Japan is a country in Asia comprising more than 6000 islands. The traditional Japanese diet mainly consists of non- or minimally-processed foods that are rich in nutrients and eaten seasonally.
Japanese food is especially rich in vegetables, fruit, and seafood, while also limiting meat and dairy. As such, the traditional Japanese diet is largely pescatarian with a heavy emphasis on plant-based foods.
Ironically, even though Japanese eat a healthy diet consisting mainly of lots of unprocessed fruits and vegetables, it can be quite difficult to find food that is truly 100% vegan. Many dishes that may seem to be vegan at first glance are actually not. Let’s look at some of these dishes:
One of the most famous Japanese dishes is tempura which refers to food lightly coated in a flour batter and deep fried until golden and crispy. Vegetable tempura is very popular and can include an assortment of different veggies that are in season.
It may surprise some people, however, that tempura batter often contains a beaten egg, and, therefore, is not vegan. Fortunately, tempura batter can also be made minus the egg without compromising flavor. (Here is one of our favorite recipes: https://thevietvegan.com/vegan-tempura/.)
So if you want to ensure that the tempura you are ordering is vegan, make sure that the batter is made without eggs.
Tempura Dipping Sauce
Tempura is almost always served with a dipping sauce called ‘tentsuyu’. This sauce is traditionally made with dashi (a light broth), soy sauce, mirin (a sweet rice wine), and sugar. The problem for vegans is that Japanese dashi is often made using katsuobushi, or shaved dried skipjack tuna. Thankfully, dashi can also be made vegan by using shiitake mushrooms to add umami flavor instead of adding katsuobushi. Therefore, if you want to make sure that your tempura dipping sauce is 100% vegan, find out if it is made with a vegan dashi with no katsuobushi in it. Here is a recipe: https://simpleveganblog.com/vegetable-tempura/.
Almost every Japanese restaurant and household make and serve miso soup, a dish made from fermented soybean paste. In fact, 75% of the Japanese population consume miso soup at least once per day.
Unfortunately for vegans, miso soup is frequently made with a katsuobushi or skipjack tuna dashi or broth. But it can also be made using a mushroom or vegetable dashi without sacrificing flavor or umami. So if you want to enjoy miso soup that is vegan, make sure it is made with a mushroom or vegan dashi. Here’s how to make a classic vegan Japanese dashi using mushrooms and kombu (seaweed): https://chefjacooks.com/en/shiitake-kombu-dashi-vegan/.
Another common Japanese dish is nabemono, or nabe, a hot pot dish where mostly vegetables and tofu, and sometimes meat and seafood, are simmered in a light broth. It is a dish often eaten in cold or rainy weather. Some of the most popular nabe or hotpot dishes include sukiyaki, shabu shabu, and oden.
Even if you order a vegetable-only nabe dish, be aware that it may not be vegan. The reason is because the cooking broth is often made using seafood or meat. It can, however, easily be made vegan by using a vegetable and seaweed only broth. So if you want to order a Japanese dish, make sure it is made with a vegan dashi or broth.
Japanese udon is generally served 2 ways, as a stir-fried dish (yaki udon) or in a broth with various condiments. Unfortunately, both often contain (you guessed it!) katsuobushi or skipjack tuna/bonito flakes or even a meat broth. So even if you order a vegetable yaki udon or udon noodle in soup, it could very well not be vegan.
Soba is a noodle made from buckwheat and it is a favorite in Japan. It can be eaten cold accompanied by a dipping sauce (zaru soba), as a salad, or in a hot broth.
Even though soba noodles themselves are vegan, the dipping sauce served with zaru soba is commonly made with a katsuobushi dashi, and the broths that the hot soba dishes are served in are often made using seafood or meat. Do your homework and ask questions if you want to make sure that your soba is completely vegan.
Another very common Japanese dish is agedashi tofu, a dish that comprises lightly fried tofu cubes and served in a light broth, topped with green onions and grated ginger. While the rest of the ingredients are vegan, the broth or sauce that the tofu is served in is sometimes made with the katsuobushi dashi that is pervasive in so many Japanese dishes. The sauce can easily be made vegan by omitting the katsuobushi and substituting it with mushrooms, seaweed and vegetables instead.
Hiyayakko (Cold Tofu)
On hot summer days, it is common in Japan to eat hiyayakko or chilled tofu. It is sometimes topped with soy sauce which does not compromise the dish being vegan. The issue is that it is also often topped with dried katsuobushi fish flakes, so make sure to ask that the dish not be topped with it in order to keep it vegan.
As you can see, finding and ordering Japanese food that is 100% vegan can be tricky, but if you look out for katsuobushi, seafood and animal broths, and eggs, you can still enjoy delicious vegan Japanese food.