Easy Vegetarian Eating in Japan

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Japanese cuisine, while renowned for being delicious and healthy, can be surprisingly tricky for vegetarians. Different forms of meat hides itself in nearly all Japanese food, no matter how ‘vegetarian’ they appear. Dashi (だし) the stock used to make nearly all Japanese dishes to give it the impeccable savoury flavour, is commonly prepared from kombu (昆布) — dried edible kelp — and katsuobushi ( かつおぶし) — dried bonito flakes usually added to Okonimiyaki and Takoyaki.

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Kombu and Katsuobushi, the two common ingredients in Dashi. | Photo Source

Dashi is so ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine that more often than not, the Japanese will fail to realize it as a meat product. So, if you are vegetarian, it may be extremely important to ask restaurants about their food stock specifically.

However, you should not let the lack of vegetarian options hinder you from travelling to this beautiful country! So here are some tips on the types of food that are safe for vegetarians and how to go about finding some vegetarian dishes Japan can offer.

I – Some useful Japanese phrases you can use:

Phrases:
  1. I am a vegetarian.
    watashi wa bejitarian desu
    私はベジタリアンです
  2. Do you have vegetarian dishes?
    bejitarian ryori ga arimasuka
    ベジタリアン料理がありますか
  3. I cannot eat _______.
    watashi wa _______ ga taberaremasen
    私は_______が食べられません
  4. Does this contain _______?
    kore wa _______ ga haittemasuka
    これは_______が入ってますか
Vocabulary:
  1. Meat – niku – 肉 (にく)
  2. Chicken – chikin or toriniku – チキン or 鶏肉 (とりにく)
  3. Pork – porku or butaniku – ポーク or 豚肉 (ぶたにく)
  4. Beef – beefu or gyuniku – ビーフ or 牛肉 (ぎゅうにく)
  5. Fish – sakana – 魚 (さかな)
  6. Prawn, shrimp – ebi – エビ (えび)
  7. Crab – kani – 蟹 (かに)
  8. Tuna – maguro – マグロ (まぐろ)
  9. Eel – unagi – 鰻 (ウナギ, うなぎ)
  10. Octopus – tako – タコ (たこ)
  11. Dried bonito flakes – katsuobushi – 鰹節 (かつおぶし)
  12. Dried sardines – niboshi – 煮干し (にぼし)

II – Vegetarian Friendly Japanese Food:

There are some Japanese food that does not come in broth (fish dashi) and also many other food that can easily be modified into a vegetarian version if you request nicely.

Sushi (寿司)

Most sushi in Japan will unfortunately be fish sushi, but there is still a good variety of sushi options for vegetarians in Japan to enjoy. Since sushi is simply made with cooked vinegared rice, along with other customizable ingredients such as seaweed and fish, this allows the food to be highly customizable.

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Vegetarian Sushi | Photo Source

Some common vegetarian sushi include:

  1. Cucumber roll – Kappamaki – かっぱ巻き寿司
  2. Dried gourd roll – Kampyou makizushi – かんぴょう巻き寿司
  3. Fermented soybeans roll – Natto makizushi – 納豆巻き寿司
  4. Egg sushi –  Tamago-yaki – 卵焼き
  5. Fried Tofu sushi – Inarizushi – いなりずし
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Vegetarian Chirasushi, a type of sushi served in a bowl. | Photo Source

These are just some of the most common vegetarian sushi around. Do feel free to ask the sushi chef nicely if he can make a certain sushi with or without specific ingredients. This is particularly for Chirasushi, a type of sushi usually served with vegetables and fish cake. Diners can simply ask the chef to exclude the fish cake and other meat to enjoy a great Vegetarian sushi meal.

Tofu (とうふ, 豆腐)

Tofu can be found everywhere in Japan, and is in great abundance in Kyoto. There is a great variety of tofu dishes in Japan to keep tourists happy for the duration of their trip. But do take note to let restaurant staff know NOT to add bonito to your tofu dish.

Agedashi-Tofu-3a
Agedashi tofu usually served in soy sauce with chopped green onions. | Photo Source
  1. Chilled tofu – Hiya yakko – 冷奴
    • Served cold with grated ginger, chopped onions, and soy sauce
  2. Miso soup – Miso shiru – 味噌汁
    • Miso (Fermented soybean) paste is used as dish stock
    • Served with small pieces of soft tofu and fried tofu
  3. Grilled tofu – Tofu dengaku – 豆腐田楽
    • Tofu grilled either on a stove or over a barbeque
    • Topped with sweetened miso paste
  4. Deep fried tofu – Agedashi dofu – 揚げ出し豆腐
    • Lightly breaded tofu served hot in soy sauce
    • Also served with grated radish and chopped green onions
    • Do note that the agedashi dofu is usually cooked with dashi (soup stock) made from fish.
  5. Sesame tofu – Goma dofu – ごま豆腐
    • Made from ground sesame paste
    • Traditional Buddhist dish and is commonly found in Kyoto
original_Goma_Tofu
Goma dofu made from sesame instead of soybeans – a great delicacy found in Kyoto. | Photo Source

Finding vegetarian food in Japan may be a difficult task, but is definitely not impossible. These are just some examples of good common vegetarian Japanese dishes around, and other customizable vegetarian Japanese dish include vegetable Tempura and cold soba (Zaru soba, ざるそば).

So do give Japan a chance if you’re a vegetarian and spread the word if you find a great vegetarian restaurant somewhere in Japan!

You can find out a great list of vegetarian restaurants in Japan here.

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