Let’s not be under any pretenses here: being a vegetarian – let alone vegan – in Japan can be hard. But with a bit of knowledge and preparation, it’s totally doable. You just have to know what vegetarian Japanese food is out there just waiting to be eaten.
Read on for information on vegetarian Japanese dishes, how to find plant-based Japanese cuisine, and what to look out for.
Japanese cooking is traditionally focused on balance, known commonly as Ichiju Sansai. This is the concept of ‘one soup, three dishes,’ and is followed to some extent by the majority of Japanese people, in both cooking and Japanese table setting.
Soups such as miso soup, tonjiru (pork and vegetable miso soup), and even the broth of different types of noodles (more on that shortly) are all part of this. This balance is seen as fundamental to washoku (Japanese food).
To this end, full meals in Japan contain a mix of rice, pickles, vegetables, and protein. Generally, the protein is meat or fish, with the soup having fish flakes for added umami (savoriness).
In fact, taking out one part of it just may not compute for the average Japanese person.
Another reason is because many Japanese people don’t associate broth and extract with meat or fish. For instance, I was eating soba (thin buckwheat noodles) for ages because my friends truly believed it was vegetarian, because there was no meat or fish in the soup.
In actuality, the soup was made with fish broth!
However, while it can be difficult to find vegetarian Japanese food, it does exist. And it’s delicious! Read on for some plant-based goodness.
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Everyone knows the Japanese love noodles. And by default, none of them are vegetarian. Let’s have a look…
As mentioned above, Japanese soba noodles contain ‘dashi’ (fish stock), as a base ingredient. Soba noodles are delicious noodles made of either 20-80% buckwheat, or 100% buckwheat – great for celiacs!
Following the ichiju-sansai principle, soba noodles always come with soup and a topping. Hot soba (kake) comes with soba noodles inside hot soup, while cold soba (seiro) comes with noodles on a tray and a small dipping bowl of cold soup with toppings on the side.
To make this as veggie as possible, order cold soba without the soup and ask for a small dipping bowl with water and soy sauce instead. Even better – ask if they have shiitake mushroom broth or kombu (seaweed).
If you’re cooking at home, it’s easy to switch out the dipping sauce and make shiitake mushroom or kombu broth yourself.
Udon noodles (thick wheat flour noodles) are almost exactly the same as soba noodles in terms of toppings and so on. Just the noodle type is different. Udon noodles are made with wheat flour and are somewhat chewier, with a whiter color than soba.
Did you know that ramen is originally Chinese? Japan adopted and adapted ramen many years ago and never looked back, even creating regional ramen varieties, like tonkotsu ramen (Chinese-style wheat noodles in pork bone broth) in Fukuoka Prefecture.
Tonkotsu ramen has spread across the world, and shops selling it have sprung up across the world. Many of the shops in western countries offer a vegetarian version, but in Japan, this is way less common.
However, thanks to the Tokyo 2020 (2021) Olympics, ramen restaurants attempting to appeal to the crowds from overseas upped their vegan and vegetarian offerings. Now there are several ramen joints that offer vegetarian options along with the traditional meaty versions. There are also vegan and vegetarian ramen options in Tokyo Station.
Instant ramen is similar, with many instant ramen brands containing some sort of meat extract. That said, vegetarian or vegan options are coming to natural food stores and, occasionally, some convenience store selections too. In fact, one of the vegan ramen shops in Tokyo created a popular Japanese vegan cup ramen too.
If you want to make your own ramen at home, it’s a good idea to make the stock out of shiitake and kombu the night before to ensure the most flavorful vegan ramen. Tip – add a drizzle of sesame oil at the end to bring out the flavor.
Japanese teishoku (home cooked food set) is the easiest food to recreate by yourself at home. A base of Japanese teishoku is miso, which is simply soy beans, salt, and koji (rice bacteria).
Japanese teishoku relies heavily on miso soup. The good news? Miso is vegan. The bad news?
Just like pumpkin pie in the US or roast dinner in the UK, everyone has their own ‘special recipe’ for miso soup. Unfortunately, miso soup often contains bonito flake dashi for that all-important umami. Many variations also include shellfish or clams.
A way around this is using shiitake mushroom broth, kombu seaweed broth, or even vegetable broth in place of dashi. Instead of clams, you can use pure wheat gluten.
As expected of an island, many Japanese foods contain fish. Teishoku is no different, often centering around a big pan-fried or foil-baked fish as a main dish. Nevertheless, there are a couple of common Japanese home cooked dishes that can easily be made vegan or vegetarian.
One of these is nasu-miso. Nasu-miso is super easy to make and features eggplant stir fried to golden in a sweet miso sauce, often with green peppers thrown in for good measure. Some places include tofu pieces, too.
When ordering in a Japanese restaurant, be sure to ask for ‘Katsuo nashi’ or ‘no fish flakes,’ as some places may add fish flakes as a topping.
It’s easy to whip up at home, too. Just chop up some eggplant, tofu, and green peppers. Then, fry them in sesame oil and add a spoonful of miso and a mix of mirin, cooking vinegar, and cooking alcohol mixed (a tablespoon each). Last, fry until completely coated.
Serve with a steaming bowl of Japanese rice, Japanese pickles, and vegan miso soup.
While many shop-bought savory snacks are likely to have fish broth or chicken extract in them, there are a few Japanese vegetarian staples that you can rely on if you visit and feel peckish on-the-go.
Yaki-imo (baked Japanese sweet potato) is widely available hot from September to the end of March. As a vegetarian, yaki-imo is one of the best foods to eat during the colder months!
You can find Japanese sweet potatoes at supermarkets – even Mega-Donki – or some convenience stores, ready to take straight from the oven.
During the summer, head toward the chilled section in a convenience store, and you’ll spot surprisingly yummy, baked-then-chilled Japanese sweet potatoes. A full potato, in all its glory, ready for immediate consumption.
Triangular balls of rice sold everywhere, like the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich. The thing to be careful about here is that some convenience store rice balls can contain gelatin.
One way to get around this is to make some yourself – pop a handful of warm rice into your hand, ball it up, sprinkle with salt, wrap in clingfilm, and off you go. You can also add a filling to the middle, before balling it up, such as umeboshi (pickled plum) or kombu.
Eating plant-based, vegetarian Japanese food can be a delicious and fun culinary journey! Let us know how you get on, below!
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