Zen and the Art of Healthy Eating


10 November 2011
Embassy of Japan | 101-104 Piccadilly | London W1J 7JT

One of the events featured at the Embassy of Japan this month is an introduction to a particular style of Japanese cuisine called shojin ryori. Although Japanese dishes such as sushi, tempura, edamame and miso soup have steadily been growing in popularity in the UK, little is known here about this traditional cuisine.

Following the success of her previous visits to London in the last two years, we welcome Mrs Mari Fujii, a famous shojin ryori author and chef from Japan, to give a presentation entitled "Zen and the art of healthy eating". This exclusive event is by invitation only, but we are offering a number of places especially for Embassy of Japan webmagazine subscribers. Details on how to register can be found at the end of this article. Guests at the event can sample dishes through the course of Mrs Fujii's presentation, as well as learn about the history and philosophy of this culinary culture.

Mari Fujii

We managed to catch up with Mrs Fujii in the run-up to the event to ask some questions about this cuisine, so richly steeped in Japanese traditions.

What is shojin ryori? Where did it originate? Who eats shojin ryori?

Shojin ryori is based on the principles of Buddhism, namely not hunting any living animal for the purpose of food. In other words, shojin ryori does not use fish, meat or other animal products such as eggs. In addition, strong tasting vegetables such as leeks, onions and garlic are avoided as it is believed that they will hinder the pursuit of discipline. Shojin ryori is the style of food that was originally eaten by disciples of Buddhism. The fact that this simple style of vegan food was eaten in temples during the Heian period (794 to 1185 AD) that followed the introduction of Buddhism in Japan is mentioned in the famous piece of classical literature "The Pillow Book" by Sei Shonagon. The food made at pilgrim lodgings, originally opened by Japan's well-known Buddhist monk, Kukai Kobo-Daishi, in the Koyasan region is particularly famous.

Towards the end of the Heian period (about 760 years ago) another well-known Japanese monk and founder of the Soto Zen School, Dogen, went to study Buddhism in China. He witnessed the daily workings of temples there and wrote two books detailing his experiences. His first book detailed preparation and cooking methods, while his second dealt with etiquette and table manners. It is because of these two books that this traditional style of cooking has been preserved today, especially with relation to the Soto Zen School of Buddhism.

British cuisine usually involves some kind of meat or fish. Most British people would feel that something was missing if their meal did not include either one. Can non-vegetarians and vegetarians alike enjoy shojin ryori?

Although shojin ryori uses mainly ingredients such as vegetables and tofu, it does have a playful aspect and there are many pseudo non-vegetarian dishes. For example, minced potatoes are wrapped in dry seaweed, fried, and dressed with sauce to imitate grilled eel with soy sauce. However, my late husband told me the original aim was not simply to have fun but more to provide a small source of enjoyment for the hard-working monks when their food was placed before them. My husband lived as a Zen Buddhist monk for ten years and wrote a book about his experiences.

Does shojin ryori involve difficult cooking techniques? (Is it accessible to people of all standards of cooking?)

Difficult techniques for beginners may include those such as getting the right temperature for frying or determining the right amount of liquid needed for a sauce. However, it is not always necessary to fry ingredients, and I believe that many people outside of Japan have mastered techniques for sauces such as teriyaki and do not consider them to be difficult. I have held many cooking classes in Paris and London, and once people remember the methods they get great enjoyment from shojin ryori.

It is useful to understand the main seasonings used in Japanese cooking such as miso, soy sauce and mirin. For example, if people know that miso can be used for purposes other than to make miso soup, such as for salad dressings, many more people would come to appreciate the taste of miso.

This event is by invitation only, but we are offering a number of places specially for Embassy of Japan webmagazine subscribers. Places are limited and will be allocated on a strictly first-come, first-served basis.

To apply, please email shojin@ld.mofa.go.jp with your name, email address and affiliation, quoting WEBMAGAZINE in the subject line.

Please note that registration prior to the event is essential. You will be asked to present a print-out of your confirmation email together with photographic identification upon entry to the Embassy of Japan.