info for vegetarians
Tokyo Vegetarian-friendly
Restaurant Guide
Diary - Living in Tokyo
as a Semi-Vegan
Recommended Readings
Written in Japanese
Articles about Vegetarianism
written by Hiroko Kato
Online Vegetarian/Vegan Handouts
Shopping Guide
Good News & Good News
Links for Vegetarians

- Japanese Vegan Foods Found in Oriental or Natural Food Stores
- How to Eat at a Japanese Restaurant the Vegan Way (written for Vegetarian Journal)
- A Vegan Wedding (Special to The Daily Yomiuri, June 29)
- Vegan Japanese Noodle Dishes (written for Vegetarian Journal)

How to Eat at a Japanese Restaurant the Vegan Way

By Hiroko Kato (written for Vegetarian Journal)

Although it is healthful, delicious, and beautiful, Japanese cuisine seems to be not so popular for vegetarians/vegans. Looking through VRG's "Guide to Natural Foods Restaurants," I found less than fifteen Japanese restaurants in the book, whereas numerous other Asian restaurants such as Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Indian were listed. Except for India, these countries basically are not vegetarian. Their vegetarian cuisine is limited to Buddhists and most people eat fish or meat for their daily meals.

The same is true in Japan. We don't usually eat vegan style but have traditional vegan cuisine, shojin ryori, which has been created by Zen Buddhists. If shojin ryori restaurants were to spread in the U.S. as Chinese Buddhist restaurants currently are, people could enjoy wonderful Japanese vegan dishes here.

One of the main reasons why Japanese cuisine is not familiar to vegetarians/vegans is that people know it is deeply connected with fish. One standard for judging whether chefs have good culinary technique and sense is how excellently they can cook fish. For example, sashimi (sliced row seafood) are always served to show a chef's professional skill. Furthermore, Japanese soup stock, dashi, which contains bonito (fish) extract, is used in almost every dish. Also bonito flake is often sprinkled as a topping or a garnish. Nevertheless, if you have the knowledge of which dishes may include bonito, you can avoid them. The following list will help you distinguish "bonito" plates.

Another possible reason Japanese foods are not popular with many vegetarians is lack of communication. Americans don't know Japanese cuisine well. And, Japanese restaurants in the U.S. don't know vegetarianism well.

Cuisine is a sort of cultural expression; therefore I believe eating the food is one of the best ways to understand foreign countries. Based on long history, Japanese cuisine has some unique characters that will interest you. Like Italian dishes, fresh, wholesome foods are cooked the best way to taste their natural acquired flavor. Like French, we've cultivated graceful culinary techniques. At the same time, you will enjoy its eye-appealing presentation, which shows Japanese' deep concerns for four seasons. You will enjoy the display not only on the plates but also in the coordination of tableware that has a variety of shapes and delicate touches. Likewise, Japanese cuisine is low fat and is supposed to be a main reason for Japanese longevity, which is top-ranked in the world. Indeed, except for the fish-eating habit, traditional Japanese dishes are almost vegetarian. Japanese did not eat red meat until the end of the nineteenth century, and after that the quantity of meat consumption has remained far below that of Westerners. Meals have traditionally consisted of mainly grains (rice), vegetables, beans, and seaweed. Before the 1950's, dairy rarely appeared on the tables (it means that you don't basically need to care about dairy in Japanese foods) and eggs were treated as valuable food for sick people.

Today Japanese dishes have become cosmopolitan and strongly influenced by especially the convenient American style. Youngsters' eating habits are changing from their grandparents', toward the taste for high-calorie but low-nutrition food. Still, we can find authentic Japanese dishes at restaurants and you don't need to go to expensive places. Even casual diners will serve you satisfying Japanese meals. (I don't mean that ALL Japanese restaurants in the U.S. are terrific. As with other types of restaurants, some are good; some are not so wonderful. )

You may feel troublesome having to worrying about bonito as well as meat; however, it will be worthwhile. The experience will widen your pleasure of eating. Also, once you visit Japanese restaurants, they will notice there is a good source of new customers and have a chance to learn about vegetarianism. I hope you will enjoy the dishes listed below and help create a bridge between vegetarians and Japanese cuisine.

I admit most sushi is fish sushi. But never give up! There are still many varieties of sushi vegetarians/vegans can enjoy. In fact, sushi rice itself is vegan (rice, rice vinegar, salt, sugar, kombu seaweed, and sometimes sweet rice wine), so just select vegetarian/vegan toppings (neta) for your sushi. Besides the items below, you can try anything you want to eat. As long as they have the ingredients in the kitchen, the chefs will gladly serve the sushi their customers request. Say, "Make a California Roll without fish," or "Grilled shiitake nigiri (a kind of sushi with a topping placed on a morsel of rice) please," etc. Choosing vegetarian sushi gives you the advantage of paying less.

KAPPA (MAKI): The cucumber roll. It is named KAPPA, Japanese mischievous river-sprite in folklore, because this creature was believed to love cucumber.
OSHINKO (MAKI): The Japanese pickle roll. The typical vegetables that may be used in OSHINKO MAKI are daikon (Japanese radish) or carrots.
UME (MAKI): The pickled UME (Japanese plum) roll. You will experience a tart flavor. Sometimes siso (Japanese basil) leaves are added to UME MAKI.
NATTO (MAKI): The fermented soybeans roll. NATTO is very sticky and has a strong flavor, which some Japanese dislike but some really love.
AVOCADO (MAKI): For its rich, fatty taste, avocado has been substituted for tuna in American sushi restaurants. What a great invention for vegetarians! You can ask to make a combination sushi roll with avocado and other vegetables, as well as order avocado nigiri.
HORENSO (MAKI): The spinach roll.
SHIITAKE (MAKI): The shiitake mushroom roll. As the ingredient of the rolled sushi, shiitake may be cooked with soy sauce and Japanese sweet rice wine. As I mentioned before, grilled shiitake nigiri would be a wonderful option.
KAMPYO (MAKI): KAMPYO is dried gourd strip which is usually seasoned with soy sauce and sugar. KAMPYO MAKI is a common rolled sushi in Japan. Enjoy its slightly spongy texture.
YUBA (MAKI): The YUBA (soymilk skin) roll. YUBA is good for making combination sushi with other ingredients such as shiitake (seasoned) or cucumber. Vegetarian
FUTOMAKI: FUTOMAKI means a thick roll and more than two ingredients are put in. Choose any vegetarian foods.
INARI: The sushi rice wrapped with seasoned abura-age (deep-fried thin tofu). In fact, it is a casual, homemade sushi, so you may rarely see this item on the menu.
CHIRASHI: The mixed sushi with a variety of ingredients. Usually, it contains fish so ask the chef to make CHIRASHI without fish. The same as INARI, CHIRASHI is a homemade type of sushi.
Garnishes: The garnishes for sushi are gari (pickled ginger slices) and wasabi (Japanese horseradish). Gari is free, so take as much as you want. Americans mix gari and wasabi in soy sauce, but it is not the authentic Japanese way of eating sushi. Put wasabi on sushi when you want a hotter taste. Also you can ask the chef not to add wasabi to your sushi (say, "SABI NUKI").

You may eat lots of tofu dishes at vegetarian restaurants. Do the same at Japanese restaurants, too. Besides the following menu, other items, such as tofu salad or tofu steak, may be available for vegetarians/vegans. To be on the safe side, remind the restaurant staff you don't want bonito, sometimes used as a topping for tofu dishes.

YU DOFU: The Japanese find tofu's natural good taste in the simplest way of cooking. YU DOFU is tofu boiled in a pot in which kombu seaweed is placed. When you eat them, dip the tofu into soy sauce with some garnishes (grated ginger, chopped onion, and so on). The restaurant may serve you the sauce for YU DOFU, but it possibly contains bonito flakes. Check before you take the sauce.
HIYA YAKKO: The same as YU DOFU, HIYA YAKKO (also called just "YAKKO") is a very simple dish. It is served raw, usually in cold ice water. Dip the tofu into soy sauce. The toppings are grated ginger, chopped green onions, and nori seaweed. Ask not to put bonito flakes on the tofu.
TOFU DENGAKU: The word DENGAKU itself means grilled food, skewered, with sweetened miso paste topping. (So there are other varieties besides tofu. Eggplant DENGAKU is also highly recommended.) Just in case, check if they used bonito "dashi" or eggs in the miso paste.
AGEDASHI DOFU: Deep-fried tofu, which is coated with potato starch (katakuri-ko). It is served in a sauce, based on soy sauce. Check if the sauce contains bonito extract. In addition to that, bonito flakes are often used as a topping, so ask not to put them on the dish. You can eat AGEDASHI DOFU with a little soy sauce and some garnishes such as grated ginger.
GOMA DOFU: As a matter of fact, GOMA DOFU is not tofu: it is made from white sesame seeds, water, and potato starch. There is no bean in it. GOMA DOFU is usually served raw with wasabi and soy sauce. Never miss this savory "tofu" when you encounter it at a restaurant.

(Maybe) OK Dishes
Most appetizers, such as a small portion of salad, are vegetarian/vegan. Still, you may need to confirm that they don't put bonito flakes on the dishes. Japanese noodles are fine to eat, but also, check if the soup contains bonito. The followings are some items that vegetarians/vegans may enjoy.

EDAMAME: This is a green-colored young soybean. Japanese people love to eat EDAMAME as a summertime snack with beer. Of course, if you shun any alcohol, no problem. Usually, it is served boiled, with a pinch of salt.
OHITASHI: OHITASHI is generally boiled leafy greens, such as spinach. Tell them that you don't want bonito flakes as a topping. When you eat OHITASHI, drizzle a little soy sauce on the vegetable.
SU NO MONO: SU means vinegar, and SU NO MONO is vegetables and/or seaweed, sometimes seafood, dressed with mixed rice vinegar (with soy sauce, sugar, and salt). It refreshes your palate after eating oily dishes. Check the ingredients before you order.
GOMA AE: Vegetables which are dressed with a nutty-flavored sesame paste (sesame seeds, soy sauce, and sugar). In this case, we rarely add bonito to the dish.
NI MONO: Boiled vegetables, especially root vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, or daikon (a kind of radish) are used. Usually, NI MONO is cooked with soy sauce, sake (Japanese rice wine), and mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine), but you may need to check if they use soup stock containing bonito.
NUTA: It is a dish made of seafood and vegetables, dressed with sumiso (white miso thinned with vinegar); however, you can order NUTA made of vegetables and seaweed instead of seafood.
MISO Soup: Miso is fermented soybean paste. The Japanese make luscious soup with miso. Unfortunately, the soup stock may have bonito powder, so check what ingredients they use for the soup, dashi. Vegetable TEMPURA: The same as SUSHI, TEMPURA is a gorgeous Japanese dish for a special treat. Seafood and vegetables are dipped into a batter, then deep-fried in vegetable oil (we never use lard or any animal fat to cook TEMPURA). People love its crispy, oil-rich taste. Introduced in the sixteenth century from Portuguese, it is very similar to fritters but has a more delicate texture. These are the checkpoints for vegans. 1) Say you don't want seafood TEMPURA. 2) Tell them not to use egg in the batter. Otherwise, let them fry the vegetables without a batter. TEMPURA coated with harusame (mung bean noodles) is a great option for vegans. 3) Ask if it is possible to fry the vegetables in the oil in which seafood is not fried. 4) TEMPURA sauce contains bonito extract, so eat it with salt and if possible, lemon juice.
GYOZA: Originally, GYOZA, a kind of dumpling, is a Chinese dish. But now it has become indispensable to Japanese tables, too. Its typical filling is a mixture of pork, cabbage, Chinese chives, garlic, and ginger. Just ask if they can make vegetable GYOZA without pork or any other animal foods.
UDON: Soft, thick, and white wheat noodles. If you order hot UDON, check whether the soup contains bonito extract. You can also have cold UDON (say, "ZARU-UDON"); eat it with a little soy sauce and if possible, garnishes such as grated ginger, nori seaweed, and/or chopped green onions. Stir-fried UDON with vegetables is a very possible option.

ONIGIRI or RICE BALL: This is a kind of finger food, so eat ONIGIRI with your hands. It is often wrapped with nori seaweed and has a stuffing such as umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum). The stuffing may be fish, so check before ordering.
OCHA ZUKE: It is a casual, but popular Japanese meal. Pour hot Japanese green tea into a bowl of rice, then you can have OCHA ZUKE. There are some variations of toppings on the rice, so order vegetarian foods such as umeboshi, nori, or TSUKEMONO (also called OSHINKO. See the following section).
TSUKEMONO: Pickled vegetables, usually accompanied with rice. In fact, our ancestors felt satisfied with just several bowls of rice, TSUKEMONO and miso soup. TSUKEMONO is versatile, but at restaurants, they usually serve nukazuke (pickled in rice bran), umeboshi, takuan (strong flavored, yellow-colored pickled daikon), or shiozuke (pickled with salt).

Probably, macrobiotic restaurants understand the vegetarian/vegan diet much better than ordinary Japanese restaurants. Nevertheless, macrobiotics is not always vegetarian/vegan. Moreover, the idea is more popular in Western countries than in Japan, so the dishes served at macrobiotic restaurants are often not authentic Japanese style.

These beverages are an integral part of Japanese cuisine and make the dishes richer as well as bring a wonderful feeling.

SAKE: Sake, described "Japanese rice wine" in English, plays the same role as wine. You can eat the dishes without it, but once you taste them with a small cup of sake, you never forget the great combination of this drink and Japanese cuisine. The ingredients of sake are brewed rice, water, and malt. Its alcohol content is about 16%. The same as wine, sake has a lot of varieties of flavor, from dry to sweet. It is served chilled (hiya) or warmed (o-kan). Ask which type of sake is good for your dishes.
CHA or Japanese tea: Even if you despise any alcohol, you can enjoy Japanese dishes with a sip of Japanese tea, cha. In sushi restaurants, waiters may call it agari, which means "finish" and in fact, cha refreshes the palate after the dishes. The tea leaves themselves are the same as that of English or Chinese teas, but cha leaves are dried without fermentation while other types of tea are fermented or semi-fermented. At Japanese restaurants, you may drink fresh green tea.

The ingredients of Japanese traditional sweets are basically rice, sugar, and red azuki beans. I hope you have a chance to eat Japanese sweets such as yokan (sweet azuki bean confection, made from azuki beans, sugar, and agar-agar) or manju (sweet bun, made from wheat-or rice-flour, azuki bean, and sugar). If you are lucky, you may have a beautiful higashi, little dry confectionery, as a dessert. This sweet is usually served at the tea ceremony and made from rice flour and sugar. Higashi is often colored and molded into natural figures such as a leaf or a flower.

Copyright(C)1999 Hiroko Kato. All rights reserved.

Copyright (C) 2002 Hiroko Kato, Tomoko Kinukawa(designer).All rights reserved.