“You’re a WHAT?” A guide to vegetarian food in Japan
“So no pork cutlets?”
“No beef broth?”
“How about ham? Katsudon? Eel? Beef tongue? Please tell me that you eat sushi at least.”
No matter where you go, eating vegetarian food is hard. How many of us have scanned a menu in Toronto for that wimpy green symbol, only to be surprised that fries at the only vegetarian option? How many times have we ordered a side or an appetizer as a meal, just because it’s the only choice without meat? It’s (literally) no picnic to watch your friend enjoy a decked-out meal with every frill imaginable, while you have to endure the lowest possible effort vegetarian meal.
Yay, I get to pick between a vegetable salad and a stuffed red pepper again. Sure, I’ll pay for the bacon, even though I’m taking it off. No, I don’t need protein. Or seasoning. It’s fine. I get it.
But Tokyo is a different kind of beast.
You can walk a whole street of restaurants and not find a single vegetarian option. Japanese cuisine typically features lots of meat and seafood. Lots of food seems vegetarian (like “vegetable noodles” or “vegetable salad” or “vegetable dumplings” still has meat in it. Plus, if you’re like me and aren’t fluent in Japanese, it becomes all the more harder. Restaurants aren’t like in Canada, where the vegetarian meals are clearly labelled — I found myself subconsciously going towards green text/signs and getting disappointed when I realized it was just a design choice, not a way of communicating restrictions.
You have the option of getting Western food (sandwiches, soups, salads) but to me, this seemed like the ultimate defeat. There was no way that I was going to Tokyo and surviving on cucumbers sandwiches while everyone around me was slurping ramen and enjoying gyoza. There had to be a better way.
Somehow, with tons of research, I managed to make it work!
(Disclaimer — I’m more of a flexitarian, as around 99% of my diet is vegetarian but sometimes I eat the odd chicken nugget from McDonalds and now I’ve gotten into salmon sashimi. If you’re very strict about vegetarianism, naturally it will be much more difficult for you. But still doable! Good luck!)
Here are my tips for eating vegetarian in Japan:
1. Download the Happy Cow app! It’s five dollars (exorbitant for an iPhone app, I know), but absolutely saved my life in East Asia. It maps out the food with vegetarian options in the area and is fairly extensive, with tons of reviews.
2. Tokyo has a lot of vegan-only restaurants — look them up before you choose a place to eat, as some are fairly central. My favourites were Olu Olu Café and T’s Tantan Ramen.
3. Afuri and Coco’s Curry are two well-known chains with vegetarian options on their menus. Not every Coco’s Curry has the vegetarian menu available, however — beware! It’s only at select locations. Make sure to ask before you sit down.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask a food has meat in it. Memorize the words for “chicken” “pork” “beef” and “fish”. Make sure to specify fish! A lot of people don’t consider fish as meat.
5. At the conbini, consider picking up a pickled plum or pickled seaweed onigiri — I didn’t expect to love them, but they took me as surprise as an amazing vegetarian snack that’s available almost everywhere.
6. Be careful of pork broth! It’s in almost everything hot — ask explicitly if the broth is made with pork. If it’s broth, assume it’s a meat-based broth always unless explicitly specifie.
7. If you’re avoiding seafood, dashi is a fish flake that is added to a lot of food. Make sure you ask to take it off.
8. Yakitori places can do vegetable skewers, usually! I loved the heat of the grilled vegetables, plus it’s a place that meat-eaters also enjoy.
9. Okonomiyaki is a delicious made-to-order pancake with either a cabbage or noodle base — it’s super yummy plus it is always possible to request it to be vegetarian.
10. Consider taking a cooking class — I went to an amazing one that was fully accessible to vegetarians.
11. At the temples you visit, try Shojin Ryori cuisine — the traditional dining style of Buddhist monks in Japan. It’s fully vegan, in addition to excluding strong-smelling plants such as garlic, shallot, and leek.
Best of luck in your vegetarian adventure! Munch away 😊