Wednesday, March 15, 2006

On Being a Vegetarian Tourist in Tokyo

Japanese vegetarian cuisine can be truly amazing. In a fancy multi-course meal, the combination of careful preparation, high quality seasonal ingredients, and a variety of flavors and textures create a dining experience that is hard to top. Some of my finest restaurant meals have been in Japan (including tempura at Ten-Ichi, and a shojin ryori meal in Kamakura); and even the simple dishes, like a plate of pickles and a bowl of rice can be delicious.

Reminds Me of Spam
However, it is difficult to find such food. Unless you speak very good Japanese and have some good contacts, being a pure vegetarian tourist in Japan is nearly impossible. After finishing my sixth visit to the country, I find it hard to imagine a visit without often encountering a little bit of fish-based stock, meat broth, or some fish flakes hidden within a vegetable item or sauce. For example, at a department store stand specializing in tofu (somewhere on the main street in the Ginza district. Matsuya?), I bought an item that was two cubes of deep-fried soft tofu topped with braised mushrooms and shiso leaf. It seemed like a good vegetarian choice, but it turned out that the mushrooms had been braised in fish-based stock. At another place, the staff "converted" a miso soup from non-vegetarian to vegetarian by removing the mussels that had cooked in it, and replaced them with pieces of mushroom. These events remind me a bit of the legendary Monty Python spam sketch (audio here) (video here):
Wife: Have you got anything without spam?
Waitress: Well, there's spam egg sausage and spam, that's not got much spam in it.

A classic technique for tourists is to use the plastic food displays as an impromptu menu---i.e., bring the waiter to the display and point at what you would like. But even though these models are fairly lifelike, it can be challenging to identify which items contain meat, and even harder to figure out which have meat-based stocks or sauces.

Some Easy to Find Options
Despite the pessimistic tone of the last few paragraphs, do not lose all hope! There are many vegetarian items that are relatively easy to find in Tokyo (and elsewhere in Japan, of course):
  • Maki rolls - a filling, and a layer of vinegared rice wrapped in a sheet of dried seaweed (nori) - standard fillings are cucumber (kappa maki), umeboshi (pickled plum), and kampyo (pickled gourd). See photo at the top of the post.
  • Inari zushi - a piece of deep-fried tofu skin stuffed with vinegared rice with sesame seeds (pictured above).
  • O-nigiri (rice balls) - frequently wrapped with sheet of nori (dried seaweed), some have a filling of sansai (Japanese mountain vegetables, the kanji for sansai are at Wikipedia), kampyo, or umeboshi.
  • Pickles (tsukemono) - most grocery stores and department store food floors have a wide variety.
  • Rice and etc. - some department store food floors have a rice counter with several varieties of rice and vegetable combinations. For example, rice and adzuki beans.
  • Bakeries - they are all over the place, and they offer textbook French and Danish pastries. Note that brioche is popular, so vegans should be careful. Also, look closely at the item before you pick it up, as hot dogs and sausage have a way of appearing in the baked goods.
  • Yakitori restaurants - they have a variety of vegetables like shiitake mushrooms, asparagus, potatoes, small Japanese peppers.
  • Zaru soba - a plate of cold buckwheat noodles served with a dipping sauce (which usually is fish-based), some grated wasabi, and minced scallions. Buckwheat noodles are a Japanese specialty, and can be sublime.
To help you plan your visit and find some vegetarian restaurants, a list of some on-line vegetarian resources:
Next Time - Two Restaurants with Vegetarian Options
My next post will visit two Tokyo restaurants which serve vegetarian meals: Nezunoya and Fujimamas (the author of the blog In a Fancy Glass is on the staff!).


vegetariantokyo said...

costa rica said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gareth said...

Try these phrases they work wonders


kore wa o niku toka ebi toka sakana toka ga haitemaska

Does this have meat prawns or fish in ?

kore ha oniku nashi de dekimasu ka ?

Can you make this with out meat ?

katsuoboshi nashi de kudasai
Please dont put on bonito flakes

kore ha katsuo dashi desu ka

Is this bonito soup stock?

Good luck