While traditional Japanese cooking doesn’t involve dairy, finding vegan-friendly food in Japan can still be very difficult. There are many dishes that don’t involve animal flesh, but most Japanese dishes get their flavor from dashi – soup stock made with either bonito fish or kelp. If you don’t speak Japanese, asking the waiter what the dashi is made of will be an excruciating ordeal.
Dashi is in almost everything, from soup bases to sauces. Furthermore, fried fish flakes are a popular topping in Japanese food, and since World War II mayonnaise is a beloved condiment, drizzled on many grilled foods. So what exactly is safe for a vegan to eat in Japan apart from raw fruits and veg? We’ve rounded up some Japanese dishes, snacks, and sweets that are 100% vegan… and hopefully always will be.
vegetable maki rolls When most people hear the word “sushi” they automatically think of raw fish. But the word “sushi” actually refers to the way the rice is prepared – with a dressing of vinegar, sugar, and salt. Sushi rice is squeezed into an oblong and topped with raw fish – nigiri; a word that derives from the Japanese word for “squeeze” – or it’s spread onto a sheet of seaweed and manipulated into a roll. Most sushi rolls – maki – have raw fish in them, but several are made solely with wasabi and vegetables like cucumber, avocado, and pickled radish. Ask for kappa maki (cucumber roll), abokado maki (avocado roll), or shinko maki (pickled radish roll)… or better yet, grab them right off the conveyor belt at a kaiten sushi restaurant.
cabbage with sesame oil – Often served at izakayas as a pre-meal nosh, raw cabbage dressed in sesame oil is a deceptively simple yet very delicious and healthy treat.
yaki imo Yaki imo are roasted sweet potatoes; a hearty street snack. They’re roasted with nothing but foil, oil, and the skins on their… backs.
edamame These little green soybean pods have become an internationally renowned snack, and with good reason – they’re ridiculously healthy and tasty. Get a dish – or two – at izakayas (Japanese gastropubs) and enjoy your treat with a tall glass of Japanese draft beer.
yaki nasu – Grilled eggplants, seasoned with soy sauce, mirin, and ginger.
atsuageyaki – Where would vegans be without tofu? There are many fantastic tofu-based recipes in Japanese cuisine, but most of them involve dashi. Atsuage, however – deep fried tofu cutlet – is served with ankake sauce (water, soy sauce, sugar, potato starch) rather than dashi. Toppings include grated ginger, grated daikon and green onions. Hiyayakko – cold, silken tofu – is prepared similarly. Sometimes bonito flakes are also used as a topping in both dishes – if you want to avoid this unwelcome intrusion, simply say “katsuobushi nasshi (KAT-soo-oh-BOO-shee na-shee) ” as you order.
gohan – That’s rice to you. We know, we know – what could be more fun than downing bowl after bowl of plain white rice on your Japanese vacation? But as white rice is such a popular staple in Japanese cooking, that are several side dishes prepared with it that happen to be vegan. Look for bowls of white rice topped with shredded seaweed or umeboshi – pickled plums. You can also have luck with onigiri – rice balls. There are many varieties of onigiri, and some of them are vegan. If you don’t speak Japanese, the ones from the convenience store might not be ideal (you might come away with a rice ball stuffed with tuna and mayonnaise); instead, look for onigiri at izakayas. The basic onigiri recipe is rice, seaweed, and sesame oil. Try, also, yaki onigiri – delicious grilled rice balls brushed with soy sauce.
natto – I hesitate to put this one on the list because to most non-Japanese people, nothing is more terrifying than the idea of eating stinky, sticky fermented soybeans. But it’s such a famous Japanese dish – a love it or hate it affair, even for the Japanese – that I felt it deserved a place in this post. Famous and 100% vegan so…. have at it.
japanese pickles – Go nuts, my friends; Japanese pickles are served alongside many main dishes so steal ‘em from your non-vegan friends or scoop them up from the condiment rack and scatter them over your white rice. Japanese pickles are usually made from radish, cucumbers, and eggplant. They have a sour, crunchy bite and are sometimes even spicy. More, please.
mochi – While Japanese cuisine doesn’t traditionally involve dairy, dairy has become popular in desserts, such as ice cream and baked goods. But if you want a yummy vegan Japanese dessert, go old school and get mochi! Mochi is a sweet dumpling made with glutinous flour. Its most common filling is anko – red bean paste – but it’s also possible to find mochi stuffed with jam, jelly, pastes and ice cream. Skip the ice cream mochi, of course.
What’s your favorite 100% vegan Japanese food?