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written by Hiroko Kato
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- 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)

Japanese Vegan Foods Found in Oriental or Natural Food Stores

By Hiroko Kato

Before I came to Baltimore from Japan to do an internship with VRG, I had no idea if I could purchase many Japanese foods there. I was afraid I would not be able to find miso, nori, udon, or umeboshi (if you are not familiar with these items, see the following glossary), but soon I noticed that Americans seem to be much more interested in Japanese foods than I thought.
For example, when I was writing my first article for "Vegetarian Journal" and needed to research whether people can buy daikon, a typical Japanese vegetable, I easily found it at an Oriental store and even in regular supermarkets in Baltimore. The shape was a little different from what I knew in Japan, though the vegetable was obviously daikon. As a matter of fact, most Japanese foods are available in Baltimore, especially at Oriental or natural food stores. Furthermore, it is amazing to see that sushi and tofu are enthusiastically accepted in the U.S. I almost fainted when I found inari-zushi, a very casual type of sushi, placed in a supermarket's "Sushi corner." (I think I don't need to explain about tofu's popularity, let alone soy sauce, anymore.)
There is, however, a scary trap for anyone trying Japanese food. One day, a friend of mine who was studying in Washington, D.C. gave me some Japanese packaged foods, such as instant sushi seasoning powder. First I was so glad that I could have my mother country's dishes without great effort. But when I tried to share this joy with my co-workers (VRG's staff), I realized that was impossible. All the packaged foods contained fish ingredients!
Being surrounded by the sea, it has been natural for Japanese to consider fish as food. We have a long fish-eating tradition. That is, fish is deeply connected to Japanese cuisine. You should be aware that most packaged/processed Japanese foods contain fish powder. Sometimes, even rice crackers contain a fish ingredient as a seasoning. So I advise you to check the label before you buy packaged Japanese foods. You may be used to looking for non-vegetarian words on the food label ("beef extract," "chicken broth," "skim milk," "egg yolk," or "honey," etc.), but in this case, you should be especially careful of the word "bonito," the fish which is used as flakes or powder in Japan. (We call it katsuo-bushi.)
As long as you remember to do a "bonito check," you can find a variety of Japanese vegan food. I would be delighted if you had a chance to enjoy these foods, based on a long-history of culinary tradition. The following is a list of vegan foods that you can find at Oriental and/or natural food stores. Most of them don't have any animal ingredients including bonito. (I noted if it is necessary to check the label.) If you have hesitated to pick up Japanese foods just because you were not familiar with them, this will be a good reference to take with you. Go for it!

*I am not sure all the foods I listed below are always available in the U.S. If you are living in a big city, there may be no problem; however, some of the foods are probably hard to find in small towns. You can search for major Japanese food distributors (e.g. Central Boeki or on the Internet and ask the companies where you can buy Japanese products in your area.

Soy Products
Besides tofu, the Japanese have a variety of soy products. Whether you are a tofu lover or not, these foods would give you an opportunity to explore the "New World of Soy."

Abura-age (deep-fried tofu)
The shape is flat/thin and rectangular. In Japanese, abura means oil and age means deep-fried. It is essential for making inari-zushi, a kind of sushi. (See the miscellaneous section below.) Also abura-age is good for miso soup, udon, and stir-frying with vegetables. Before cooking, pour boiling water over abra-age to remove excess oil. For preservation, keep it in a refrigerator.

Atsu-age (deep-fried tofu)
Compared to abura-age, atsu-age looks more tofu-like. Atsu means thick, and its inside remains raw. The Japanese eat atsu-age with soy sauce and grated ginger. Otherwise, simmer or stir-fry it with vegetables. For preservation, keep it in a refrigerator.

Koya-dofu (freeze-dried tofu)
The texture of tofu becomes spongy in the process of being boiled, frozen, dried, and thawed. Generally, it is known as Koya-dofu (Koya is the famous Japanese Buddhists' sacred mountain, and the Buddhists made freeze-dried tofu in their own way), but kori-dofu and shimi-dofu (kori and shimi mean frozen) are the same. Being simmered with kombu, soy sauce, and sake, Koya-dofu becomes a savory dish. When you use the product, follow the package instructions. Can be stored on the kitchen shelf.

Kinako (parched soybean flour)
Usually kinako (literally meaning is yellow-colored flour) is used in making Japanese sweets, by mixing with sugar. The easiest homemade Japanese sweet is baked (or boiled) mochi (rice cake) with the sweet kinako mix. Adding kinako in hot soymilk would be a hearty option. Store it on the kitchen shelf.

Edamame (young soybean)
This green-colored vegetable seems to have become fashionable in the U.S., though it has long been a casual snack in the summer for the Japanese. Just boil edamame and scatter a pinch of salt over it. You can add boiled edamame (remove the pod) in stir-fried vegetables.

Noodles / Pastas
Practically no one dislikes noodles/pastas, so I strongly recommend trying fabulous Japanese pastas!Besides tofu, the Japanese have a variety of soy products. Whether you are a tofu lover or not, these foods would give you an opportunity to explore the "New World of Soy."

Udon (wheat noodles)
Udon (available dried, partly cooked, and instant) is gaining popularity in the U.S. as in Japan. The ingredients are wheat, water, and salt. You need to check the soup, which may be packed with partly cooked and instant udon, to see if it contains bonito. Udon is served in a bowl of soup (usually made from the Japanese dashi soup stock, soy sauce, sake, and mirin) with chopped long green onion, wakame seaweed, cooked abura-age, and so on. In the classic, easy style, udon is cooled down in the water after boiled, then drained and served with soy sauce. If possible, add some garnish such as grated ginger and/or chopped long green onion. Stir-frying the noodle with vegetables is also fine. Be sure to boil udon Al dente.

Soba (buckwheat noodles)
While the people in the western part of Japan tend to prefer udon, soba is enthusiastically eaten in the eastern area. You can serve soba the same way as udon, but stir-frying, which some American restaurants do, is not the authentic Japanese style. Al dente is much more important for boiling soba than udon.

Somen (thin wheat noodles)
Somen is a light dish and is best for eating between meals, for a midnight meal, or for a hot summer day's lunch. It doesn't take time to cook somen, so it's good for a busy person, too. Eat it the same way as udon. Okinawan (the southern islands of Japan) people often stir-fry somen with vegetables and tofu.

Hiyamugi (thin wheat noodles)
The difference between hiyamugi and somen is that the latter is thinner. You can cook hiyamugi the same way as udon/somen.

I believe that American people also love this world-popular noodle. Unfortunately, I could find only one vegan variety among major commercial ramen noodle makers' products: Oriental, Nisshin TOP Ramen. Also, at natural food stores, you may be able to get some of the health-conscious vegetarian/vegan ramen noodles.

*You may find readymade udon/soba tsuyu (the soup) in the shelf at the stores, but don't forget to check to see if it contains bonito before you buy it.

Surrounded by the sea, Japanese created various ways of cooking seaweed over several thousand years. Most seaweed is sold dried, so it has a long shelf life.

Nori (laver)
Nori is known as an essential item for sushi. Being pressed and dried, it is sold as a sheet. You may find two types of nori: plain or seasoned. When you choose the latter, check to see if it contains bonito. Also, there is Korean nori, which is roasted, oil-brushed, and seasoned with salt. Besides sushi making, nori has versatile usage: wrapping a rice bowl, adding to Japanese noodle dishes, stir-frying with vegetables, putting over salad, and so on. You should keep nori dry.

Wakame is an all-round type seaweed. You can add it to miso soup, Japanese noodle dishes, and salad. Sauteing it with a little sesame oil would be delicious, too. Follow the package instructions when you use wakame.

Kombu (kelp)
It is indispensable for making Japanese soup stock, dashi. You should buy thick, straight kombu, if you want excellent soup. After using for making dashi, you can cook kombu by stir-frying or simmering it with vegetables.

Short (about a half-inch), black hijiki seaweed becomes tasty by stir-frying. Simmered hijiki (slightly pan-fried) with soybeans is one of many popular Japanese home-style dishes. Also, you can put some (reconstituted) in when you cook rice.

It is pale green, soft kombu shavings with vinegar flavor. You don't need any preparation for using tororo-kombu. Just put it on Japanese noodle dishes, salad, and so on. It makes great (and also easy!) soup with boiling water and soy sauce.

Ao-nori (green laver)
You may have noticed that ao means green. Generally, it is sold as a powder. Use ao-nori the same as spices such as basil. Scatter it over pastas, salad, stir-fried vegetables, ramen noodles, udon, somen, and anything else you like.

Kanten (agar-agar)
Kanten is also called "vegetable gelatin." It is made from tengusa (a kind of seaweed), and available in powder and twig forms. You can substitute kanten for gelatin. Follow the package instruction when you use it.

Dried Food
There are a lot of useful provisions among the dried food, kanbutsu. Even if your refrigerator is empty, these items will make a great dish with little effort.

Hoshi Shiitake (dried shiitake mushroom)
The same as kombu, dried shiitake mushrooms make tasty dashi soup stock. After making the soup, you can also cook them by braising them with soy sauce and sake rice wine. Hoshi Shiitake is good for topping on noodles, stir-frying with vegetables, and so on.

Fu (wheat gluten)
There are two types of fu: raw and dried. The raw type is rarely available in the U.S., still you can use the dried fu, which is very helpful for vegetarian cooking. The difference between fu and seitan (Chinese style wheat gluten) is its shape. Fu is made into miniature forms often like leaves or flowers, and sometimes is beautifully colored. On the other hand, seitan has a simple figure. Also, the texture of fu is smoother and softer than that of seitan. Put the dried fu into any kind of soup; simmer it with vegetables; and stir-fry it after reconstitution.

Kikurage (cloud ear mushroom)
Kikurage is darkbrown-colored tree fungus. To use, reconstitute it in warm water first. Kikurage itself doesn't have taste, but people are fond of its gelatinous texture. Stir-frying with vegetables and soy sauce is recommended. Using it in soup is fine, too. The Chinese make sweet desert with kikurage (very expensive white type.)

Harusame (mung bean noodle)
Mung bean harusame is Chinese style, but now most Japanese use it instead of Japanese harusame (made from potato starch), because it is convenient for many types of dishes. (Japanese harusame is easily melted in hot water, so it is not appropriate for soup.) For the name harusame (spring rain), the food has a delicate, soft shape and taste. Before using, boil harusame and stir-fry with vegetables or make soup.

Kampyo (dried gourd strip)
It is popular under the name of sushi, kampyo-maki. Kampyo is one of the main fillings of sushi. The original texture and appearance is soft and cream-colored, but usually kampyo is cooked with soy sauce, dashi soup stock, and sugar, and the color changes to brown. To use, follow the package instructions.

Yuba (soymilk skin)
Yuba is one of the most useful foods in Japanese Zen Buddhist cuisine (vegan). Just put yuba in the soup. Otherwise, reconstitute it in the water and use for stir-fried dishes or salad.

Japanese Pickles
Because rice is our staple food, the Japanese created their own unique pickles, tsukemono, to eat with a lot of rice. Keep tsukemono at a cool room temperature or in a refrigerator. Some packaged tsukemono may contain bonito extract, so check the ingredients before you buy them.

Umeboshi (pickled Japanese plum)
Japanese think of umeboshi, the best-known tsukemono, as a kind of food medicine. White rice porridge with umeboshi is a typical dish for sick people. In the summer, we put an umeboshi in cooked rice to prevent it from going bad. Umeboshi in a rice bowl (onigiri or omusubi) is also a popular lunch. Because of its strong tart flavor, umeboshi can be used as a condiment. The flesh of umeboshi is good for making dressing, tasty dips, and so on.

Beni-shoga (red pickled ginger)
Beni-shoga is used as a garnish for sushi (usually inari sushi) or fried noodles.

Takuan (pickled daikon)
Regular commercial Takuan is yellow-colored. To serve it as an accompaniment to rice, just slice. To cook, cut it into small pieces, then stir-fry with vegetables. Takuan adds a very strong flavor to a dish.

You can create very Japanese-like tastes with American condiments by only using soy sauce. Nevertheless, the same that olive oil is essential for Italian dishes, the following Japanese condiments are definitely preferable for Japanese cooking.

Miso (fermented soybean paste)
You may find several types of miso: light brown, white, and dark brown. The first one is the most useful for its relatively mild flavor, but if you like sweet miso, choose the white type. Dark brown miso is strong and very salty, so it is good for those who love spicy taste. Besides miso soup, this luscious no-cholesterol paste can be used for seasoning stir-fried vegetables, making sauce or dressing, etc.

Sake (Japanese rice wine)
For cooking, buy cheap or cooking sake. If you can't find Japanese sake, Chinese rice wine may become the substitute. It adds a savory flavor to dishes in simmering or stir-frying.

Mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
Teriyaki's rich taste comes mainly from soy sauce and mirin. Also, mirin adds the shiny appearance to a dish.

Su (Japanese vinegar)
If you love to cook sushi, I strongly recommend getting su, instead of using white vinegar. The taste will be much closer to that of restaurants' sushi. Sushi-su is the best for making sushi, but you need to check the ingredients. Other types of su are vegan. You can use su like western vinegar, for making dressing and so on.

Wasabi (Japanese horseradish)
This green, hot spice is known as the garnish of sushi. (Never mistaken it as avocado paste.) It is available as powder or paste in tubes. Besides sushi's garnish, wasabi can be used in homemade dressing or sauce.

Karashi (Japanese mustard)
Karashi is hotter than western mustard. It is available as powder or paste in tubes. It is used as a garnish for oden (Japanese hodgepodge), and can be added to dressings or sauce.

Shichimi or Ichimi Togarashi (Japanese chili)
These Japanese hot peppers are suitable for sprinkling over noodles, miso soup, and stir-fried vegetables. Shichimi means seven tastes, and this type of chili is mixed with six other spices like black sesame seeds, poppy seeds, hemp seeds, and so on. Ichimi means one taste, so it consists of only Japanese chili pepper.

Rice / Rice Product
In Japanese dishes, Japanese rice is preferable. Please don't substitute long-grain American rice for Japanese rice, if possible. Italian risotto rice, even it is short-grain, should be avoided, especially when you cook sushi.

Japanese rice is stickier and moister than long-grain rice. Before cooking, stir the rice vigorously in water in a bowl with your hand. Change the water repeatedly until it becomes almost clear. Drain the rice in a colander and put it into a saucepan. Soak the rice in the water, if possible, more than 30 minutes. (If you don't have plenty of time, 10 minutes is the least, and add a teaspoon of sake.) The popular brands of Japanese rice available in the U.S. are KOKUHO and NISHIKI rice.

Mochi-gome (glutinous or sweet rice)
This stickier type of rice is used for making sekihan (rice with azuki beans, a Japanese celebratory dish) and some Japanese sweets like ohagi (rice bowls covered with azuki bean paste.) It takes much more time for preparing and cooking than regular rice, so follow the package instructions when you try mochi-gome.

Mochi (rice cake)
It is made from mochi-gome, steamed and pounded into a paste, so the texture is very sticky and chewy. Baked mochi is a good ingredient for Japanese soup. Dipping baked mochi in soy sauce and wrapping it with nori is also a popular way to prepare it. Korean mochi is different from Japanese mochi, and it is more similar to manju, sweet bun.

Following is a list of vegan Japanese foods, which you shouldn't miss trying whenever you encounter them at a store.

Inari-Zushi (sushi wrapped with abura-age)
Inari-zushi is one of the few sushi which vegetarians can eat. The sushi rice is stuffed in abura-age, seasoned with soy sauce and so on. (Just in case, check the ingredients to see whether the seasonings include bonito extract.) Inari means the god of harvest and people believed that foxes, also believed as the servants of inari, loved abura-age. This type of sushi is a casual, homemade dish.

Konnyaku (Brick formed gelatinous paste made from the arum root, a kind of taro)
The gray-colored konnyaku has a chewy texture and no taste itself. It is good for simmering, stir-frying, and so on. White, noodle-like figured konnnyaku is called shirataki, and can be used as same as konnyaku.

Azuki bean
Azuki (also written as adzuki) is a red, small bean. The Japanese are fond of azuki as a sweet paste (an or anko). When you cook it, follow the package instructions. Canned boiled azuki is easy to use.

Senbei (rice cracker)
Generally, senbei, crispy rice cracker, is brushed with only sweetened soy sauce. But sometimes, unfortunately, it may have fish ingredients for seasoning. Please check the package before you buy it.

Manju (sweet bun)
Manju is made of rice- or wheat-flour with sweet azuki bean paste. Manju in Chinese dishes is sometimes filled with pork (buta-man), so please check the ingredients when you pick it up.

Cha (tea)
Mainly, Japanese tea, cha, is green tea (ryoku-cha), but it is different from Chinese green tea, which is easily available in the U.S. The cha leaves are dried without fermentation, while Chinese tea is semi-fermented. Cha has several variations: gyokuro (the highest-rank, very expensive), sen-cha (regular type), ban-cha (for daily use), genmai-cha (mixed with roasted brown rice, for daily use), and hoji-cha (freshly toasted, also for daily use). For hot summer days, cold mugi-cha, roasted barley tea, is very popular in Japan. You can buy these cha as leaves, tea bags, or canned.

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

Copyright (C) 2002 Hiroko Kato All rights reserved.