Within my cookbook collection, there is one tome that stands out above them all: Zen Vegetarian Cooking by Soei Yoneda, the late abbess of Sankō-in, a Zen Buddhist temple near Tokyo, and Kōei Hoshino, who is the abbess now. It’s my favourite cookbook ever and my copy is well used. My World’s Best Inarizushi was derived from a recipe in this book (my main changes were to use brown rice and to use an expensive, naturally sweet mirin instead of sake and sugar) and whenever I post a picture of my lunch here, several of the items shown will have been made using recipes from the book.
The style is shōjin ryōri—Zen temple food. It’s completely vegan, and emphasises seasonality and balanced flavours. The presentation is exquisite, and it produces the best food in the world. I love cooking the recipes from the book, but there’s one hitch—I’d never had genuine shōjin ryōri (it’s expensive) so I didn’t know if my efforts were any good.
My plans for my recent trip to Japan trip included having at least one genuine shōjin ryōri meal, and hang the cost—it’s a special treat. Thanks to a very helpful member of staff at the hotel, I obtained a reservation for lunch at a Buddhist temple. The cost would be 5800円 (about £40), but I really didn’t care—the temple I was going to was Sankō-in.
Koganei is an ordinary suburb to the west of Tokyo, not a destination a tourist would happen upon, nor have any interest in. A busy place with downmarket department stores, made more mundane by the overcast sky on the day I visitied. Sankō-in is a tricky place to find, especially as the map in Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide neglects to mention the small Shinto shrine on the corner where you are meant to turn right. It’s also behind a large modern supermarket, not the sort of place you expect to find such a sanctuary. But when you go round the back of the supermarket, there’s the gate, with a few of your fellow diners gathered, waiting for the right moment.
The dining hall is round the back of the old wooden temple building, past a small cemetery. I paused. Soei Yoneda is almost certainly buried here. I also stopped to admire the delightful feminine statues dotting the grounds, a permanent jolly note, regardless of the weather.
I entered the vestibule of the dining hall, removed my shoes and donned the provided slippers, before entering. On giving my name, I was taken to my table—a fairly low and sturdy affair, with five miniature tatami mats taking the place of a cloth. My name was written on paper and weighted with a stone at one corner. A single red lacquer tray was placed upon the table.
The food is prepared by local women who are interested in learning shōjin ryōri and experiencing some aspects of temple life. The courses were brought out one at a time, and the signal to start eating was after one of the women had said a few words about the food.
The first course was a sandwich biscuit containing sweet red bean paste. The biscuit was very light and barely there, almost as light as the polystyrene outer of the Flying Saucer sweets I remember from when I was young.
Next up was tea—a supremely frothy, virulently green and bitter matcha served in a deep blue bowl. This shock to the palate ensured no sweetness lingered, a nuclear option to provide clarity for the subtle delights coming up.
Chopsticks were delivered in time for the third course. There was a wonderful familiarity as all the dishes were featured in the book: Mountain yam rolls (p.135), simmered pumpkin (p126), burdock with spicy sesame dressing (p.152), and simmered dried-frozen tofu (p. 178). I’ve tried to make three of those dishes myself and, while my efforts were reasonable—a credit to Yoneda and Hoshino’s writing— they lack the subtlety of the real thing.
The fourth course can be found on page 195. Sesame “tofu” in a thick sauce, served with a knob of grated ginger. Non-tofu tofus are a staple of zen temple cuisine, and are made by thickening sesame milk or juice with kūzu then letting them set. Sesame tofu has a much softer texture than even silken tofu, making this a challenge to my chopstick skills.
Course five wasn’t in the book—konnyaku and bamboo shoots dressed with sweet white miso and yūzu. The bamboo shoots were the freshest I’ve ever had, with no hint of woodiness. Looking out of the window behind me, I saw newly disturbed earth in the bamboo grove. Could they be that fresh? I think they were.
The sixth course was another classic, a slight variation on the recipe for aubergine with miso sauce in the book. Instead of using halves of aubergine, a small aubergine had been grilled whole then slit almost all the way through. The white miso sauce was then applied and grilled some more, producing a melt-in-the-mouth delight, and another chopsticks challenge.
Next was a simple clear broth containing a single horizontal slice of the same fresh bamboo and sansho leaf, and the eighth course was something I did not recognise at first. It appeared to be a yellowy-green non-tofu tofu on a slice of daikon, topped with darker green stuff and surrounded by broth. Earwigging on the next table (a party of journalists from a Hong Kong travel magazine and their interpreter), I learned it’s something else on my Japan hit list—awa-fu! I’ve been experimenting with making this mixture of cooked millet and wheat gluten, and am pleased to report that my latest effort is spot on. The miso-based sansho topping is another recipe in the book and the broth was exquisitely simple with no dashi.
The ninth course was three pieces of lotus root tempura. To make each piece, very thin slices of lotus root had been quartered, then three of these quarters layered on top of one another before battering and deep frying. The lotus root remained crispy.
Course ten was rice, tea and pickles—a respectable lunch in its own right. The rice contained slithers of the fresh bamboo. The three pickles were ume, layers of dashi-simmered konbu with sansho (a variation on p. 108!) and something I did not catch at first but which was a finely minced daikon pickle. The tea was hojicha—roasted green tea.
The eleventh and final course was a mystery—a special tea to be drunk in a special way which involved not removing the lid! Not even for a peek. It was very bitter, very cleansing and a perfect finale to a very special meal.