Most vegetarians that have visited Japan will agree to this claim – Japan is a vegetarian heaven in a vegetarian hell. Japanese loves seafood too much, it is practically engrained in their culture and everyday lives – which is understandable as Japan is an island nation which has mostly mountains with limited arable land. Thus, fish and other sea creatures were the key to survival.
Your first day in Japan might make you feel like there’s fish in everything. But worry not, Japanese cuisine has a rich tradition of cooking with vegetables. The key is to know where to find them and ultimately knowing what you are ordering.
So as the Food Experts of Asia, we have compiled a list of vegetarian food that can be a helpful guide to aid you when you are ordering. Do note that some restaurants may add non-vegetarian ingredients or fish flavoring as there is little awareness of purely vegetarian diets.
Caution: You might just turn into a full-pledge vegetarian after reading through this list.
First food on the list has got to be Gohan – Japanese rice that is of the short grain, slightly sticky variety. Ask any Japanese and they would say that Gohan is the best type of Rice in the world.
If you’re out with non-vegetarian friends and are having trouble finding vegetarian dishes, a bowl of Gohan with a splash of soy sauce and chili sprinkle would easily fill your tummy.
Considered as one of the favorite appetizer on Japanese dining tables, Edamame are young soy beans steamed and coated with salt. A great finger food while chatting with friends or simply to fill your tummy as a snack.
3. Miso Vegetables
An important ingredient in Japanese cuisine, Miso is a paste made by fermenting soybeans, rice, wheat or barley. The paste is a great dip for fresh or steamed vegetables.
You can also mixed some Miso paste with your bowl of rice to have more depth in the overall flavor.
Dashi is a simple Japanese cooking stock that is made with umami ingredients like mushrooms and kombu, an edible kelp. While it is most typically fish based using Bonito flakes and Niboshi (dried infant sardines), Dashi made out of Kombu is also commonly available.
Some restaurants serve Dashi soup as an appetizer, so don’t forget to ask whether it contains any non-vegetarian ingredients.
5. Miso Soup
This staple soup of Japanese diet, Miso soup normally contains Dashi and Miso paste. Although there are many fish based variations, Miso soup would normally contain just the two main ingredients. You may find other vegetarian ingredients in a bowl of Miso soup such as tofu, seaweed and scallions.
If you’re lucky, some restaurants or homes add Daikon in the soup for a solid but soft texture.
Your first experience tasting Natto might make you gag, but this common breakfast food is loved by many and is thought to be healthy. Essentially fermented soybeans, Natto is smelly, slimy and stinky.
But after several tries, you’ll see why Natto is much loved by the Japanese.
7. Agedashi Dofu
Agedashi Dofu are cubes of deep fried tofu in a hot tentsuyu broth, which are normally made from dashi, mirin and shoyu. It is normally topped with nego and grated daikon and in many cases, it is also topped with Katsuobushi (fermented fish flakes).
When ordering, you can ask the waiters to leave Katsuobushi out, as toppings are generally the last step before serving.
8. Vegetable Tempura
Tempura is a side dish or snack loved by many, young or old. Anything can be fried in tempura batter, most commonly shrimps, but vegetable tempuras are widely available. You can find all sorts of vegetable that is “tempura’d” such as Daikon, Long Beans, Brinjal, Lotus Root, Mushroom and Kabocha (Japanese Winter Squash).
There are also tofu skin tempura, proving that anything can be coated with tempura batter and deep fried.
Kiritanpo is rice that is cookes, mashed and formed into cylinders, cooked over an open fire. If you’re in Japan during Autumn season, the chances of you running into Kiritanpo is high as it is a favorite outdoor Autumn snack.
Kirintanpo is often topped with Miso paste, giving it a heightened flavor profile.
When you see the word Kinpira on any menu, worry not as it almost always vegetarian. This Japanese cooking technique first sautés ingredients like carrots, lotus root and burdock roots. They are then simmered at a low temperature.
Other vegetables like seaweed and tofu may be added to the dish. Kinpira can be easily found at convenience and grocery stores.