Japanese vegan food | modoki ryori

Modoki ryori refers to food which uses plant-based ingredients to mimic the appearance, taste and texture of meat dishes. This type of dishes are common in shojin ryori and they have also achieved a certain mainstream popularity due to the health factor of eating vegetable-rich meals.

What is modoki ryori?

Modoki ryori [もどき料理] refers to food which uses plant-based ingredients to mimic the appearance, taste and texture of meat-based dishes. This type of dishes are common in shojin ryori [精進料理, Buddhist Cuisine] and they have also achieved a certain mainstream popularity due to the health factor of eating vegetable-rich meals. Hence, today there are many restaurants specialising in serving shojin ryori inspired meals.

Origin

Buddhism arrived in Japan in the 6th century and in the 13th century modoki ryori originated as part of the temple food eaten by Japanese Zen Buddhist monks. It was the leader of the Zen Buddhist Soto school, Dogen,  who took initiative for the development of the cuisine in Japan after having been inspired by similar practices in China. Buddhism does not allow the killing of animals for food, hence the monks developed a plant-based* diet. This diet is in Japan commonly known as shojin ryori and incorporates modoki ryori techniques into the cooking to produce nutritious and healthy meat-free meals. 

*The majority of shojin ryori dishes do not contain milk or eggs, but as these ingredients are easier to find today compared to the past, there may be dishes containing either or both. 

Vegan unajyu (grilled eel) prepared using modoki ryori techniques, clear soup and pickles. 

Characteristics

Modoki ryori-style dishes originating in shojin ryori are often simple. However, while the dishes themselves can look simple on the plate, the preparation and processing times can be time-consuming, e.g. fermentation processes, making soybean curd and drying different ingredients (this was especially true in the past when a higher amount of manual labour was required). 

A shojin ryori meal is put together with a certain balance in mind. A meal typically has: 

5 colours: white, black, yellow, green and red. 

The focus on using several different colours is also a good way to ensure that you are eating a variety of plant-based ingredients that each add to the nutritional balance of the meal.

5 tastes: salty, bitter, sour, sweet and umami.

Dishes are also prepared in five different ways: steamed, fried, grilled, boiled and raw. 

In line with the focus on the number five, the meal may also consist of five plates: rice, soup and three different side dishes. However, you will often find meals with more dishes than five. There are also ingredients which are avoided due to their strong smell, so called gokun, such as garlic and onion. 

The ingredients used are usually seasonal. For example, in the autumn you are likely to find kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) on the plate, while in the Spring this is unlikely since the pumpkin is out of season. Hence, a shojin ryori meal prepared in the spring will look different from a meal prepared in the autumn. 

Shojin ryori adopts a no waste policy. Rather than throwing away left-over ingredients they are kept and used for another purpose. 

Commonly used substitutes

  • Tofu – prepared in a variety of ways, such as baked, fried boiled or plain raw) with hot and cold options. 
  • Mushrooms – both dried and fresh. Dried shiitake mushrooms are often used in dashi (soup stock) and the fresh ones are for example sautéed. 
  • Seaweed – gives that extra ocean taste to dishes made to mimic seafood, but also used in other non-seafood dishes, such as ganmodoki which is a psuedo-goose type of dish. 

Examples of dishes and ingredients

  • Vegetable tempura [野菜の天ぷら] – battered and deep-fried vegetables.
  • Vegan unajyu [うな重] – made by using modoki ryori techniques to mimic the taste, texture and look of eel. Actual ingredients used may differ (visit our Youtube channel for an eggplant and nori-based vegan grilled “eel” recipe).
  • Gomadofu [ごま豆腐] – sesame tofu. This post by Sarah Hodge teaches you more about this delicious and popular shojin ryori dish (there’s also a recipe to try at home!).
  • Ganmodoki [がんもどき] – fried tofu fritter. Ganmodoki is made to mimic the taste of goose and also contains seaweed and vegetables, such as carrot or lotus root. 
  • Tsukemono [漬物] – Japanese pickled vegetables. 
  • Koyadofu [高野豆腐] – frozen-dried tofu and a traditional product of Mt. Koya. The Soyinfo Center tells you all about the history of this particular type of tofu, and soy in general. 
  • Konnyaku [こんにゃく] – Konjac in English. The texture is a bit like gelatine and by itself it does not have much taste. 
  • Natto [納豆] – fermented soybeans. Very sticky and has a strong smell. Popular breakfast food on a bed of rice. 
Goma dofu (sesame tofu)

Gomadofu (Photo by Sarah Hodge)

sweet potato and pumpkin tempura

Sweet potato and kabocha (Japanese pumpkin)

Check out this blog post by guestblogger Eiko Azumano to learn more about Japanese vegan cooking ingredients and veganism in Japan.

If you are interested in learning more about shojin ryori, our guestblogger and shojin ryori enthusiast Sarah Hodge has you covered with this introduction to shojin ryori and tips for learning more/ attending a shojin ryori cooking lesson. 

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