Not too long ago, dining choices for vegetarians in Japan were few and far between. If your brand of vegetarianism allowed you to eat fish, you could get by. But it was a lot tougher for those who eschewed meat and fish — not to mention for hardcore vegans.
Even humble and seemingly vegetarian-friendly soba noodles presented a dilemma for purists because they are made with dashi stock; and one of the ingredients of dashi is dried bonito flakes.
But in the last few years, there has been a huge increase in dining options for vegetarians in Japan. From high-end traditional Japanese fare to humble curry joints, there’s something for just about every taste. And more and more restaurants that aren’t exclusively vegetarian now offer a wider range of menu items for vegetarians.
If you don’t mind a dash of dashi in your dishes, then Yasai Kaiseki Nagamine (http://r.gnavi.co.jp/c00zdade0000/) in Tokyo’s Ginza district is a good place to get a taste of some beautifully prepared Japanese vegetarian cuisine. Kaiseki is Japan’s traditional haute cuisine, and menus always reflect the seasons. Nagamine is operated by a vegetable wholesaler, and its menu features interesting local products from all over Japan, such as tonburi seeds from Akita in the north. The seeds look like caviar, and are featured in Nagamine’s highly original vegetable sushi platter.
Macrobiotics, which holds that a healthy diet should balance the yin and yang elements of food, has long had many adherents in Japan. So it’s no surprise that major cities offer various macrobiotic dining choices. One of the most popular in Tokyo is Chaya Macrobiotics (www.chayam.co.jp/restaurant/), which has four locations in the metropolitan area. Although some dishes include meat, there are several vegan options. A typical set menu consists of a pomegranate, smoked nut, and kale salad, vegan soup and organic brown rice. Or how about a hot vegetable sandwich? Dessert options include strawberry short cake, baked soy cheesecake and vegan sesame ice cream.
Health-conscious fashionistas are the core clientele at Elle Café (http://ellecafe.jp) in Tokyo’s Roppongi Hills retail complex. A part of French fashion magazine Elle’s brand family, the café’s leitmotifs are “cleanse, ingredients, prevention and delight” to achieve health and beauty. In keeping with that philosophy, Elle Café offers “cleanse programs” designed to purify the body with intriguingly named juices, such as “greens,” “youth carrot” and “super berry”. Also on offer are cleansing soups, including “rice pumpkin,” “kombu (kelp) broth” and “roots ginger”.
“We always discover new healthy trends by travelling around the world,” says an Elle Café spokesperson. She explains how menu items are then developed using fresh, organic Japanese ingredients. Women in their thirties make up close to 90% of the café’s customers. They have a delivery service for customers in central Tokyo, and an online store.
Indian restaurants have always been a reliable standby for vegetarians in Japan. While many dishes on their menus are vegetarian-friendly, few Indian restaurants have catered exclusively to those who do not eat meat and fish. One that does is Nirvanam, which has three branches in Tokyo. Nirvanam specialises in South Indian cuisine, in which vegetable dishes feature more prominently than other regional Indian cuisines. “Japanese people are becoming more interested in vegetarian food,” says a representative of Nirvanam. “Many of our customers have been to India, or want to visit there.” He says most of the restaurant’s lunchtime customers are women, with more men in the evening.
Women also make up the bulk of the clientele at Shamaim (www.shamaimtokyo.com), an Israeli restaurant in a western Tokyo suburb. “They’re more into healthy food, like vegetables you can’t get in regular Japanese restaurants,” says a spokesperson for Shamaim, citing the various bean-based Middle Eastern dishes the restaurant offers. “We don’t see a lot of men here — unless they’re coming on a date,” he says with a laugh. Shamaim isn’t a purely vegetarian restaurant — the menu features regional favourites such as lamb and chicken shish kabobs. But dishes like humus and falafel make vegetarians feel right at home.
You can see this trend growing all across Japan, as more people become aware of healthy dining options.© Japan Today