The Zen Diet

The Zen Diet

So I had the opportunity to eat a special type of meal called shojin ryori at a restaurant named Sougo in Roppongi. Shojin ryori is a very old type of vegetarian Buddhist temple food typically eaten by monks. It was…interesting. I can imagine a meal like this spurring a monk's vow of silence, as in “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

No in all seriousness, it wasn’t too bad. Some of the items were surprisingly edible. The first course was six small dishes including edamame and a corn fritter, fried wheat gluten, tofu and shishito peppers, green beans with a sesame miso, some pickled items, and some small bites that were allegedly made from potatoes (I'm highly skeptical considering I don’t think I've ever met a potato I didn’t like).

One of the things that surprised me was the fried wheat gluten (middle of top row). It’s not that it was good, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had imagined it would be. It was totally edible, and I partially blame the simple fact that it was breaded and deep fried, which can pretty much make anything better. Yes, the texture of solid wheat gluten is strange, but it’s not much different than a very processed chicken nugget. Both are breaded and crispy on the outside, but soft and ‘spongy’ on the inside. Both disguised by the use of a more flavorful dipping sauce—let’s just say I wouldn’t make either a staple of my diet. I admit my first thought of the phrase “fried wheat gluten” was sheer terror based solely on the fact that that it was a giant chunk of evil gluten! Back in Washington, many of the people there are “gluten free” due to a gluten allergy, sensitivity, or just for being on the bandwagon. So naturally, the idea of eating a whole chunk of gluten, which was breaded in more gluten, felt dangerous. I mean, people I know could either end up in the hospital or at the very least sitting on the toilet for days after a quantity of wheat gluten like this!

Next was something that I was first scared of, but actually liked, it was the muddy looking green beans (bottom left). Yes, I did say muddy—look at them! As a rule I generally DO NOT eat things that are covered in a dark, slimy substance. It reminded me of being a kid and pulling earthworms out of the flower bed after a rainstorm. But when I moved to Japan, I vowed to try new things so I had to at least have a taste! Well, much to my surprise, they were quite delicious. The dark brown muck was actually sesame miso, not the most appetizing to look at, but as they always say, “looks can be deceiving”.

Some of the other parts that were less odd or surprising were, of course, the edamame. Like all other edamame, I personally could live without it but, whatever. Then there was a little corn fritter. Of course that was a delight, afterall, I am a corn-fed girl from Indiana. Then there was marinated tofu…it was a chunk of tofu, so it was just as you suspected, soft and uneventful. Then came the “potato” bites….like I said before, it was like no other potato type food I have ever had. I cannot even describe it since its time in my mouth was very limited before I had to ever so discretely, spit it out. This was the only item on the tray that I was completely not capable of eating. And for it to be something potato based is so embarrassing that I might never be allowed back to the Midwest.

The last little dish was a variety of “pickled” items (so I was told, what do I really know). Now I'm all for a nice dill pickle after a deli sandwich or a hamburger to cleanse the palate and refresh the tastebuds with the kick of pickle. I’m totally onboard with this concept.  It’s just that these Japanese pickled items don’t do it for me. I’m just not a huge fan of any of the things that I have had yet. Lets just say I haven’t had anything that can compare to the zing of a dill pickle. There seems to be a wide variety of picked foods here, so I guess I can try them all. I know back in the pacific northwest, the “Hipsters” were pretty into canning and pickling things, ideally things they grew in their own back yards, fertilized by their own free range chickens (I'm only half joking). Apparently I just need to embrace my inner hipster and explore the world of pickled foods a bit more.

There were several options for the final course, I went with the vegetable curry. It seemed like a safe bet, and it was. The only thing that really struck me about this particular curry were some of the ingredients added to it. That being the fresh tomatoes and baby corn, but who doesn’t love some baby corn? 

Overall I think this shojin ryori meal was a win-win. Granted I didn’t enjoy all the food, but now I know, and can avoid some of those things in the future. It also was a win because a huge piece of gluten was consumed, and no one was hurt. I was able to experience something that had both historical and cultural significance that also encompassed eating so if that’s not a win, I don’t know what is!