Shojin ryori

Traditional Japanese dining without meat or fish

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a shojin ryori meal at the Japanese embassy in Berlin, hosted by Japanese chef Mari Fujii and German art dealer Bernd Schellhorn. Mari Fujii has been a professional chef for 30 years. She ended up in this line of work because her husband was a temple cook and she set up a shojin school with him. Bernd Schellhorn is a knowledgeable expert on Japan. An art dealer by profession, he has been in several of Japan’s professional kitchens. And it was on one of the exclusive art trips to Japan he regularly organises that he met Mari Fujii. Since 2017, Bernd Schellhorn and Mari Fujii have been hosting dinners in Germany, and they may also host some in Switzerland in the foreseeable future. At the end of 2017, the duo cooked up a storm in the ambassador’s residence at the Japanese Embassy in Berlin. We were invited to take our seats at a table laid with a white tablecloth and a chandelier hanging proudly above us. The grandeur of the setting provided a magnificent contrast to the simplicity that underpins shojin ryori. Shojin ryori is a feast for all the senses, especially taste. And it is multi-faceted. In other words, a shojin meal should be a balance of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy and umami on one plate. The cuisine holds back on spices and sauces: although miso, vinegar or even soy sauce are used, the meal always centres around the main ingredient.

Bernd Schellhorn said: «It’s about experiencing the moment. For example the carrots, how they taste on this particular day.» The shojin experience is about more than just the taste. Aroma, colour, shape and feel are key elements, and that goes for both the food itself and the crockery. The dinner at the Japanese Embassy was one of the only times I gained the distinct impression that a masterpiece had been placed in front of me. Thanks to host Bernd Schellhorn, who spent years working with a Japanese master ceramist, we had the honour of having our meals served in choice ceramic serving dishes, some of which were antiques. Beautiful Japanese ceramic bowls also dotted the table as they were served before our eyes. Although shojin consists of a dozen small compositions, they’re not presented as individual courses. They come out almost all together, accompanied by a bowl of rice and a miso soup. Goma dofu (a kind of tofu made of sesame paste) or fu (wheat gluten) are often added to the table alongside tofu, as are plenty of seasonal and locally sourced vegetables, of course. And mushrooms. The way in which meals should be served «traditionally follows an almost incomprehensible, heavily symbolic and meaningful set of rules, which, incidentally, hardly anybody masters these days – even in Japan», said Bernd Schellhorn. «But as is the case with all aspects of shojin, balance is hugely important, as is the synergy of the presentation. »

In other words, chefs can bring their own interpretation of harmony to the table. But there’s always one fundamental rule: rice bowl on the left, soup on the right. Every shojin ryori chef must be attentive. «Respect for everyday ingredients is just as important as attentiveness in shojin food», explained Schellhorn. Attentiveness begins with the cooking process. «For example, they try not to lose a single grain when washing the rice and they use every part of the vegetable, from root to tip», said Schellhorn. In many monasteries, vegetable waste that lingers in the sink strainer during the washing process is even boiled up into a soup. How strict chefs are with shojin varies from place to place. Of course, temple food is also sometimes blended with Japan’s non-religious food traditions. In any case, indulging in this form of vegetarian cuisine is certainly an experience. Its flavour, beauty and attentiveness are also a great source of inspiration for our local cuisine.

Shojin ryori restaurant tips from expert Bernd Schellhorn
New York: Kajitsu He recommends that visitors to Japan seek out shojin ryori restaurants in or near Buddhist temple complexes. Alternatively, if you want an even more authentic experience, some temples take bookings for exclusive meals in a traditional setting.

Book recommendation «The Enlightened Kitchen» by Mari Fujii, available from Amazon and other retailers.

Tailored trips
Bernd Schellhorn, who’s based in Berlin, is an expert in shojin ryori. He organises art- and food-themed trips to Japan, tailored to the traveller’s individual requests. Depending on what his clients want, he combines shojin ryori with visits to temples and introductions to Zen Buddhism.

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