Japanese cuisine makes heavy use of rice, noodles, vegetables, seaweed, soy products, and mushrooms. But as a nation comprised of several large islands in the Pacific, no cuisine is more rooted in seafood than Japan’s. Seafood is the most popular food in Japan, and fish-derived seasonings are almost inescapable. All of this gives Japanese food the distinction of being one of the most plant-based of all cuisines, yet simultaneously one of the least vegan-friendly. In fact, it’s so difficult to reliably order a vegan meal at a typical Japanese restaurant that you probably shouldn’t even make the attempt. In many cases the food comes infuriatingly close to being entirely vegan while still missing the mark.
Fish is easy enough to avoid, but fish-based seasonings are not. A seasoning powder called dashi, which is usually made primarily of fish flakes, shows up everywhere in Japanese cooking. They put it into soups, sushi rice, dipping sauces, dressings, and many other savory dishes. Dashi provides the umami flavor that can’t easily be replicated with other common Japanese ingredients. Of course, there are vegan versions of dashi, but you’re likely only going to find that in vegan restaurants and cookbooks.
Pork is not a traditional part of the Japanese diet, but it has become a popular Japanese food in recent decades thanks to Japan’s proximity to China. It’s commonly put into gyoza dumplings (a Chinese favorite that has become a popular appetizer and bar menu item in Japan), and Japanese vegetable dishes often contain tiny amounts of pork seasoning. A great many Japanese chefs habitually put fish or pork seasoning in all of their dishes.
While obtaining vegan food from Japanese restaurants is tricky to say the least, making vegan Japanese food yourself is easy enough.
You won’t find Japanese-style recipes in most general-interest vegan cookbooks. So if you’re interested in learning to cook Japanese food you should get ahold of a vegan cookbook specifically devoted to the cuisine. There are only a few vegan and vegetarian Japanese cookbooks in print, and the most popular vegan title dates all the way back to 1999: Japanese Cooking: Contemporary & Traditional, by Miyoko Schinner. At just 174 pages it’s relatively short, but Schinner is a superstar chef in the vegan world who covers a lot of ground without wasting words. Her cookbook does a superb job of introducing you to Japanese cooking techniques, and will enable you to prepare authentic versions of many classic dishes. That said, the vegan cookbook market is long overdue for a comprehensive book on the topic featuring extensive full-color food photography and high-end production values.
Vegan Japanese Staples
The first step to learning to cook Japanese food is gaining familiarity with the key ingredients. Here are some of the main vegan staples of Japanese cooking.
Miso is one of the key ingredients of both Japanese and Chinese cooking. It’s a fermented salted soy paste that delivers an a earthy, savory, umami flavor to a variety of soups and broths. When made through traditional means, miso is quite expensive since it ferments for years at a time. There are numerous varieties of miso, from blond to red to rich dark brown. Brown misos are by far the most common. You never want to boil miso or expose it to high heat. It’s usually stirred into broths just before serving.
Tofu is as popular in Japan as it is in China, and appears in a wide variety of dishes. Here’s our brief guide to tofu if you want to learn the basics.
Soba and Udon Noodles
These are dried straight noodles packaged like spaghetti. Authentic soba is 100 percent buckwheat, and costs at least quadruple the price of Italian pasta. Cheaper sobas are 90 percent wheat and only 10 percent buckwheat. If you’re going to eat soba, get the good stuff. Udon noodles are 100 percent wheat, are thicker than soba, and resemble a flattened spaghetti noodle.
Both Soba and Udon are traditionally served in a tsuyu broth, which is typically made from soy sauce, ginger, wasabi, and dashi.
You can also use these noodles in a variety of non-traditional ways, such as topping them with peanut sauce, mixing them together with sautéed vegetables, or as the base of a seaweed salad.
One of the the most popular Japanese seasonings, it’s made from roasted black sesame and salt. Gomacio adds a nice texture, saltiness, and a bit of protein. It’s terrific when shaken just before serving onto soups, noodles, or rice dishes.
Since it’s just two ingredients, you can save a lot of money by making gomacio yourself. Even if you rarely serve Japanese food, gomacio is well worth keeping on hand as it’s a wonderful seasoning for almost any dish.
Tamari and Shoyu
In a bottle, these two black liquids are impossible to tell apart, but they’re very different.
Tamari is a byproduct of miso-making—it’s the liquid decanted as the soy paste ferments. So tamari has just three ingredients: water, fermented soy, and salt. Owing to its expensive production process, it’s pricey and much sought after.
Shoyu’s main ingredients are mashed soy and wheat. It’s usually cheaper than tamari, but still significantly more expensive than mass market soy sauces.
There is no culture that embraces mushrooms as much as Japan. Any grocery will have five or ten types of mushrooms—and not a single one of those horrible American-style button mushrooms in sight.
The Japanese love sprouts almost as much as they love mushrooms. Unlike the United States, you won’t find alfalfa or clover sprouts in stores. Every Japanese grocery will feature mung bean sprouts as well as two or three bright-green sprouts, most commonly daikon radish and soy.
Wasabi is a ridiculously hot radish paste. The wasabi radish is one of the most difficult foods in the world to grow and is right up there with saffron and truffles in terms of being obscenely expensive. Here’s a moving and beautifully filmed seven minute documentary profiling an eighth-generation wasabi farmer in Japan.
Unless you’re dining at an extremely expensive sushi restaurant the “wasabi” you’re being served is almost invariably horseradish. You can buy tubes of this phony wasabi for about a dollar. The fake stuff is still delicious. Squirt a couple centimeters’ worth into a couple tablespoons of tamari, mix it up, and you’ve got a superb dipping sauce for vegan sushi.
Japanese meals frequently include a small side dish of seaweed. Most often it’s either wakame (broad, bright green strands), or hijiki (jet black, thin curly strands). Seaweed is incredibly nutritious and is one of the rare foods that’s rich in iodine.
Rice is so popular in Japan that rice cookers are found in most kitchens. Sadly, the Japanese eat a lot more white rice than brown. Sushi rice is merely short-grained white rice that’s rinsed thoroughly and cooked with a bit less water than usual. This causes the rice to bind up together, which makes it perfect for nori rolls. It’s also possible to prepare short-grain brown rice this way. The rice won’t stick together was well as if it were white, but your nori rolls will be much more healthful.
Sushi is usually accompanied by thin slices of pickled ginger. It’ll clear the palette between pieces of vegan nori. It’s my unshakable belief that vegan nori rolls, pickled ginger, and a crisp lager beer constitute the holy trinity of Japanese cuisine.
The idea of eating a dried salted pickled plum might sound off-putting, but it’s well worth trying umeboshi since it’s one of the signature meal accompaniments of Japanese cuisine. You can also eat fresh (not dried) plums called umezuke, which are prepared the same way.
A great way to experience umeboshi is to serve it like the mango pickle, the beloved Indian garnish. That is, finely chop a couple umeboshi up (removing and discarding the pits!) and serve a little alongside your favorite rice dish. Both umeboshi and mango pickle are sour, salted fruits with that pack a big hit of umami.
Popular Vegan Japanese Dishes
Here are some of the most common dishes in Japan that are either always vegan or easy to prepare that way:
Edamame (pronounced Ehdah-mah-may, with the accent on the first syllable) is the Japanese word for soybeans. It’s probably the most popular side-dish or appetizer in Japan. Nearly every bar in the country offers edamame. Just like English peas, soybeans grow in an inedible pod, each typically containing three to five beans. A soybean is two or three times bigger than an English pea. Because soybeans contain some fat, they’ve got a richer, deeper flavor than peas. Japanese restaurants often serve steamed soybeans still in the pod, which you pop open like you’re shelling peanuts. Other times they’re served pre-shelled in a small dish, alongside dipping sauce, and eaten with chopsticks.
Seasoned cucumber runs neck-and-neck with edamame as Japan’s most popular appetizer or bar food. And like edamame, it’s one of the few items you can get while eating out that’s invariably vegan. The chef cuts a piece of cucumber into strips, roughs up the skin so it’ll absorb the seasoning, and then adds tamari and sesame oil. That’s all there is to it. It’s a cheap and healthy appetizer or beer accompaniment that’s always served fresh.
Ramen is to modern-day Japan what hamburgers were to 1970s America. Most cheap and mid-priced lunch spots in Japan offer steaming bowls of ramen.
Traditional ramen caught on because it’s satisfying, filling, and made from the cheapest ingredients: fried noodles, meat stock, a few vegetables, and lots of salt. It has become a ubiquitous food for impoverished American college students because it’s filling, can be prepared in minutes, and you can find three cups for a dollar in many discount stores.
But ramen doesn’t have to be cheap and made from inferior ingredients. It can be both nutritious and gourmet. Just replace the fried white noodles with whole grain, and use a quality vegetable broth instead of the scary dehydrated meat powder. Any vegetarian Japanese cookbook will feature at least one vegan ramen recipe.
One of the most popular vegetables in Japan, baked sweet potatoes make a perfect side dish. Sweet potatoes contain no fat and they are rich in beta carotene and other nutrients. Just peel and eat.
Sushi is one of the fussiest cuisines imaginable, and as the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi memorably recounts, novice Japanese chefs spend years apprenticing to sushi masters. But the simplest sushi dish, the nori roll, is something anyone can master in minutes. You simply put a sheet of nori on a sushi mat, spread on some sushi rice, put a line of chopped vegetables running across the center of the sheet, and then use the mat to roll the thing up (sealing things up by moistening where the two ends of nori join together). Once you’ve got your roll, you use a serrated knife to slice off pieces about two centimeters wide. The most common vegan fillings include avocado, cucumber, roasted pumpkin, and pickled radish.
You can buy vegan sushi at most natural food stores. Any sushi restaurant will be happy to make it for you as well (although their rice may be seasoned with dashi.) Unfortunately, outside of Japan, restaurant sushi is typically way overpriced. Almost no food is cheaper to make than vegan sushi but restaurants generally charge nearly the same price that they do for sushi made with expensive cuts of fish.
Nato (Rhymes with Domo Arigato Mr. Roboto)
Every Japanese grocery carries nato in its refrigerated section (near the tofu). Nato is a minimalist dish consisting entirely of fermented chopped soybeans. When sold in groceries, it invariably comes with a packet of tamari or shoyu. The seasoning packs of pre-made nato may contain fish ingredients, but vegan tamari or shoyu can be used instead. The nato itself is always vegan.
After adding the tamari or shoyu, whip it up for about 20 seconds with a chopstick. This will alter the texture by breaking apart the beans and emulsifying the fats.
Vegan Japanese meals may be tough to find, but desserts couldn’t be easier. That’s because the most beloved sweet in Japan is a rice dough and red bean concoction called mochi (pronounced: moehchee, with neither syllable accented). Mochi is nearly always vegan, and most varieties of mochi have a lot less sugar than typical western desserts. Serving sizes are saner too, since the typical piece of mochi is small enough to eat in one to three bites.
Whether you’re in or outside of Japan, vegan Japanese food is tough to find. So vegan dining enthusiasts will want to know about macrobiotic meals.
George Ohsawa invented the macrobiotics concept in the 1930s. Michio Kushi popularized macrobiotics in the 1960s, and the cuisine gained an enthusiastic following worldwide. As both Oshawa and Kushi were Japanese, the sensibilities of macrobiotic cuisine are Japanese as well. Although macrobiotic meals usually feature fish, everything else is vegan since macrobiotic principles shun meat, eggs, and dairy products. This means you can always get a terrific and well-balanced macrobiotic meal simply by refraining from ordering fish.
One virtue of macrobiotics is that its meals invariably feature brown rice, as opposed to white rice that is the default choice in Japan. Macrobiotic meals often come in bento boxes, or similarly-styled trays that have five or six compartments. A typical vegan macrobiotic meal might include some grilled tofu as an entree, plus sides of sweet potato, hijiki seaweed, pickled vegetables, adzuki beans, and some squash. Eaten once a week, I think it’s one of the healthiest and tastiest change-of-pace lunches you could have.
In addition to macrobiotics, there is one other vegan-friendly style of Japanese cuisine. Japan’s Zen Buddhist monks developed a cuisine called shojin-ryori that follows the Buddha’s precept against killing. Shojin-ryori, is generally vegan, since meat and fish are off-limits.
Zen Buddhism may be the most ascetic of the world’s major religions, so it’s no surprise that shojin-ryori food tends to be minimalist and plain by Western standards. This cuisine is invariably bland (since, after all, observant Buddhists eschew strong spices as well as onions and garlic). But there’s no doubt that shojin-ryori is some of the most healthful food you’ll ever encounter. Shojin-ryori dishes typically favor staples like rice, sweet potatoes, sprouts, beans, steamed vegetables, and broths.
Gourmet all-vegan Japanese restaurants are rare, but there might be one near you. Some well-known ones include: Kajitsu in New York City, Shojin in Los Angeles, Cha-Ya in San Francisco and Berkeley, and Zen Japan in Australia.
Eating Vegan in Japan
Being vegan is incredibly easy in Japan—if you’ve got access to a kitchen. If you don’t, you’re going to be a very hungry vegan. Outside of Tokyo, vegan-friendly restaurants are uncommon. Some large cities in Japan still don’t have a single vegan-friendly restaurant. So if you’re going to Japan, spend the extra money to get a hotel or AirBNB with a kitchen or kitchenette. As long as you can cook, you’ll have no trouble being vegan no matter where you go in Japan.
Popular Vegan Grocery Items in Japan
As long as you do your own cooking, you can eat wonderfully. Japan is full of mid-sized supermarkets offering outstanding produce sections. Nowhere in the world will you find better or fresher vegetables, and prices are reasonable too. There are a few exceptions here. Melons of various forms tend to be quite expensive. And mangoes are exorbitant. I’ve seen mangoes in the supermarket costing more than $25 apiece. That’s not a typo. Now granted, they were very nice looking mangoes but at that price a dozen mangoes could buy you airfare to Hawaii where you can often buy them for next to nothing.
As you would expect, tofu is widely available in Japan, and since it’s such a popular food prices are much lower than in non-Asian countries. You can find non-GMO tofu that costs one-third as much as brands in the United States. In addition to the sort of firm tofu you could find in most countries, fresh silken tofu is widely available. Every grocery carries soy milk, either packaged in shelf-stable juice boxes or refrigerated in milk cartons. When I’m in Japan, my mornings always begin with a glass that’s two-thirds cold coffee and one-third soy milk, with a tablespoon of chia stirred in.
If you love mushrooms, you’ll adore Japan. You’ll find all sorts of wonderful varieties at very low prices. Ditto for sprouts. Fresh seaweed is widely available. You can nearly always find inexpensive fresh hijiki or wakame seaweed in your grocery’s refrigerated section. Many markets also carry vegan nori rolls.
As you might expect, Japanese groceries carry a huge assortment of soy sauces, sometimes an entire aisle’s worth. Unfortunately, about half of it contains some sort of fish ingredient, so this is one area where you’ll always want to use your Google Translate app.
Snack Items in Japan
Good vegan fair-trade chocolate is practically unavailable in Japan. But apart from that, the snack offerings in Japan are excellent. There are a great many vegan potato chip options that seem like a step up from what you can find in other countries. But you always need to read labels: at least half the chips sold in Japan contain pork or seafood extracts.
You can also find excellent rice crackers.
Alcohol in Japan
In contrast to China and especially Thailand, Japan’s top breweries know what they’re doing. Suntory Premium Malt’s [sic] is, in my opinion, Japan’s tastiest beer. It’s available in several varieties, but none match up to the original that comes in a blue and gold can. Premium Malt’s is even better on tap, since special equipment gives it a delicious nitrogen-foamed head. If Suntory is too expensive for you, try Kirin in the red can. It’s about 40 percent cheaper, and 40 percent less delicious.
Sake, a wine made from rice rather than grapes, was for centuries Japan’s primary alcoholic beverage. The Japanese still drink plenty of sake, although the drink has become less popular than beer and whiskey. Alcohol content is similar to wine (around 13 percent, which is about as high as alcohol can go without distillation.) Although traditionally served heated, younger Japanese people today prefer sake refrigerated.
Japan has lower tariffs on hard liquor than just about any other country, and you can buy excellent bourbon and scotch for less than what you’d pay in the United States or Scotland.
Parting Tips for Eating Well in Japan
If you can’t read Japanese, the Google Translate app is a godsend. As I mentioned earlier, most Japanese food seems to gratuitously contain tiny amounts of fish or pork. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pointed my phone’s camera at the ingredients list of what appeared to be a Level 5 Vegan dish, and had Google Translate reveal bonito flakes or chopped pork.
Finally, I must mention one of the most innovative grocery offerings I’ve ever come across, and one I’ve found only in Japan. Many supermarkets have a special oven contraption that perfectly roasts sweet potatoes. When they’re ready, the staff puts them in paper bags atop heated rocks. You can buy a roasted sweet potato in a paper bag for just a dollar or two. If your hotel has a rice cooker (and many Japanese hotels do), then you can probably live fairly happily for a few days on freshly-cooked brown rice and sweet potatoes.
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