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 Continue reading…