By Hiroko Kato (written for Vegetarian Journal)
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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.