Japanese shōjin ryōri: the green competition from Buddhist temples to TV shows
From Firenze University Press Book: Food issues 食事
Registered in 2013 by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as Intangible Cultural Heritage, washoku 和食, the “traditional dietary cultures of the Japanese,” includes the so-called shōjin ryōri精進料 理, an expression dated to the early modern period and today variably translated as Buddhist vegetarian/vegan cuisine, zen cuisine, devotional cuisine or “temple food.” Shōjin meals were introduced in Japan following the Buddhist practice of abstaining from eating meat. According to historian Ueda Jun’ichi, however, religious and devotional factors alone could hardly account for the popularity of shōjin ryōri throughout Japanese history and outside the Buddhist clergy. Ueda believes that the additional element playing a key role in the acceptance of shōjin ryōri among ordinary people, other than the introduction of new cooking methods from China involving extensive use of wheat flour and vegetable oil, was the modoki もどき (imitation, mock) culinary technique, often employed in this type of vegetarian cuisine. Simulating or recreating a non-vegetarian dish was bound to be appreciated and acknowledged as part of Japanese cultural expressions centered on the notions of tsukurimono (artificial, temporary creations) and mitate (visual transposition). Traditionally, vegetables (sōjimono 精進物) were not thought of as precious or particularly tasty ingredients. Sei Shōnagon 清少納言 (10th–11th century) made this clear in her Makura no sōshi 枕草子 (The Pillow Book):
That parents should bring up some beloved son of theirs to be a priest is really distressing. No doubt it is an auspicious thing to do; but unfortunately most people are convinced that a priest is as unimportant as a piece of wood, and they treat him accordingly. A priest lives poorly on meagre food [sōjimono no ashiki wo uchikuhiさうじもの(精進物)のあしき(悪しき)をうちくひ], and cannot even sleep without being criticized. (Shirane 2007, 250)
To the extent that literary texts can be dealt with as historical evidence, it appears that during the Heian period vegetarian food was related to Buddhism and perceived as “bad” or tasteless. During the Kamakura period (typically 1185–1333), the introduction of vegetarian dishes made to resemble fish and fowl, both in shape and flavor, attracted people’s attention: in the Heikoki 平戸記, a diary compiled by Taira no Tsunetaka 平経高 (1180–1255), there is mention of mock fish, a vegetarian dish having both the shape and the flavor of fish, offered by a nenbutsu monk named Monshin and welcomed by those present with much astonishment due to its probably unexpected rich taste (Ueda 2017, 181). Later, in the Muromachi period (1336–1573), modoki cuisine appeared on the shōgun’s table and was offered to zen monks belonging to the powerful Gozan system.3 While still including fish and fowl, official meals also featured modoki dishes such as the sanbōzen 三峰膳, a broth decorated with the shape of the three picks of the immortal islands of Penglai, Fangzhang and Yingzhou (Ueda 2017, 182). It is useful to point out that, even though vegetarian cuisine was indeed connected with Buddhism, historically Buddhist monks and nuns did not necessarily embrace vegetarianism. In particular, the True Pure Land school (jōdo shinshū 浄土真宗), which gained much popularity around the Sengoku period (1467–1615), was famous for allowing both marriage and meat consumption (nikujiki saitai 肉食妻帯). Unlike a more frugal Buddhist vegetarian meal, the modoki technique encouraged the development of shōjin ryōri, meant both as a cooking method and as food presentation, into an attractive culinary genre, but wild plants and vegetables failed to gain an upgrade from “ashiki” (bad) to superior ingredient even in later periods. The Shijōryū hōchōsho四条流庖丁書 (late 15th century), to quote an example, contains a hierarchical categorization related to the taste of food products in which mountain ingredients (including vegetables) are deemed inferior compared to sea and river ones (Ueda 2017, 180).