Thursday, September 3, 2015

Koyasan Experience Part 2: The Art of Shojin Ryori

True, during my stay in Koyasan I was impressed by its beautiful scenery, stunningly magnificent architecture and interesting lodging facilities, but it's their unique cuisine which drew me here in the first place. With its religious background, Koyasan is known for Shojin Ryori (精進料理), the art of vegetarian fine dining.

It's said that the practice of Shojin Ryori was originated from China and Korea in the 7th and 8th centuries and brought back by the monks. The ingredients were basic - mainly seasonal vegetables and wild mountain plants, seaweed, soy, nuts and grains without meat or eggs - so it's strictly vegan. Minimal seasonings were used with emphasis on the original flavors of the ingredients, utilizing all five traditional ways of Japanese cooking - simmering, deep-frying, roasting, steaming or in the raw - in a single meal. Shojin cooking also advocate zero food waste - they minimized the use of dipping sauces and tried to make use of all trimmings and leftovers from the ingredients (for example, turning them into a broth). Unlike the elaborate kaiseki cuisine with numerous courses served in sequence, shojin ryori is much simpler, based on the basic concept of ichijuuissai (一汁一菜), which literally means one soup, one dish plate, served on ozen, the specialized tray with feet on the floor, all at the same time.

The monasteries at Koyasan were known to serve the best Shojin Ryori meals, and I had the opportunity to try on two occasions during my stay. First time it was lunch at Hanabishi, a restaurant with over 100 years old history in the town center of Koyasan. The restaurant is not strictly vegetarian - apart from their shojin ryori menu they also served seasonal meat and fish in kaiseki-style - but they were famous for their meatless dishes.

Their shojin ryori set - served during lunch and dinner - was an elaborate meal with 12 different small dishes served on 3 separate trays. Beginning with the aperitif of plum liqueor (or plum juice if you follow the strictest practice of refraining from alcohol), I worked through the sumptuous display of dishes following the order from the cold appetizers to the deep-fried and simmered dishes, to the soup, pickles and rice.

Goma Tofu, or Sesame "tofu", was perhaps the most well-known dish in Shojin Ryori. Unlike the conventional tofu, it's not made of soy milk but with kuzuko, or arrow root powder mixed with grinded sesame seeds. Once cooked with water, it turned into a paste and was left cool to set, unmold and cut into squares to serve chilled with a light dressing on top. The subtle roasted sesame flavor just sipped through the light soy dressing and the thickened kuzuko gave it a good texture - it's not firm as a real tofu but silky and creamy like a whipped butter.

All the dishes were beautifully plated and presented and I was super impressed with the variety of the courses using a somewhat limited set of ingredients available. If that's the way all vegetarian dishes were prepared, I guess I am quite happy to live with it; well, at least for a few days every now and then.

Where? Hanabishi, 769 Koyasan, Koya-cho Koya, Wakayama Prefecture
花菱 和歌山県伊都郡高野町高野山769番地

In the evening during my stay in the temple, the dinner was served in the same Shoji-ryori style with slightly different dishes. It's less elaborate than the one I had at lunch but it's still very delicious. My favorite dish was the paper hotpot with tofu, mushrooms and vegetables in a soy milk broth. Two different types of tofu was used - one the regular, silky type, and another was the freeze-dried one known as Koyatofu. As the name suggest, it's a specialty in the region. The legend has that the monks at Koyasan invented this special way of treating tofu by first freeze the tofu during the cold winter in the mountain, than left dried in a heated shed so they can be kept longer. The dried tofu was then cooked in hot broth and turned into a firmer texture, almost like a tender meat, while taking in the flavor from the cooking liquid. Even though beer and sake was available, I opted for a bottle of non-alcoholic beer. Well I still prefer the regular version, but it tasted better than I thought.

The breakfast the next day followed a similar theme but much simpler. I liked the Hiryouzu - the deepfried tofu - so much that I was inspired to make my own when I returned home for a non-vegetarian version. And I even brought back a Japanese cookbook about Shojin Ryori - that would definitely come useful when I had to entertain vegetarians at home, and I was eager to learn more of their philosophy of highlighting the original flavors of ingredients using creative techniques which I am sure can apply to everyday cooking as well.

Want more photos? Please check out my Flickr album:

More on my summer trip adventures? Visit the whole series:


Aislinn said...

Hi Gary,

Great post! Very nice photos and explanation of Shojin Ryori.

Would you recommend staying two nights on Koyasan? My boyfriend and I were thinking of staying for two nights so we could take our time at a leisurely pace (and maybe do some hiking) but we see that most people only stay for one night so I wanted to ask your opinion.


gary s said...

Thanks! Well I did stay 2 nights at Koyasan too - first night I stayed at a hostel then second night in a temple. I think that's a better option if you would like to travel at a more leisurely pace. You can find out more here.

Aislinn said...

Thanks Gary!