Commonly lauded as one of the simplest but most elegant cuisines, Japanese cuisine traditionally focuses on preparing seasonal ingredients in such a way that their natural acquired flavors will shine on their own. Staples such as rice, broths, pickled vegetables, miso, and fresh vegetables are used to build most Japanese dishes, but due to the modernization of Japan in the 1980s, plant-based eaters who don’t incorporate fish and various meats into their diet may view Japanese food as uninclusive — at least at most Americanized Japanese chains, where fish-based sushi, sashimi, and tonkatsu, a kind of meat-based Japanese dish, dominate the menu.
Don’t let fear-of-fish stop you from going out to a Japanese restaurant for a meal, however. Because Japanese cuisine is so focused on honoring the integrity of its ingredients, it’s extremely easy to either order vegan, or adapt your dishes to remain free of all animal byproducts. Here are some tips on how to successfully order plant-based fare at a Japanese restaurant.
Because Japan is a nation made up of several large Pacific islands, its cuisine is heavily rooted in seafood. However, it also honors vegetables, prepared in a variety of different forms. Fans of deep-fried fare shouldn’t have trouble finding vegetable tempura on many Japanese menus, which is essentially a medley of battered and deep-fried vegetables. Check out this recipe for 15-Minute Tempura Vegetables With Chili Dipping Sauce.
Often, a variety of veggie sides will be available to order. Mainstay options include eggplant, konyaku (a gelatin type food made with yam), yamaimo potato, raw and salted cabbage leaves, burdock root, and kabocha pumpkin. Many of these veggie sides also come pickled. Umeboshi is also a popular pickled plum in Japanese cuisines that you could sometimes find inside of rice balls, like onigiri. We love this recipe for Yaki Onigiri.
Kushimono, or skewered food, which commonly includes lotus root, mushrooms, green pepper, okra and many other vegetables such as gingko nuts, are also available.
Tofu is used in a variety of Japanese dishes. You’ll find it in miso soup (check out this Soothing Miso Soup recipe to make it yourself), in yakko, which is a simple tofu dish typically served raw in ice water, in yu dofo, which is boiled tofu served in a pot with kombu seaweed, and in plenty of bowls, like the Tofu Yasai Don: Japanese Tofu Rice Bowl pictured above. Remember to order everything without bonito, which are fish flakes.
Beans (mame) are used in all kinds of Japanese fare, from natto (fermented beans) to edamame (soy beans), kuromame (fermented sweet black beans), and red adzuki beans mixed with rice and called sekihan.
Be on the lookout for buckwheat and udon noodles, as well as ramen. You’ll have to be sure your broth is plant-based and doesn’t have egg, or any fish sauces or bonito flakes. Check out this recipe for Zaru Soba: Japanese Cold Buckwheat Noodles and this Sesame Portobello Ramen recipe for homemade inspiration.
Most sushi establishments will have at least one plant-based roll for you to enjoy, but in reality, the world is rife with options (just check out what the folks over at Beyond Sushi are doing for proof). Keep your eye out for these rolls:
The cucumber roll (kappa), the pickle (oshinko) roll, which usually featured the Japanese radish (a daikon) and carrots, the tart plum (ume) roll, the fermented soybean natto roll, which is sticky and with a strong flavor, the avocado roll (for all you avocado-toast lovers out there), the spinach (horenso) roll, the shiitake roll (which pairs welll with Japanese sweet rice wine), kampyo, which is a dried gourd, and common, spongy-textured roll in Japan, and the soymilk skin (yuba) roll. The Mango Beet Sushi pictured above is an innovative vegan sushi dish, while this Sesame Miso Spinach Salad (Goma-ae) and Vegetable Sushi is a more traditional take.
You could also order inari, which is sushi rice that is wrapped up with a seasoned strip of deep-fried and thin tofu skin. Check out this recipe for Sushi Grains in Fried Tofu Pockets to get an idea. Also check out futomaki, which essentially translates to a thick roll that features more than two ingredients — choose any veggies or plant-based foods to stuff inside.
Typically, sushi is served with fresh ginger, a side of sauce (typically soy) and wasabi. All three ingredients are vegan, although if you’re gluten-intolerant or watching your sodium intake, steer clear of soy.
Shojin Ryori is a Japanese Buddhist cuisine that originated from Zen temples and was brought to Japan via China and Korea. The cuisine is vegan by default and focuses on simple cooking, and showcasing the whole. Often, a shojin meal often consists of soup and three side dishes, like pickles, steamed veggies, or tofu. If you’re interested in shojin, you might also enjoy learning about Nimono, the Japanese Home Cooking Technique.
In America, macrobiotics is a style of living and eating in harmony with nature. Learn How a Vegan Macrobiotic Chef Stocks Her Pantry and check out this recipe for Macrobiotic Brown Rice Arame. Lastly, try this Macrobiotic Mabo Tofu.
If you’re looking for more delicious and seasonal plant-based recipes, then we highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 8,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to ten new recipes per day. Check it out!
Lead image source: Mango Beet Sushi