Mr. Takuji Takahashi is the third-generation owner of Ryotei Kinobu. He has been promoting Shojin-ryori together with the members of Kyoto Cuisine Mebaekai Association since 2015, when the association launched a program called “To the World of Shojin-ryori” on the 60th anniversary of its establishment. He strives to make Shojin-ryori according to his customer’s request at his Ryotei. He is going to tell us about Shojin-ryori through five features including “What is his idea of Shojin-ryori?” “How did Shojin-ryori develop and what did he feel about Shojin-ryori?”.
*Kyoto Cuisine Mebaekai Association
The association was established in 1955 to hand down sophisticated and traditional Kyoto-style food culture to the next generation. Many young Ryotei owners have been devoting themselves to studying and researching Kyoto cuisine. They also have been trying a variety of new ideas putting into Kyoto cuisine.
What is Shojin-ryori in the first place?
First, let’s talk about what kind of dishes Shojin-ryori are and its basic rules. Shojin refers to Buddhism practices for pursuit of enlightenment. Diet, both making and eating food, is included in these practices.
Buddhist monks must follow very strict rules when cooking. Buddhist teaching forbids killing animals for human consumption. Therefore, the meals they eat are made without meat or fish and also refrain from the use of pungent flavors called “Kun” such as garlic chives, garlic, and green onions. Basically, they use vegetables, beans, and grains for cooking. This teaching was developed by Dogen Zenji, the founder of Zen Buddhism’s Soto school, in the Kamakura period. He traveled to Southern Song Dynasty (China) and learnt that diet played an important role of Buddhism practices. After returning to Japan, he wrote “Tenzo Kyokun” (Instructions for the Cook) and “Fushaku Hanpou” (The Dharma for Taking Food), which became the origin of Shojin-ryori.
“Tenzo” is a title given to a monk in charge of cooking at a temple. Tenzo always keeps in his mind on the preciousness of the ingredients’ lives and does not waste them and tries to use every part of them such as their roots and skins. He devotes himself in cooking based on the principles of “Goho” (basic five cooking methods) and “Rokumi” (six flavors).
I’m going to talk about “Goho” and “Rokumi” next time. Looking back four or five years ago, when I started making Shojin-ryori, I felt that I was just aware of its outline and cooked Shojin-ryori dishes. In short, my attitude and way of thinking were superficial at that time. I was concentrating on following the rules of Shojin-ryori such as “I shouldn’t use fish” and “I shouldn’t use something that has a pungent flavor” when cooking rather than having my own thought. I didn't have any doubt of following the rules. I think that my thought wasn’t involved in cooking at all at that time.
Master Tenzo’s attitude with “Jike” (awareness)
My Ryotei started receiving requests of Shojin-ryori from customers, such as people at temples and vegetarians, more and more in the last four years. I think this is because I have been involved in the Shojin-ryori program of Kyoto Cuisine Mebaekai Association. I deeply considered Shojin-ryori and I decided to add my ideas when making Shojin-ryori to my customers.
I sometimes provide Shojin-ryori to important events at temples. While some complained about my food, saying “This is not Shojin-ryori!”, others complimented on it, saying “The combination of these ingredients is very interesting.”. I often even don't get why I got such complaints or compliments. I was confused and thought over my menu every time I received negative feedback on my Shojin-ryori and then cooked Shojin-ryori again. I repeated this flow again and again.
As a result, I gradually, although slightly, understood that the essence of Shojin-ryori was not to follow the rules of ingredients and cooking methods but to have the same attitude and way of thinking of Tenzo when cooking.
“Jike” is a Zen term. To put it simply, it means “awareness”. We learn and practice something every day. We can gradually get into it. Awareness and understanding will be derived from this repetition. However, I’m a chef so I want to make something delicious and to make it look beautiful. Although this is common sense for a professional chef, it might be the profane and not the sacred in the Shojin world.
Apprentices require self-suppression to become a professional chef
Dishes have flavors and colors, don't’ they? When you make Shojin-ryori dishes, you use the color of soil as a base color. Next, use black, brown, and white. Then, nicely add a little green and red, which presents the color of evergreen plants and sacred lotus of the pure land respectively, not to make them look too bright. In other words, the colors of Shojin-ryori dishes present the pure land.
The reason for making Shojin-ryori dishes look muted color is that the key figure at the main building of a temple should be Buddha statues and the things around the statues should use color to emphasize the color of them. This idea also applies to Shojin-ryori.
For example, there are a variety of colors in lunch boxes in Japan. These colors vary according to the occasion such as cherry-blossom and autumn-foliage viewing. However, the color of a Shojin-ryori lunch box should be quite plain.
Right after I thought the presentation of the dish could look gorgeous if I added this color to it, I needed to suppress my emotion and to control myself. That is like a strict training for me.
Suppressing my emotions such as a desire to make my dishes more appealing while cooking was very hard in the beginning. However, I started understanding the rules of Shojin-ryori more and more. Perhaps, that is because I obtained “Jike” (awareness). I couldn’t explain what exactly “Jike” was for me. But, there is one thing I can say for sure is that I stare at each ingredient and try to understand its essence including the background. I believe that I start to look inside rather than outside in order to clear my mind before cooking.
The first step for cooking is to put your mind to it.
I think that the better skills chefs have, the more perfect Shojin-ryori they can make. Right after seeing ingredients in front of you, you carefully consider each dish of Shojin-ryori, including when, where, for whom, on what occasion and on which setting to serve each dish. In addition, there is no right answer to these questions. This is really a daunting task.
If you want to become an expert in Shojin-ryori, of course, you cannot do it in a day. The only way to achieve this is to keep making small steps with awareness. I believe that putting your mind to Shojin-ryori is more important than having its knowledge and techniques,following its rules, and adding new twists in the first place.
As written in the “Tenzo Kyokun”, the only way to become an expert in Shojin-ryori is to experience that practicing makes perfect.
I just had a glimpse of the world of Shojin-ryori so I cannot say that I understand about Shojin-ryori.
However, I strived to think over my Shojin-ryori every time when I was driven into a corner. I make it a habit to think deeply now. What I think today is better than what I thought yesterday. That is why it is worth living day by day, isn’t it?
I focused on talking about right attitudes when making Shojin-ryori in this feature. I think that having right attitudes is the first step of understanding Shojin-ryori. In the next feature, I want to talk about the details of the right attitudes including the cooking methods.
416 Iwatoyama-cho, Shinmachi-dori Bukkoji-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
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