Zen vegetarian cuisine : Cooking with your heart and soul.

Koganeyama Taigen, Kasuisai temple’s “Tenzo” (chef). A famous specialist of  Shojin cuisine, the Tenzo gives cooking classes open to anyone. The temple has  Japanese style guest rooms too.
Kasuisai, one of the major Japanese Zen temples, is located just 2 hours away from Tokyo in a beautiful countryside. Former “Food & Wine ” editor-in-chief Dana Cowin traveled to Kakegawa to discover the art of traditional Zen cuisine known as “Shojin ryori” with the temple’s chef, Koganeyama Taigen.

Zen cuisine according to Dogen: six tastes, five colors, five techniques

An elaborate vegetarian cuisine based on seasonal produce, soy beans, legumes and wild vegetables, developed in Japanese Buddhist temples as Buddhism forbids killing animals. Aiming to balance both body and mind, this Shojin style cuisine is one of the major roots of Japanese cuisine.

In the 13th century, Soto Zen school founder, Dogen, set strict rules for every daily activity, from washing your face to cooking and eating. As Kasuisai’s tenzo (= temple chef) explains, cooking is part of Zen daily practice, just like chanting, meditating, working or eating.
“Japanese cuisine and Shojin cuisine are based on five tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, spicy hot), five colors (red, blue (or green), yellow, black and white), five techniques  (steam, raw, stir fry, deep fry, stew). But in the Soto Zen school we have one extra taste added by Dogen that is “Tan”, meaning light or pale. To me, this “Tan”  means preserving the original taste as much as possible. Six tastes, five colors and five techniques should be presented for each full Shojin meal.  Then you adapt these guidelines according to the season and what you can get.”


In a full Shojin meal, all dishes are served at once. Clockwise from left (left tray) : bamboo shoot rice, dried tofu and deep fried tofu with vegetables, Gomadofu or sesame tofu, a staple in Shojin cuisine, Konnyaku root balls with Ofu (gluten) and yam, pickled vegetables, miso soup with bamboo shoots, Wakame seaweeds, Shimeji mushroom and tofu. (Right tray) green tea salt for Tempura, pickled mountain vegetables, Yuba (tofu skin) curd (usually cooked with eggs in non veg cuisine), fruits, Tempura of bamboo shoots, lotus root, pumpkin, Maitake mushroom, asparagus, and knitted kelp served with bamboo shoots cooked in dashi. 


Cooking begins in your heart

“There is a book called “Tenzo Kyokun” or Instructions for the Tenzo, that explains not only how to cook, but also how your mindset should be, and how you should eat.  The cooking philosophy is known as  “Kishin, daishin, roushin” meaning “Joyful heart, generous heart and loving heart”. You should cook with joy,  with generosity, and with a loving heart, just as if you were the mother of those you are cooking for. ”

A good chef by Zen standards is also someone who cooks everyday with the same mindset. “Your cooking shouldn’t be influenced by your emotions, daily practice helps you become able to cook in a steady state of mind. Our practice as Zen monks is about keeping our mind still and serene, so you practice daily to always cook with the same mindset. As for me, I always stay focused in the kitchen, just as you should be in every moment of your life”.



Transforming modest ingredients into sophisticated dishes

Just like for the Bras, cooking simple and modest ingredients into tasty dishes is one of the keys of Shojin cuisine. “The other principle is that you shouldn’t spoil anything, and use the whole produce including the peel, the stem, the leaves.  You can always find a way to deep fry or cook these parts in tasty ways to avoid any waste. We deep fry the kelp used for dashi broth to make it crunchy and tasty. Kelp is often discarded after being used to prepare dashi.


We also use a lot of dried food, preserved food like dry tofu known as “Koya dofu” from Mt Koya, a Buddhist t sanctuary, and dried wheat gluten called “Ofu”. You can keep them for months, and we soak them in dashi to cook. Dried foods concentrate the savor and the nutrients, and are actually both tasty and healthy. “

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Peels, stems, leaves and usual wastes are saved to be cooked as well, like the piece of kelp that has been cut and knitted in a diamond shape for tempura (left).


(L)Tenzo preparing Manju buns made with flour and water dough with a sweet red bean filling, ready to be steamed. These buns could also be filled with cooked veggies. (R)Dried foods play an important role in shogun cuisine, such as the Ofu (dried wheat gluten)  that is usually soaked in dashi to be cooked.

Actual monks take a much smaller meal twice a day.
“The food we’re preparing is only for our guests. We monks only have rice porridge in the morning, then a simple meal in the evening with a bowl of rice, a bowl of soup and a vegetable dish.”

Dolls and peonies

Zen austerity is somewhat softened in spring when the temple displays its unique collection of traditional Ohinasama dolls for the annual Girls Festival on March 3rd. “We accepted donations of old dolls and we ended up with over 1200 dolls which we display on a  32 steps stage. We also have a peony garden that blooms from mid-April to early May. There are around 2,000 of them in 60 different varieties”.


Kasuisai spectacular dolls collection for Hinamatsuri Girls’ Festival.


The temple also boasts a peony garden with 2,000 peonies.


Former “Food & Wine ” editor-in-chief and writer, radio host Dana Cowin with the Tenzo.