Saturday, November 28, 2009

Meditating Shojin-Ryori at Daitokuji Temple in Kyoto


An hour after arriving to Kyoto, as soon as we drop off our luggage at the Matsubaya Inn ryokan, we head for our first site – Daitokuji Temple. In the city famous for the breathtaking grander of its Zen Buddhist edifices, Daitokuji is quite a modest specimen. Then why?

But of course: Izusen!
This famous shojin-ryori establishment specializes in Zen vegetarian cuisine. Meandering our way through the twists and turns of the temple grounds, only peripherally taking note of the 700 year-old architecture, we finally locate Izusen, and are seated in a tranquil outdoor garden. Two kaiseki-style omakase tasting menus priced together at ~$90 boast a dramatic display of food, parceled into a progression of many small dishes.


Definition: Shojin Ryori
Type of vegetarian cooking introduced into Japan together with Buddhism in the 6th century. Shojin is a Buddhist term that refers to asceticism in pursuit of enlightenment, and ryori means "cooking." In the 13th century, with the advent of the Zen sect of Buddhism, the custom of eating shojin ryori spread. Foods derived from soybeans – especially tofu - and vegetable oils - including sesame and walnut - were popularized in Japan as a result of their use in shojin ryori.


Buddhist monks avoided alcohol, believing that it diminished clarity of consciousness. Right or wrong, to my delight, a glass of plum wine materializes, something of a shock to the Buddhist tradition, and music to my tastebuds. The plum wine is simple, clean, colorless, crisp, with just a touch of residual sugar, in some ways reminding me of halbtrocken Riesling, but with a delicate plum flavor. Just like Riesling, it is versatile, working well as aperitif, as well as with the meal, and as a digestif afterwards. This particular bottle is nothing like the syrupy and overly fruity examples I've tried in the past.

And with this, the parade of food art begins, all dishes delivered and documented in the order shown below to the best of my inspection.


Warm matcha (powdered green tea) and peanut mochi got the juices flowing.


Creamy yuba (tofu skin) and mushroom; seaweed, yuba, sesame


Chips: Japanese maple-leaf rice crackers, lotus root, Japanese yams, deep-fried yuba, and broad beans.


Roasted chestnut, green bean and sticky rice jelly, fried tofu with miso, fresh tofu, marinated mushroom.

Crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, ume - Asian plum (also known as Japanese apricot and Chinese plum) was simply amazing. Commonly pickled or preserved, here is appears to have been deep-fried fresh in a tempura batter and served hot.


Sesame tofu with wasabe and cucumber. It takes 10 years to learn to make a perfect sesame tofu. Tofu-like in texture and presentation, sesame tofu is actually made of a mixture of pulverized white sesame, water and kuzu ko starch. Sticky, soft, and a little sweet, resting in some sort of salty soy-based sauce, the taste reminded me of savory mochi.


Ume jelly, creamy yuba, sesame tofu, radish noodles, cucumber with wasabe, on a shiso leaf.


Creamy yuba, burrata-like.


Tofu in light glutenous broth with flower blossoms.


Yuba, boiled snow peas, maple leaf rice cake, stuffed fried tofu dumpling, kabocha (Japanese winter squash) in clear broth.


The fried tofu dumpling was filled with mushrooms, carrots, white soy bean, and ground tofu


Steamed yuba roll.


Steamed white rice and tea.


Bonito broth steamed rice with tiny mushrooms.

Mixed tempura consisted of mildly spicy green pepper (that tasted like a padrone), shitake mushroom, kabocha, and crispy rice noodle, which looked like a prawn head.


Light bonito and yuzu broth with tofu.


And for dessert - pear jelly and berry sorbet.



As the divine meal glided to its inevitable end, I meditated upon the wisdom of the ancient Buddhist monks. My first ever complete vegetarian meal – shojin ryori - was an eye-opening gastronomic awakening for all senses – truly a religious experience. I felt one with the tofu! And by the way, the LV bag is not mine.


For your convenience, I've included the full slideshow of the Daitokuji Temple visit. Enjoy!

3 comments:

vshwen said...

Somehow the LV bag begs to leave the scene to restore harmony. Joking aside, are the food filling enough that you leave satisfied?

Iron Chevsky said...

The food was definitely enough to fill me for lunch. That said, I wasn't stuffed, and was hungry by dinner time! Generally, while in Japan, with 10-12 hours of walking a day, I was ready to eat most of the time!

Will said...

If they used bonito dashi, then it may be shojin ryori, but it's *not* vegetarian.


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