Exploring Japan's Vegan Alternatives
Readers of my previous work, here and elsewhere on the interwebs will know that I’m into food and food culture in quite a big way. Cooking is, I believe, an art form, and you can indeed tell a lot about a country and its people by the type of foods they like to cook and the types of dishes they like to eat.
Vegetarianism however, and its more intense variant, veganism were, until recently very much niche forms of cooking. However, these days, more and more people are adopting meat and dairy free diets and lifestyles.
This was perhaps most graphically demonstrated recently in the widespread anger directed at the UK treasury last month when, in a moment of astounding ignorance and stupidity, they decided to disclose that animal fats were used in the production of the newest version of the five pound note. The “fiver” as it is known colloquially, is, much like the ¥1000 note in Japan, the most commonly traded form currency denomination in the country. The widespread anger at the government’s outdated position on the issue served to also demonstrate just how powerful the vegetarian and vegan lobby has become in today’s world. Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing is a debate I will leave for you to explore elsewhere. Certainly it is part of a much larger political tug of war between progressive and regressive politics that currently seems to be paralyzing many of the world’s larger nations.
However, whichever side of the argument you sit on, if Japan is going to hit Prime Minister Abe’s ambitious target of boosting foreign visitor numbers by a further 30% by the time the Tokyo 2020 Olympics come around, then the vegan and vegetarian voice is one that can no longer be ignored.
However, as is often the case in Japan, change and modernization can often come at a snail’s pace.
So, whilst the number of hipster “organic” veggie cafes and restaurants is on the increase, what options are available to those of us who don’t fancy paying ¥7 or¥ 800 for a tiny sandwich?
There are actually a surprising number of vegan friendly dishes available in conventional Japanese restaurants these days. The key lies in knowing what to order and, perhaps equally importantly, what to avoid.
So here is a top five of widely available Japanese restaurant dishes that are suitable to the vegan palate:
1. Shojin Ryori
Not so much an individual dish as an entire cooking philosophy, shojin ryori is a staple of Zen Buddhism. The monks who live in the Zen Buddhism temples dotted around Japan embrace veganism as a part of their religious observances. Many of these temples, especially in and around historically significant areas such as Kyoto welcome visitors to come and stay and eat with the monks.
shoji ryori, prepared at a temple is one of the few styles of cooking in Japan that you can be absolutely 100% certain is fully vegan compliant.
Not only that, it’s also delicious. Even for a committed carnivore like me, I’d gladly turn veggie tomorrow if I had even a fraction of the cooking knowledge and ability that these monks possess.
As delicious as it is simplistic, tempura is basically just fish or vegetables deep fried in a light water and flour batter and served with a light soy sauce based dipping sauce. The only caveat for vegans here is that I recommend ordering individual items of tempura rather than the generic tempura set. A generic set will almost certainly include prawns and possibly some other types of seafood as well as possibly chicken in certain areas. However, all of the tempura restaurants I have visited in my travels have always included a menu for ordering individual items such as mushrooms, eggplants and t-bone steak leaves. This method of ordering can sometimes be a bit more expensive, but it does allow you to be certain that you aren’t eating anything you shouldn’t.
3. Tsukemono (Japanese Pickles)
Japanese pickles. Photo by Caroline Phelps on Flickr
Pickles are often served as an accompanying side dish in Japanese cuisine. If you’ve ever seen the red ginger that is often on the side of a plate of Japanese curry, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. However, there are a number of restaurants and izakayas across Japan where tsukemono can also be served as a main dish. There are two main types of tsukemono. There is the conventional form of pickling were the vegetables are marinated in a vinegar like solution over a period of time. There is also the less common and distinctively different flavoured tsukemono that are prepared via a dry process of fermentation. Try a few different combinations and see what works for you. My personal favourites are cucumber and daikon (Japanese radish).
4. Zaru Soba (Cold Noodles)
Zaru Soba is definitely one of those dishes that falls into the “it may sound revolting, but try it and you might be pleasantly surprised” category. I was never a fan of the idea of cold noodles, having grown up with dishes like Chow Mein, Singapore Noodles and of course the ubiquitous “Pot Noodle”. However, after I tried green tea flavoured Zaru Soba a couple of years ago, I was instantly won over.
These noodles are usually served in a simple tray, with an accompanying dip, for a very simple, yet delicious dish, which is also very filling.
5. Yaki Onigiri
We round off the list with this, possibly the most simple of all dishes and available not only in izakayas and restaurants but also in most convenience stores too. Yaki onigiri is literally just a triangular shaped block of rice, seasoned with some soy sauce and then grilled just enough to give it a crispy exterior and a warm, soft centre. It’s the perfect filler food for when you need to eat something fast on the go, or just as a simple, inoffensive accompaniment to your evening drinks. Delicious, simple and highly recommended!
Japanese food has so much more to it than just sushi and rice. Have a look around and you are sure to find something to accommodate even the pickiest of palettes!