Traditional temple cooking for the future—an interview with shojin ryori chef Daisuke Nomura
October 23, 2017
Japan has a long history of vegetarian temple cuisine—known as shojin ryori—which was introduced from the Asian mainland along with Buddhism, from the sixth century onward. Developed by the Zen Buddhist masters of the Kamakura Period some eight centuries ago, this tradition has been preserved in monasteries—and at a select number of specialist restaurants, predominantly in the Kyoto region.
One of the few chefs actively promoting that heritage in an innovative way is Daisuke Nomura. At his restaurant in Tokyo’s Roppongi district, he is exploring new approaches intended to keep shojin ryori relevant for modern-day customers. While his cooking remains deeply rooted in the shojin canon, the recipes he serves draw on a range of non-traditional influences, from around Japan and even from French or Chinese cuisine. At the same time, his restaurant has a relaxed atmosphere that is welcoming—a far cry from the severe formality found at so many other shojin venues.
One major draw is that customers can drop in for simple lunches of just a couple of dishes, or merely for some late-evening bar snacks. But the only way to appreciate the depth of Nomura’s cooking is by sitting down to one of his multi-course tasting menus. Over the span of an hour or more, a succession of dishes are placed in front of you, all as tasty as they look. Some seem straightforward, although that apparent simplicity masks a depth of rich flavor and umami. Others are presented with the subtle delicacy of kaiseki ryori, Japan’s elaborate “haute cuisine” that developed among the aristocracy in Kyoto.
Remove the lid of an exquisitely decorated lacquerware bowl and you may find a beautiful light-green potage made from edamame (green soybeans), in the middle of which floats a dumpling of nama-fu (freshly made wheat gluten) that has been deep fried with a coating of multicolored arare crackers the size of pinheads. Or you may be served a small plate bearing two round morsels of sushi, one topped with yellow and purple edible chrysanthemum petals, the other with a layer of daikon so thin you can see through to the tiny shiso (perilla) flowers underneath.
Dishes like this are one reason why Nomura was recently (June 2017) included in a list of 50 “Plant-Forward” chefs around the world whose menus predominantly feature vegetables—alongside such major names as Alain Ducasse and René Redzepi.
Nomura spoke about his approach to shojin cuisine and the sources of his inspiration.
What is shojin ryori?
Basically, it is a cuisine that does not use animal products. There are different schools of Buddhism, but a fundamental teaching is to not shed blood. Of course, plants also have their own life force, just like animals. But, as humans, we have to eat—and eating plants involves no bloodshed.
What makes shojin ryori different from vegetarianism or macrobiotics, for example, is that it has a spiritual component. It’s not just what you cook and eat, it’s about being conscious of the ingredients you use and who produces them, taking care of your cooking equipment, and more.
Simply put, shojin ryori is the root from which kaiseki cuisine emerged.
You opened your restaurant two and a half years ago. Please tell us about your background.
After graduating from university, I began working at my family’s restaurant, in Tokyo’s Shiba-Koen district. It’s a shojin restaurant in the kaiseki style, which is different from orthodox temple shojin ryori. I’m the third generation of my family, but now my younger brother is in charge there.
My family’s restaurant is quite expensive. You eat in small private rooms and the cooking is very traditional. But my own approach is more modern and innovative. We use ingredients and techniques that have not been tried up to now. We’re making a new shojin ryori—a style of food that isn’t served anywhere else.
What is distinctive about the food at your restaurant?
Orthodox shojin cuisine does not recognize non-traditional ingredients such as truffles, or even tomatoes. But there’s nothing to stop us including ingredients like that. We also use new styles of plating and presentation. For example, we might serve a soup that is drunk through a plastic straw. That would never happen in traditional cuisine. A sense of playfulness is important.
Your dishes showcase the changing seasons in unique ways. Would you describe the ingredients in this autumn selection?
Starting in the top left corner, there is an orange hozuki (ground cherry), a sweet and succulent fruit. To the right of that we have satsumaimo (sweet potato). Under the maple leaf you can see a mini tomato, and to the right of that is a deep-fried shiitake mushroom stuffed with tofu. Just in front of the shiitake is a ginkgo nut. Resting on the tomato is a small eggplant, cooked in dengaku style with miso inside. At the bottom right is an ishikawaimo (a type of satoimo, or taro) with the skin still attached underneath. Then in the little bowl we have taro stem with a goma-ae (sesame and vinegar) dressing. And finally half a water chestnut.
There are times when you use carrot tops. In most kitchens they are just thrown away, but you prepare them as tempura—and they’re delicious.
That’s right. As much as possible we try not to throw the offcuts away. For example, we dry the skins and outsides of our vegetables, such as carrots or daikon. We save them and then use them to prepare vegetable dashi stock for our vegetarian customers.
Orthodox shojin ryori does not use katsuobushi (cured skipjack tuna shavings). So why do you use katsuobushi in the dashi at your restaurant?
For vegetarians, we can prepare meals made entirely without katsuobushi, as long as they reserve a day ahead. But most people who are unaccustomed to food made without katsuobushi tend to find the flavors too weak and lacking in umami.
Recently a foreign couple came to my restaurant for dinner. The woman was close to being vegetarian, although she did eat fish. But the man was a big meat-eater. After they’d finished their meal [made with the standard katsuobushi dashi], he told me he usually feels something is missing if he isn’t served meat, but while they were eating he was oblivious to the fact that it didn’t include any. In fact, he said the experience had made him feel he should reconsider his diet. Hearing that made me very happy.
How do you create your menus?
The menu changes every three weeks. I bring in new dishes, but I may keep serving an ingredient in several different ways—for example first raw, then later on perhaps deep-fried. There are several dishes that we serve each year in their particular season. But I always think about ways to improve the recipes, so they slowly evolve and improve. I find inspiration for new dishes all over—when I travel around the country and am served local specialties, or when I eat out at other restaurants. But I try to intersperse the new preparations with more orthodox dishes, so that our customers don’t get put off.
You were included in a recent list of 50 chefs around the world who are “Plant-Forward.” How do you feel about this?
I think I was chosen because I serve shojin ryori. There aren’t many opportunities to spread the word about this wonderful cuisine, and fewer and fewer Japanese people know about it these days. If it becomes better known abroad, that could also have an impact in Japan. So I am delighted to have been included on that list.
Chef Nomura's RecipeSummer Vegetable Tofu
Ingredients (Serves 4-5)
300 ml fresh soymilk
250 ml konbu dashi (or water)
3 g sugar
12 g agar-agar powder
50 g white sesame paste (neri goma)
Summer vegetables (such as eggplant, zucchini or tomato)
Finely cut scallions, to taste
Soy sauce (shoyu)
Freshly grated ginger, to taste
1. Wash and prepare the vegetables. If using eggplant or zucchini, cut into bite-sized chunks and deep-fry until tender. Tomatoes can be used raw or briefly blanched, cut into bite-sized segments.
2. Heat the konbu dashi (or water) and add the agar-agar powder and sugar, stir to combine. In a separate pan, heat the soymilk and mix in the sesame paste.
3. Remove the dashi mixture from the heat and let cool to about 80 degrees Celsius, then stir in the soymilk/sesame mix.
4. Place one or two morsels of the vegetables in individual bowls, then pour the mixture  over them until they are covered.
5. Allow everything to set, then chill. Top with cut scallions, and serve with soy sauce mixed with grated ginger.
Text: Robbie Swinnerton
Photo: Robbie Swinnerton and Umi Fulford
6-1-8 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo 106-0032, Japan