Temple dining a colorful, healthy option

by Daichi Okayasu, Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer, Feb 12, 2005

Tokyo, Japan -- Shojin-ryori - a type of vegetarian cuisine that came over from China with early Buddhist monks- is winning new fans for its simple but refined flavors and perceived healthfulness.

The food is now available at an increasing number of restaurants and even some Buddhist temples, where shojin-ryori is the traditional food of priests.

Sankoin--a nunnery in Koganei, Tokyo--is one temple that offers shojin-ryori lunches.

Located in a quiet residential area a 10-minute walk from JR Musashi Koganei Station, the temple serves its lunch in a large hall. The meal starts with a monaka, or anko-filled wafer, with a bowl of tea, followed by boiled vegetables, steamed turnip, sesame-flavored tofu and soup. The dishes are all very simple, but prepared with great care.

"Shojin-ryori dishes that are cooked to make the most of the ingredients, retaining their color and flavor as well as to be visually attractive, are very healthy," head nun Koei Hoshino said.

"A shojin-ryori meal tends to feature five colors--red, white, black, green and yellow--and achieves a perfect nutritional balance," she added.

Boiled vegetables are the staple ingredient of shojin-ryori dishes. Burdock is boiled for three hours, becoming so tender it almost melts in the mouth. Koyadofu, frozen and dried tofu, is flavored only with sugar and salt. Yam and wasabi are rolled in dried seaweed.

In shojin-ryori, no part of an ingredient is wasted. Eggplant stems are cut into star shapes and cooked in soup, giving them a firm, springy texture. Seaweed, used to make broth for soup, is boiled in sweetened soy sauce to make a side dish.

The set lunch prices begin at 3,350 yen. Reservations are required and guests are requested to meet at the temple at noon.

The vegetarian restaurant Bon is located in Taito Ward, Tokyo, where there are many temples. The restaurant specializes in fucha-ryori, a vegetarian cuisine introduced from China during the Edo period (1603-1868).

Served only at lunchtime on weekdays and Saturdays, the restaurant's fucha bento is a selection of vegetarian dishes, including dishes that have the appearance of fish or meat but are actually made from tofu and vegetables. The "grilled eel" is really tofu and grated yam made into an eel-like shape and then deep fried and grilled in sweetened soy sauce. Full of flavor, it has a taste and texture very similar to real eel.

The restaurant's spring rolls, filled with five different grains, are as delicious as traditional Chinese rolls.

"Spring rolls filled with grain instead of minced meat are quite popular among foreigners," said Ryuzo Furukawa, owner of the restaurant.

A fucha bento lunch costs 3,990 yen. At dinnertime and for lunch on Sundays and national holidays, the restaurant offers set menus from 7,350 yen.

For lunch or dinner at the restaurant, reservations are required.


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