Plant-based foods are bigger than ever. Once the province of niche restaurants and health food stores, meat and dairy alternatives have ballooned into a $5 billion industry. While it’s natural to think of plant-based diets as a contemporary phenomenon, Japanese Buddhists have been eating this way for centuries. In Zen Vegan Food, monk and temple chef Koyu Iinuma shares the recipes and ethos of this storied cuisine.
In Japan, Zen vegan food is called shojin ryori. This “divine cuisine” uses no meat, dairy, or seafood. Temple cooking also refrains from using vegetables like onions and garlic, whose intense smells and flavors monks find overstimulating. What remains on the menu is a surprisingly versatile diet centering around vegetables, beans, and grains. The delicate and often overshadowed flavors of these ingredients take center stage in recipes that are both simple and sophisticated. Many diners will find the dishes unfamiliar, but as Iinuma states, “If we can adopt an open-minded attitude when it comes to food, we may find that we come to like something that we previously avoided.”
The book’s 73 recipes begin with an assortment of snacks and staple foods. Here you’ll find such appetizing morsels as rice balls, natto soup, and seasoned nori. The following section reveals the many ways of preparing congee rice porridge. Iinuma relates a Buddhist sutra that attributes ten merits to the dish. Among them are heartburn relief, cold prevention, and even extension of one’s lifespan. While the recipes may not fulfill all these claims, variations like “Eel” Congee with Kabayaki Sauce and Ginger Congee with Deep-fried Tofu are well worth making for their flavors alone.
Main courses include Japanese favorites like tempura alongside more novel creations such as Deep-fried Kabocha Skins with Curry Salt. One of my favorites is Doubled-up Kabocha Squash, in which simmered kabocha pieces are mixed with a sauce made from the squash’s dark green peel. The recipe embodies an ideal of Zen vegan cooking: using all parts of an ingredient so nothing is wasted. The closing chapter features Italian-fusion recipes that show the versatility of the cuisine. Although dishes like Zen Vegan Caprese Salad weren’t to my taste, the selection proves that shojin ryori can be more than just traditional fare.
Each recipe includes appealing color photos and informative descriptions that make it easy to choose what to cook next. Cooking directions are succinct but clear, making ready use of microwave ovens and other modern conveniences to get food efficiently from the kitchen to the table. Since the dishes are authentic temple cuisine, recipes often use hard-to-find Japanese ingredients like shiso leaves. Readers will need access to a well-stocked Asian market to get the most out of this book.
Zen Vegan Food is an impressive collection of Japanese plant-based recipes. With delicious meals enlivened by snippets of Buddhist wisdom, this is a book I’ll be sure to keep by my kitchen counter. Long-time vegans are certain to find plenty to enjoy. For hesitant readers just beginning their journey toward a more sustainable diet, Iinuma offers this advice: “Part of our enjoyment lies in forgetting our preconceptions about how food ‘should’ be, and just taking things in as they are.”