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Getting Some In Japan

A Vegetarian Survival Guide

Japan is the home, or at least birthplace, of some of the most amazing vegetarian food on earth. Honestly. No really, it is. And yet, many a great vegetarian here has laid her ethics by the genkan on the way out to dinner, because it all got too difficult. Oh, if only she had known how to get some in Japan.

One of the major difficulties here is the lack of general understanding about what a vegetarian is. Traditionally, Japanese have considered meat to be animals with hooves, meaning chicken and fish were not seen as such. Simply saying you are "vegetarian" while ordering in a restaurant will probably have as much impact as if you were speaking Latin. To a deaf person. Without moving your lips.

Still, hope is at hand. You’ve just got to learn the tricks and be patient.

Learn some Japanese. Even if it’s only to order in a restaurant, it’s important to be able to explain exactly what you do and don’t want. Saying that you don’t eat any meat or fish is a step in the right direction, but it’s even better if you can explain what you do eat. If you only mention vegetables, expect a salad. If you can eat tofu, miso, egg, cheese, natto and all vegetables, say so: the staff at this point probably have no idea what to suggest, so it’ll help. Point to things on the menu that might be okay, or ask if something can be made without meat.

Remember, too, that even though it just says "tofu" on the menu, your order is likely to come swimming in its very own school of katsuobushi – dried bonito shavings — so ask them to hold the fish flakes.

Know where to go and check the menu first. Some places have better vegetarian selections than others. Italian, Middle Eastern, Mexican and Western-style joints are generally a safe bet, while you may also find something you can eat at Korean, Taiwanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Chinese restaurants. Izakaya are great for vegetarians, especially those with limited Japanese ability, because they often have picture menus and Engrish translations for you to decipher. However, the golden rule remains: always ask about every dish.

There is nowhere you absolutely can’t go, bar perhaps a steakhouse. Some shabu shabu restaurants have vegetable platters, sushi ones usually offer a few vegetarian options, you can have okonomiyaki without fish or meat, and many yakiniku joints have negi (spring onion), shiitake (mushroom), shishito (green pepper) and tofu skewers. And Japan is not without her very own form of vegetarian dining, shojin ryori – for exorbitant prices and an experience you’ll never forget.

If you like cooking at home and find buying ingredients hard, go to an international supermarket. The larger ones offer meat substitutes, and even vegetarian convenience foods and ready-to-eat meals. Failing that, mail order companies such as Tengu Natural Foods and the Foreign Buyers’ Club can help you out. Middle Eastern and Indian supermarkets are also good for sourcing grub, and some even use picture coding for their veggie fodder. If you live in a big city, try department store food halls or health food stores, too. Free range eggs are available in many department stores and supermarkets: ask for "hanashigai no niwatori no tamago."

The pitfalls. Dashi is a word that can make any serious vegetarian shudder. The stock that is used in almost almost all Japanese food, it is either made from konbu (seaweed), shiitake (mushroom) or katsuobushi, but usually a combination of the above – and almost always including the latter. You may find yourself making compromises you would never make at home when it comes to dashi, because it really does get into a lot of otherwise meat-free dishes. If you want to stick to your principles and avoid it altogether, make sure you ask about dashi every time you order something. If cooking at home, you can buy vegetarian dashi from health food shops.

The enormous upsides. This is a country with entire restaurants dedicated to tofu: every supermarket stocks it, they have festivals for it, no one thinks you’re a hippie for eating it, it tastes great… But there’s more to life than tofu. There’s mochi, konnyaku, shiratake, miso, and seasonal vegetables and fruits you can smell from streets away. The mushrooms in autumn are so delicious and varied, you’d call them magic mushrooms if that didn’t have other connotations. Oh, and there are seaweeds in most everything, hitting us with B vitamins, iron, zinc and iodine – all hard to find in a western vegetarian diet.

Which brings us to a major upside. Japanese food does not rely on heavy starchy foods like bread, potato and pasta in order to be filling, thus avoiding the "empty calories" of many western veggie dishes. As little as fifty years ago, red meats were not abundant in daily Japanese cuisine, which may explain why dishes often remain well balanced without meat. You still have to be careful, mind you: your body will find it hard to adjust whenever you change your diet, no matter how healthy the food is. The best advice is to eat as wide a variety of foods as you can, to cover all bases.

Cut-out-and-keep Veggie Lingo

Can you make this without meat?
Kono ryouri o niku nuki de tsukuremasu ka.

Can you recommend a vegetarian dish?
Osusume no bejitarian menyuu wa arimasu ka.

I do not eat any meat at all.
Watashi wa niku to sakana o mattaku tabemasen.

I am allergic to meat and fish.
Watashi wa niku ya sakana ni taishite arerugii ga arimasu.

Could you make this without katsuobushi?
Kore o katsuobushi nuki de tsukuremasu ka.

I do not eat meat, dairy or eggs.
Watashi wa niku, sakana, nyuseihin, tamago o tabemasen.

I can eat tofu, egg, cheese, natto, konnyaku, mochi and all vegetables.
Watashi wa toufu, tamago, chiizu, nattou, konnyaku, mochi, soshite yasai wa suki kirai naku tabemasu.