meal consisting of five tastes. Five tastes are: bitter, sour, sweet, salty and umami. To produce this five essential seasonings are used: sugar,salt, vinegar, soy sauce and miso. These flavourings draw out the flavours in the vegetables used and are used sparingly so as not to mask them.

In Shojin Ryori cuisine ingredients with a strong pungent flavour such as garlic and onions are not used.

Five cooking techniques should be used to prepare the food : raw, stewed, boiled, roasted and steamed. This can vary and other techniques like marinate, fried, simmered or grilled could also be used.

These tastes and textures are composed to harmonise the five senses. With the presentation of each dish being equally important. The blending and balance of colours and flavours.

Another way you could combine colours and flavours could be:

Sweet: corn, sweet potato,turnip,carrot, Kabocha, fruit, sugar, mirin. Salty: miso, soy sauce, salt.
Sour : vinegar, umeboshi, tomatoes, lime, lemon.
Bitter: Goya, kale, chard, asparagus, eggplant.
Umami: seaweed, mushrooms

When the carefully prepared meal is ready to be served in a monastery the Tenzo will sound a gong known as an “Umpan” this translates to cloud plate. Typically you will find these gongs outside the kitchen or dining hall area. Look out for one next time you visit a temple in Japan.

Instead of eating a lot of food piled up on one plate Oryoki bowls are used. A set of nested bowls that sit inside each other. The meal is served up in these bowls meaning you are served “just the right amount of food” the meaning of Oryoki. Eating from these bowls takes time and attention helping you focus on the meal, leaving nothing to waste.

The largest bowl is said to symbolise the Buddha’s head. In a temple, this bowl is used to receive rice porridge in the mornings. Maybe this is where we get the term Buddha bowl. The second-largest 
bowl is for soup. The smallest dish is for tsukemono . When there are other vegetable dishes the other bowls are used. The act of eating is to support life this is why showing gratitude towards the food prepared is so important. Eating mindfully showing no greed. Reflecting on how much effort has gone into making the food from the farmer who cultivated the crops to the cook who prepared it.

Meals in Shojin Ryori are a mixture of grains, soy based products like tofu, aburaage, koya-dofu ( freeze dried tofu ) fermented products like natto, miso and pickles. Using kombu kelp to make dashi broth instead of bonito. Along with an array of seasonal vegetables.

Why not try the Japanese concept of making a simple meal called ichiju-sansai . You can find more about this in my blog post under this name. Here is an example of an ichiju-sansai meal.

Ichiju Sansai” (一汁三菜)

One Soup Three Dishes the foundation of a Japanese meal.

Gohan (ご飯) – a bowl of steamed rice

Shiru () – a bowl of soup

Okazu (おかず) – main dish and 2 side dishes

Kouno mono (香の物) – a small plate of pickled vegetables

I have just recently obtained some very special handcrafted Yamanaka lacquer ware Oryoki bowls for myself from Musubi Kiln . Made in Japan by master artisans, they require extreme precision and mastery of traditional woodworking skills to create.  Thus enabling each bowl to sit nested perfectly inside each other. There are only a few artisans left who can produce Oryoki bowls to such high quality. By buying the bowls the maker Mr Nakade Hiromichi’s livelihood is supported and enables him to pass down his skills to his apprentice.  Some of them I’ve used can be seen in the above picture. They are designed to minimise waste in daily life. As the bowls stack inside each other they also allow for compact storage. These bowls are made to last Buddhist practitioners for the rest of their life making them long lasting with their lacquer coating. Musubi kiln have beautiful tableware aiding in preserving traditional craft techniques that I think you will cherish for many years, like I will my Oryoki bowls.

I don’t always use my bowls all at once like you would in a monastery I think they can be mixed and matched with other items.

I believe using special tableware transforms your dining experience so I urge you to check them out.

This meal using my Oryoki bowls was made using some traditional Shojin Ryori temple cuisine recipes. In the main bowl is Kenchin Jiru an umami rich soup originating from the Kenchin-ji temple in kamakura. Full of root vegetables simmered in a shiitake kombu broth with konnyaku and tofu to make it extra nutritious and filling.
I made a classic Shojin Ryori creamy sesame starter called “Goma-Dofu” which is made with sesame and kuzu root . It is not made with tofu but it’s name comes from the tofu like texture. I think you will find this served on most temple cuisine menus.

I also served rice with chopped fresh red shiso, furofuki daikon with a yuzu kosho miso, chilled silken tofu topped with chopped tomatoes, kimchi and basil and Hakusaizuke a salted cabbage pickle.

However you may experience the practice of eating with compassion and awareness, be it at a Zen temple or a restaurant in Japan I hope you can explore the way of eating temple food prepared in your own home.