Veganism is burgeoning across the globe, gaining traction at an exponential pace. Still in its infancy, the movement was seen as a niche trend a mere decade ago, and the word itself was coined relatively recently in 1944. That’s not to say that the concept of plant-based cooking is a new idea; Japanese Buddhist monks were well ahead of the curve, abstaining from the act of killing animals for human consumption for many centuries. Shojin Ryori is the art of zen cooking, a plant-based approach to simple preparations, with expert attention to quality, wholesomeness, and flavor.
“Shojin” originally connoted a type of zeal in pursuing an enlightened state of mind. Breaking down the word further, “sho” means “to focus,” and “jin” means “advance forward along the way.” It’s the relentless pursuit bettering one’s self that drives the cuisine forward. Over time, shojin ryori’s health benefits and meticulous, artistic presentation contributed to Japan’s approach to fine dining, kaiseki.
Believed to cloud the spirit and interfere with meditation, the avoidance of flesh demonstrates respect for all life, which extends to an appreciation for plant life as well. In appreciation for their sacrifice, all parts of the plant are used. Things that we might throw away like cucumber peels or carrot tops are vital parts of the equation. Emphasizing the importance of every scrap, nothing goes to waste.
Additionally, unlike modern vegetarian food in Japan, shojin ryori dishes don’t contain garlic or onion, which are considered too pungent. Instead, natural flavor is drawn out through careful seasoning and gentle cooking processes. This is why shiitake mushrooms, concentrated sources of umami and tanmi, have been the critical backbone of countless zen dishes.
Beyond their Japanese origins, these same principles can be applied to western cuisine with great success, too. Take Italian minestrone, for example. Devised as a way to make the most of any scraps that might be on hand, this brothy soup is light and refreshing, yet wholly satisfying thanks to a rich palate of deep flavors, varied textures, vibrant colors, and ample umami. Since the exact components are flexible, it’s easy to bend the formula further to accommodate these zen principles.
Call it fusion if you must, but my shojin minestrone is in a different category from the typically overwrought, inelegant attempt at dumbing down Asian dishes to make them more palatable to hapless diners across the globe. Rather, by starting with potent Sugimoto dried shiitake, it takes the true essence of zen cooking to amplify ingredients found farther afield. Starting with a stock bolstered by the water used to rehydrate the mushrooms, you get all the tanmi properties infused into the liquid, along with the meaty texture of the caps.
Unique to Donko shiitake, this particular variety has a much thicker cap and tender stem, which means that every part of the mushroom can be chopped and added to the stew for a completely waste-less preparation. Forest-grown in Kyushu, a Southern island of Japan, they contains the largest amounts of Guanylate, which creates a much more intense savory flavor.
Buddhist monks were hip to the meatless movement long before it ever had a name. The wisest way to honor their innovation is to keep it alive, and keep innovating with their discoveries in mind.
Shojin Minestrone Soup
Reimagining the Italian staple with the Japanese principles of shojin riyori in mind, this brothy soup is light and refreshing, yet wholly satisfying thanks to a rich palate of deep flavors, varied textures, vibrant colors, and ample umami.
- 2 Cups Water
- 1 Ounce Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
- 1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
- 1 Teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
- 2 Carrots, Peeled, Quartered, and Thinly Sliced
- 2 Stalks Celery, Diced
- 1 Medium Zucchini, Diced
- 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
- 1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
- 3 Tablespoons White Miso Paste
- 4 Cups Vegetable Stock
- 3/4 Cup Dry Small Pasta, Such as Orzo, Ditalini, Mini Shells or Elbow Macaroni
- 1 Large Tomato, Diced
- 1 Cup Snap Peas or Snow Peas, Cut into 1/2-Inch Lengths
- 1 Cup Shelled Edamame
- 1 Tablespoon Yuzu or Lemon Juice
- 8 Fresh Shiso or Basil Leaves, Thinly Sliced
- Begin by soaking the dried shiitake in 2 cups of water overnight, and ideally for 24 hours before beginning. Cover with plastic wrap so that it touches the surface of the water and store in the fridge.
- Once rehydrated, remove the mushrooms but reserve the water. Slice the caps and dice the stems; set aside.
- In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil an sesame oil over medium heat before adding the carrots, celery, and zucchini. Saute until softened and aromatic; about 8 - 10 minutes. Add the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper, stirring well to incorporate.
- Whisk together the reserved shiitake soaking water with the miso paste, making sure the miso is fully dissolved. Pour the mixture into the saucepan along with the vegetable broth. Add the pasta, tomato, snap peas or snow peas, and edamame. Cove the pot with the lid and gently simmer for 10 - 12 minutes, until the vegetables are tender and the pasta is al dente.
- Turn off the heat and stir in the yuzu or lemon juice. Top with fresh shiso or basil and serve right away.
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Amount Per Serving: Calories: 285Total Fat: 6gSaturated Fat: 1gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 4gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 971mgCarbohydrates: 49gFiber: 7gSugar: 7gProtein: 12g
All nutritional information presented within this site are intended for informational purposes only. I am not a certified nutritionist and any nutritional information on BitterSweetBlog.com should only be used as a general guideline. This information is provided as a courtesy and there is no guarantee that the information will be completely accurate. Even though I try to provide accurate nutritional information to the best of my ability, these figures should still be considered estimations.
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9 thoughts on “Art and the Zen of Japanese Cooking”
Fascinating post! Great recipe.
That looks and sounds both delicious and tasty. Maybe some daifuku for desert, preferably with bean paste in the middle? :-) Speaking of Japan, you might enjoy a book I just finished called “Water, Wood, and Wild Things”, by Hannah Kirshner. She went to Japan and learned to do a variety of artistic and food things. It’s one of the most interesting non-fiction books I’ve read for some time and beautifully written.
That does sound like a perfect meal!
Thank you so much for the recommendation! I think I’d love it. It looks like I can get it at my local library, so I’ll have to check it out!
Literally. :-) I checked out the actual book but may check out the e-book to take on vacation and re-read.
That soup indeed is fused with tons of umami. Shiitake, miso and tomato are all good sources of glutamic acid which will make your toungue flavour receptors rejoice. Lovin this fusion
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Oh yum, this sounds wonderful and something I’ve got to try as a miso soup fan. Thanks!
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