A Complete Guide

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. Not only is seafood a primary ingredient in many Japanese dishes, fish-derived seasonings are so widespread as to be 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.

> oking Japanese food involves gaining familiarity with the key ingredients. Here are some of the main vegan staples of Japanese cooking.

vep:heading –> > e 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.

TJapan 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.

< mand meat. It’s usually cheaper than tamari, but still significantly more expensive than mass market soy sauces.

Thhaas 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 shed by their love for sprouts. 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.

Wasabihoasabi 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.

Unlessexhi 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.

Seaweed -panese meals freqa aweed. 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.


pan 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.

Pickled Ginger y-sliced pickled ginger gs clear the palette between pieces of vegan nori. It’s my unshakable belief that vegan nori rolls, pickled ginger, and Asahi Prime Rich beer constitute the holy trinity of Japanese cuisine.


Maybe the best way to experience umligarnish that’s beloved in Indian cuisine. That is, finely chop a couple umeboshi up (removing and discarding the pits!) and serve it 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


Seasoned Cucumber


Traditional ramen caught on because it’s satisfying, filling, aes 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 ingredientrhe fried noodles can be upgraded to whole grain, and a quality vegetable broth can be used in place of scary dehydrated meat powder. Any vegetarian Japanese cookbook will feature at least one vegan ramen recipe.

Sweet Potato

Nori Rolls

Jirm> 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 restaurante lthough their rice may be seasoned with dashi.) The trouble with vegan sushi sold by non-vegan restaurants is it’s almost invariably 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)


Vegan Jton’t be easier. Tospan 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 can be eaten in one to three bites.

Macrobiotics and Shojin-Ryori

shojin-ryori meals.

Macrobiotics is a style of eating invented in the 1930s by George Oshawa and subizchio Kushi. As both Oshawa and Kushi were Japanese, the sensibilities of macrobiotic cuisine is Japanese as well. While macrobiotic meals usually feature fish, if that’s omitted pretty much everything else is vegan, since macrobiotic principles shun meat, eggs, and dairy products.

One virtue of macrobiotics is that its meals invariably feature brown rice, as oppot hoice in Japan. Macrobiotic meals are often served in bento boxes, which usually 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 Japanesenb’s Zen Buddhist monks and is called shojin-ryori. The trouble is that, despite the Buddha’s precept against killing, the extent to which Buddhist monks practice vegetarianism and veganism varies widely between sects. But it’s a safe bet that if someone is proclaiming their food to be shojin-ryori, it’s almost certainly vegetarian and very likely vegan. 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. But while it can fairly be called bland (since, after all, observant Buddhists eschew strong spices as well as onions and garlic) it can also be 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 welKajitsu 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 incredyoa kitchen. If you don’t, you’re goiny yo, 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. It’ll make the difference between being happy and well-fed, and having to make due with extremely limited prepared options.

As long as you do your own cooking, you can eat wonderfully. Japan is full of mid-sized supermarkets offering&nb sre reasonably priced and of superb quality. It’s fair to say that few countries can compare to Japan when it comes to high quality produce at low cost. 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 tr-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. Soy milk is sold in every grocery, often in paper quart-sized milk cartons sold right next to cheap cartons of pre-made coffee. 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 sproutde nearly always find inexpensive fresh hijiki or wakame seaweed in your grocery’s refrigerated section. Many markets also carry vegan nori rolls.

If you can’t read Japanese, the Google Translate app is a godsend. As I mentioned earlier, most Japanese food seems to gratuiouI 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.

As you might expect, Japanese groceries carry a huge assortment of soy sauces, sometimes an entire aisle’s worth. Unfortunately, about hal st, so this is one area where you’ll always want to use your Google Translate app. Kikkoman makes an “ECOCERT” non-GMO soy sauce for the Japanese market that’s excellent, albeit more than twice the price of commodity brands.

You won’t be impressed by the availability of vegan dark chocolate. But apart from that, the snack offerings in Japan are excellent. There are a grechlike a step up from what you can find in other countries. You can also find excellent rice crackers.

In contrast to China and especially Thailand, Japan’s top breweries know what they’re doing. Get yourself some Asahi Prime Rich Beer. It’s cheap and obtep up from Asahi’s silver-canned flagship product, while costing about 40 percent less.

The most common alcoholic beverage in Japan prior to Westernization was sake, which is a wine made from rice rather than grapes. Alcohol content is similarrcas high as alcohol gets before most yeasts are killed off. Distillation is necessary to make beverages higher in alcohol than wine or sake.) Sake is traditionally served heated, but younger Japanese people today now favor drinking it 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 Unitlagraph –>

Finally, I must mention one of the most innovative gevne 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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