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.
Japanese people value a sense of beauty in everything, which has never changed.
It is not too much to say that I have almost always being thinking of Shojinryori for the past four years. Even when I cook dishes other than Shojinryori, I habitually prepare for them based on Shojinryori philosophy. For some reasons, I became often satisfied with my cooking when thinking that way.
The biggest change after I have involved in Shojinryori might be my way of thinking towards foods. I used to prioritize using seasonal and high-quality foods. Now, when I see foods, I first consider their background, such as where and how they grew, and why they got to here. I felt that I became a little closer to the level of Tenzo while I'm thinking through their background.
In other words, I think facing each ingredient is the biggest change of mine.
Shojinryori was brought into Japan via China. I think that it's rules became stricter after it came to Japan. Especially, Japanese people are strict to a sense of beauty and tend to prioritize beauty in everything. Don't you think that the presentation of both Shojinryori dishes and tableware used for them look very beautiful even when you have them at a temple? Since we pursue beauty as far as possible, the level of Shojinryori in Japan became very high.
When you read books about Buddhism, you will always see the word "aesthetic" in each book. For example, when describing Buddhist statues, temple architecture, gardens, and ornaments. Buddhism is in fact a religion but highly value of beauty. This great spirit of Buddhism really impressed me.
For example, temple's premises and buildings including toilets always look shiny, aren't they? When you put on kimono and wear white tabi (traditional foot wear), the tabi look so beautiful if they are completely white and their fabrics are tightly stretched. Finding a sense of beauty by looking at its big picture is useful for Japanese Shojinryori.
Although admiring and appreciating beauty get off track with Shojinryori philosophy itself, it is essential for chefs to value beauty when making Shojinryori.
Almighty Shojinryori that is suitable in any TPO (Time, Place, and Occasion)
Creativity is important when cooking meals, not just Shojinryori. How can we consume all foods that we have now to make a delicious meal? Of course, consider its nutrition too. This process is the same as all styles of cooking.
In the first place, every chef should follow three steps, facing ingredients, pursuing beauty of the presentation of a meal, and using creativity.
After being deeply involved in Shjinryori, the way of my thinking dramatically has changed.
For example, when I cook meals abroad, it is difficult to get ingredients that have the same quality as those in Japan. A typical example is an eggplant. An extremely large and less juicy eggplant is sometimes prepared for me. Previously, I requested, "Please find an eggplant that is similar to Japanese one, otherwise I cannot make delicious meals".
However, nowadays, I place this large eggplant in front of me and believe there is certain reason why this eggplant came to me. I came to think like if that's so, how can I bring the best character out of this eggplant with my cooking? The same approach works for sour mikan (mandarin oranges) too. It is not to request to get sweet mikan from Wakayama but to use creativity to make them taste delicious with the new idea.
Interestingly, I thought Shojinryori rules make my culinary horizons restrict but actually they are considerably expanding. This amazed me a lot.
We now receive many requests from a variety of customers including those with different religions those with religious precepts, those who are a vegan, and those with dietary restrictions. I don't think these requests are troublesome or difficult any more. For some reason, when I apply Shojinryori philosophy to my cooking, I can make dishes that can satisfy me with their tastes and please my customers very much. When I prepare a banquet at the Kyoto State Guest House, I used to bother myself when deciding the menu because guests from 20 different countries have quite different preferences. Now, I can calm myself down because I can apply Shojinryori philosophy when prepare the banquet. In that sense, I think that Shojinryori is an almighty meal.
I always keep in mind to first let people taste Shojinryori when promoting Shojinryori internationally. All of a sudden when I speak about Zen and Tenzo, foreigners can hardly understand them. However, if they come to me repeatedly, twice and three times, I understand they are truly interested in Zen. So, I introduce them temple where they can participate in a meditation and a sermon and they can gradually deepen their understanding towards Zen. This will help deepen their appreciations towards Shojinryori.
However, it will take at least more than several years to deepen their understandings towards Zen and they can make progress only little by little. While we, Japanese people, have basic knowledge of Shojin, in other words, we have knowledge of Zen and Shojinryori to a certain extent, because our life are somehow associated with Buddhism, foreigners have to learn Zen from the scratch. Therefore, it will take a lot of time to make them truly understand.
Make myself useful by letting something I have away. There are seems to be restrictions but actually be an eternal expansion.
In the end, making dishes simple is what Shojinryori is supposed to be right now. For example, take tempura and deep-fried tofu away, eat soba noodles with salt. This might be an extremely negative description.
There is a word "Minotake (within limits)". People originally ate foods that grew within the reach of their hands. Neither did they strain themselves more than that nor seized food from someone else's property. They harvested local foods that grew within their reach and completely consumed them including the roots and leaves. For example, they pickled vegetables in a fermented rice brain and dried daikon radish strips, etc. Japanese food culture was developed through such rational food cycle.
Don't you feel that nowadays we are stuck in everything including politics, economics and cultures? It might be interesting to change your mindset, reset your common sense and try to live within your limits. I believe that Shojin can be associated with anything.
Understanding Shojinryori helps you improve your cooking techniques. In addition, since the person who cook Shojinryori changed a monk into a chef, its new philosophy has been derived.
Neither should I stereotype Shojinryori like "This is what Shojinryori is!" nor prioritize what I want to cook, no matter where I cook, such as in Russia, Malaysia, and Kyoto. It is very comfortable for me to have a philosophy to make myself useful by letting something I have away. I want to cherish this balance.
I can serve my new, peaceful dishes at any gathering, no matter what kinds of guests are there. I believe that knowing Shojinryori and utilizing its knowledge for cooking is a big thing for me and this strength will never change, even if the era changes.
416 Iwatoyama-cho, Shinmachi-dori Bukkoji-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
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