Vegan Japanese Food
Japanese food can be superb for vegans, but unless you're vigilant or make it yourself it's easy to consume traces of fish products. Here's what you need to know.
Vegan Japanese at Cha Ya
Japanese cuisine is traditionally based on fish, rice, vegetables and noodles with some poultry and eggs. It wasn’t until the 1860s that red meat and dairy products were introduced to the Japanese diet. Beef bowl travesties and Kobe beef notwithstanding, fish and poultry products remain the most common non-vegan foods in authentic modern-day Japanese cooking.
Given that most Japanese cooking is based on rice, seaweed, and vegetables, you might think that vegans would have an easy time at Japanese restaurants. Sadly, the opposite is true. Of all the world’s cuisines, Japanese food may well be the #1 frustration for vegans. In most cases it comes infuriatingly close to being entirely vegan while still missing the mark. The most difficult thing about navigating Japanese food is that dashi is used in nearly everything. Dashi can be vegan, but it is usually made from fish flakes. In addition to soups, Dashi often appears in sushi rice, dipping sauces, dressings, and many other savory dishes. Dashi provides the umami flavor that can’t easily be replicated with other common Japanese ingredients.
So, to summarize the situation: the problem with Japanese food is that you can order vegetable sushi, without egg, and it’ll probably be 99.8 percent vegan. But unless the restaurant doesn’t use dashi to make its sushi rice, there’s no easy and reliable way to eat a 100 percent vegan meal at a typical Japanese restaurant.
There is one notable exception to this rule involving shojin-ryori, the vegetarian dishes developed by Buddhist monks. But even these can occasionally contain non-vegan ingredients. So you’re best off eating at an all-vegan Japanese restaurant—if you can find one. They’re rare but they do exist: Kajitsu in New York City, Shojin in Los Angeles, Cha-Ya in San Francisco and Berkeley, and Zen Japan in Australia.
If you lack a vegan-friendly Japanese restaurant in your area, don’t despair because you can cook incredible vegan Japanese food at home. There are several Japanese vegan cookbooks.
Japanese desserts are easier to find, as dashi is never used in sweet dishes. One vegan dessert that can be found throughout Japan is mochi, which is a soft rice dough that is often colored pink or green and filled with a sweet bean paste.