Vegetarian’s Survival Guide to Japan: Some False Friends and 10 Good Options

For those vegan and vegetarian friends travelling in Japan, is a tricky place! There are many restaurants with vegetable options on the menu. However, contrary to popular opinion, many vegetable options in restaurants use fish ingredients in the process of cooking, the sauce, or garnishing.

This post provides vocabulary and food recommendations for vegetarians. I also have a list of vegetarian (and mostly vegan) restaurants in Tokyo.

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Vegetarian-looking food with meat. It has おぼろ oboro (minced meat).

Vocabulary

To Avoid

If you are shopping at the supermarket or ordering, avoid words with the fish character (魚), such as 鮪、鰹節、鯖、鯵. 

Other words to look out for are minced meat (おぼろ oboro), shrimp (海老 ebi), fish cakes (竹輪 chikuwa)soup stock (だし dashi), usually made of bonito flakes and kelp. Fish stock is usually in soup dishes, vegetables in broth, sauces, soba and udon noodle soy sauce (だし醤油 dashi shoyu), and egg custard (茶碗蒸し chawanmushi), and even in many rice balls (おにぎり onigiri).

Useful Vocabulary in Restaurants:

  • Vegetarian – 菜食 saishyoku
  • Vegetarian – ベジタリアン  bejitarian
  • Vegan – 完全菜食主義の kanzen saishoku shugi no
  • Vegan – ビーガン biigan
  • Vegetables – 野菜 yasai 
  • Egg 卵 – tamago
  • Without bonito (fish) flakes please – katsuobushi nashi de onegai shimas.
  • Do you have [insert word]?  – [insert word] arimas ka? 
  • This is yummy! – Oishiidesu!

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These are 3 examples of vegetarian friendly rice balls, onigiri, at a convenience store.

Vegetarian Foods

1. Rice balls (おにぎり onigiri)* Select ones

Most rice balls have meat, but there is usually at least one vegetarian option in a convenience store like Family Mart, Lawson, 7/11, Sunkus. Look out for these vegetarian options: 納豆/なっと natto onigiri – fermented soybean rice balls / rice tubes, 梅干しumeboshi onigiri – pickled plum rice balls, 昆布 konbu onigiri –kelp rice balls* (note, this may have fish stock depending on the sauce).

2. Green Soy Beans 枝豆 Edamame 

In restaurants, edamame are good bets. They are boiled green soy beans sprinkled with salt, and highly nutritious in addition to being addictive!

3. Soy Milk

Just go to a convenience store (Family Mart, Lawson, 7/11) or supermarket and try. They options are very tasty!

4. Traditional Japanese Sweets

Many traditional Japanese desserts are vegetarian, and even vegan. Sweet rice cakes, mochi, fu, daifuku are usually round balls made with glutinous rice flower and fillings. Other favourites are a sweet bread roll with red bean anpan, folded cake with red-bean filling dorayaki, sweet steamed bun manjuū, monaka, Japanese fish-shaped cake taiyaki. The fillings are usually include  red bean azuki, green tea macha, roasted soy bean kinako, sesame goma flavours.

5. Tempura (veggies) 野菜天ぷら yasai tempura

 

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Squash and green bean tempura.

 

You can specifically ask for vegetable tempura in many restaurants.

6. Tofu 豆腐

 

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Tofu set meal at Okutan in Kyoto

 

Tofu is a must try in Japan, no matter how much you dislike it in other parts of the world. It can be served boiled yudofu, fried agedofu, skewered, etc. It can come in a variety of flavours, such as sesame seed tofu gomadofu, and textures such as firm momendofu, silken kinedofu, and freeze-dried koyadofu.

Kyoto is one of the best places to find yudofu, which is a regional specialty, and Mount Koya Koya-san, close to Osaka, is the place that developed koyadofu.

7. Sauteed and Simmered Veggies きんぴら Kinpira

Kinpira is simple and delicious root veggie dish. It is the term for a type of cooking that sautes and simmers root vegetables such as lotus root, carrots, burdock root gobo,  bamboo shoots, hijiki seaweed and tofu in a combination of soy sauce and mirin.

8. Pickles 漬物 tsukemono

Pickled vegetables often come in small dishes during a meal. Since they were soaked in brine, they are often quite salty, sour or sweet. It can be a vareity of things including leafy greens, daikon, plum, bamboo shoots. You can also buy them at the supermarket and eat them with rice.

Tsukemono help clean the pallet, balance out the fishy flavours and heaviness in other dishes during a meal. According to traditional Japanese fine dining, a complete meal should contain the 5 colors: red, yellow, green, black,and white.

9. Skewers 串物 Kushimono 

Skewered food is commonly found in night market food alleys or festivals (usually in the summer). Vegetarian options (amongst the many meat ones) include lotus root, mushrooms, green pepper, and okra (lady fingers). Kushiage are items fried on a stick.

10. Daikon Dishes 大根 Daikon

It can come as daikon salad, shredded underneath sashimi, pickled (tsukemono, takuan), or boiled (oden* which is a fish-stock based soup). Daikon is also the most common vegetables in Japan and grated fresh daikon adds a cool and refreshing touch to some of the heavier (i.e. fried) foods.

 

 *Note: Some fast food chains have vegetarian options. The chain Mos Burger may have a kinpira rice burger on the menu that is vegetarian.

If you liked this post, please share with your vegetarian friends to help them on their trip! You can also check out a list of vegetarian (and mostly vegan) restaurants in Tokyo.

 

 

4 responses to “Vegetarian’s Survival Guide to Japan: Some False Friends and 10 Good Options

  1. Pingback: Vegetarian Traveller’s Restaurant Guide to Tokyo | The Cup and the Road·

  2. Pingback: 2016 Year in Review – A Photo Collection | The Cup and the Road·

  3. This is incredibly helpful. Thank you. We are going in a few weeks and I am looking for a phrase I can write out in Japanese to explain the restaurants / shop assistants that we can’t eat fish flakes, chicken / fish stock, meat, fish, etc etc. Do you know where I could find this?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jodie,
      I’m glad to hear this is helpful!

      You won’t need to specify all that because the way Japanese stock is prepared, all stock is prepared with meat or fish unless it is explicitly stated as vegetarian. You are better off memorizing the words 野菜 (vegetables) or 素 (vegetarian).

      The simpler way to say it, for example, is to say: 出汁を食べない。
      That you don’t eat dashi stock.
      For the same reason, I also suggest you just keep to the sentence that you are vegetarian.

      私はベジタリアンです。
      Watashi wa bejitarian desu.
      I am vegetarian.

      野菜だけ食べます。
      Yasai dake tabemasu.
      I only eat vegetables.

      [Insert food]を食べられない。
      [insert food] wo taberarenai.
      I cannot eat [insert food]

      Like

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