Being a vegan in Japan can sometimes be quite tricky, especially with popular dishes which are fish and meat-based, like sushi, ramen, and yakiniku. Broth derived from bonito is a key ingredient in the seasoning in nearly everything, including things which appear vegetarian-friendly, such as vegetable and tofu soups, noodle dishes, and nearly every processed food product.
With the best intentions, sometimes misconceptions regarding the concept of vegetarianism and veganism occur. For example, I went to a cooking class advertised as “vegan-friendly,” and the instructor sprinkled bonito shavings over the fried tofu.
On the other hand, I have found that it is not only possible but enjoyable to live and be happy as a vegetarian and even as a vegan in Japan. Shojin ryori, or traditional Buddhist cuisine, conventionally uses no animal products, has been eaten at temples since around the Heian and Kamakura periods*.
Generally high vegetable and soy consumption, along with a low intake of milk, makes Japanese cuisine suitable to vegetarianism, especially when cooking at home. Also, vegetarian and vegan options are increasing when dining out.
Whether or not you are vegetarian or just want to get more vegetables into your diet, below are some things to keep in mind with cooking and nutrition.
1) Keep Your Diet Simple
With the lack of special vegan and vegetarian ingredients, your diet will likely consist of simple, whole food ingredients. Less additives and added chemicals are better for your health, but it does take longer to make food from scratch.
For protein, try all the varieties of tofu Japan has to offer, including soy meat, beans, and nuts. If you can handle it, natto (fermented soybeans) is highly nutritious. Lentils, seitan, and other vegan proteins are rarer but can be found at specialty stores. Soy meat can be bought at most supermarkets and is particularly delicious fried.
Starches and carbohydrates come in different forms, but the easiest to get a hold of in Japan is obviously rice. Try it all and see what you like: white rice, brown rice, and rice with adzuki beans are the most common. With the exception of French bread, vegan-friendly loaves are mostly sold only at specialty stores.
2) Discover Japan’s Diverse Vegetable World
Since I’ve moved to Japan, my vegetable consumption has increased a noticeable amount. Japan also has some of the best-tasting vegetables I have ever had. Japanese sweet potato, pumpkin, and lotus root are some of my favorites. Vegetables are seasonal so you can try a variety of different tastes year-round.
It is also fun to visit your local JA store to buy rare vegetables, like brilliantly colored carrots, giant daikon radish, spring sprouted ferns and other plants, autumn stem and root vegetables, and potatoes of all different shapes and sizes. Experiment with recipes to bring out the best taste of these unusual veggies, and you’ll be consuming a lot of nutritious food.
3) Specialty Stores for Vegan Ramen and Snacks
Specialty shops like Natural House and the organic, healthy branches of Lawson (Natural Lawson) will carry vegan-labeled items. Upscale supermarkets like Seijo Ishii or Meidi-ya will also have a small selection. Finally, individually-owned shops selling natural food products will often have vegetarian and vegan ware, too. However, selection varies by location and is not comparable to what is in the United States and other countries. If you’re desperate, try looking online at iHerb for moderate prices and shipping times.
Some of these specialty items include but are not limited to instant vegan ramen, curry, soups, bread, and cookies. Try cup ramen from T’s Restaurant, a vegan restaurant chain in Tokyo and Sendai. For something mildly sweet, look for macrobiotic cookies from the Biokura brand.
4) You Can Still Try Fun Recipes
Keep things exciting by trying new recipes. Even if you aren’t the best cook, like me, you can find simple recipes online from Japanese websites, English websites, and social media. I’ve found recreating Japanese dishes particularly rewarding. Below are a couple of my favorite things to cook.
To make takoyaki, mix together grated nagaimo, kelp dashi, and flour. After pouring the batter onto your takoyaki maker, fill the balls with tofu, mushrooms, and pickled ginger. Top with vegan mayonnaise (mayodore at supermarkets), Bull-Dog brand tonkatsu sauce, and seaweed. This is especially good to make in groups.
Noodle dishes with soba and udon are also easily made vegetarian and vegan. For the broth, substitute kelp-only dashi for the usual bonito dashi, then add soy sauce and mirin. Boil your noodles for a few minutes and you will have a satisfying, hot meal. For kitsune udon or soba, add a piece of fried tofu skin and green onions.
About Shojin Ryori: These days, some of the regulations regarding use of fish, eggs and dairy have been relaxed so it’s worth checking or asking beforehand for your dietary needs when going to a modern shojin ryori or a temple as the menu might not be suitable for vegans.
Author: Jasmine Ortlieb