Sushi. It’s probably the first thing that pops into your mind when you think of Japan. With a fresh slice of raw fish on top of a delicious vinegared rice, the first bite would actually take you on a rollercoaster ride with its bursting flavors and different texture. Aside from sushi, there is ramen. Glorious, filling ramen with its savory broth, chewy noodles, and delicious slice of beef or pork. A slurp of this delectable dish would vanish all the stress and is actually best paired with steamed gyoza. And we also have yakitori which goes well with sake (rice wine), fried shrimp tempura, and of course, generous servings of karaage. There’s always a play between meat and seafood and everything is always served fresh out of the kitchen. But how about vegetable-based dishes for vegans and vegetarians alike?
Every year, millions of tourists visit Tokyo and not all of them are meat-eaters. For most, a serving of katsudon and beer is already fulfilling but what about those who crave for greens? Though Japan is abundant with fruits and vegetables, a vegetarian lifestyle is pretty much uncommon in Japan. Most Japanese people who choose the plant-based life is because of health reasons while some of them because of religious matters. Vegetarians might find it difficult to find food fit for their dietary lifestyle. However, in the past couple of years, vegetarian restaurants have sprouted in every corner of Tokyo, making it easy for vegetarians to have access to their green, leafy vegetables dishes. They also offer different dishes aside from salads like a vegetable-base okonomiyaki, fried tofu, tempura, and even vegetable-base ramen dishes. In some restaurants, you can always make a special request for taking out the meat off the dish and replace it with an alternative vegetable ingredient. But of course, it’s still nice to know that there is a certain place to eat without having to think whether there are a few bacon pieces in your dish or katsuobushi flakes in your meal.
So, what exactly can you order? In this Tokyo vegetarian food guide, we’ve rounded up some of the best options to choose when ordering a vegetarian meal in restaurants in Tokyo.
- Tempura – one of best things about tempura is that not only it’s easy to make, but you can also change the ingredients you will use. Typically, tempuras are made with seafood ingredients dipped in pancake-like batter and fried until golden brown. But if you’re health conscious, you can always opt to make a friendly vegetable tempura. Ingredients such as slice eggplant, tofu, carrots, and even spring beans are dipped in batter and fried. A popular restaurant called Tenya serves an affordable vegetable donburi meal that comes with hot tea and miso soup. But if you fancy something more up the market, try Tsunahachi (KDX Nakano Sakaue Bldg7F, 3-30-4, Honcho, Nakano-ku, Tokyo) which sells affordable but delectable vegetable tempura meals.
- Ramen – it can get a little hard looking for a ramen place that serves pure plant-based ramen dishes because its broth contains an ingredient called dashi, a type of fish stock that isn’t exactly fit for a vegan and vegetarian lifestyle. However, in the past couple of years, vegetarian ramen dishes have been available to the public and not only do vegetarians enjoy this glorious piece of heaven, meat-eaters also swear by that it’s actually a good serving of ramen. A special ramen place called T’s Tan Tan (1F JR Tokyo Station, Marunouchi 1-9-1, Chiyoda, Tokyo) actually serves an all-vegetable ramen menu that’s got customer raving about. It’s located inside Tokyo Station so hungry passengers can drop by and enjoy a delicious bowl of ramen.
- Tofu – the best thing about tofu is that you can cook it any way you want. You can have it fried, boiled, or steamed. You can easily add it to other dishes and it will still taste fantastic. Japanese are experts when it comes to preparing tofu dishes so vegetarians are in good hands. This protein-rich bean curd is also the perfect alternative when it comes to vegetarians craving for burgers. If you like to have a taste of tofu paradise, head on to Ukai (Tokyo-to, Minato-ku, Shiba Koen 4-4-13). It’s a restaurant that serves the best tofu dishes you’ll ever have.
- Okonomiyaki – this friendly pancake dish is easy to make and you can put almost anything you want which makes it easy for vegetarians to throw in different vegetables to their batter and voila, okonomiyaki heaven! If you’re craving for something light and doesn’t burn holes in your pocket, okonomiyaki is the dish that will save you. An okonomiyaki restaurant called Tsuchiya (5-5-6 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo) which does not use katsuodashi in its batter serves some of the best okonomiyaki in Tokyo. It’s made right before your eyes and can always ask for other vegetable ingredients to be added to your okonomiyaki dish.
- Sushi – though searching for vegetarian sushi can be quite an adventure in Tokyo, it’s not impossible to find one. In most sushi restaurants, you can ask for an alternative vegetable ingredient but always have a look out for kappa-maki (seaweed rolls with fresh cucumber) and takuan-maki (pickled daikon radish roll). These delicious alternatives don’t scrimp on flavor. Other sushi dishes also include umeboshi (pickled plums) and natto (fermented soybean). Tsuruhan near Tokyo station (3 Chome-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda, Tokyo) features authentic vegetable sushi dishes that most customers rave about.
- Curry – though curry in Japan is a little far out from its Indian version, it’s still a good alternative to any vegetarian craving for this rich, filling dish. Many Japanese restaurants already offer vegetarian curry. However, because its roux is made with bits of meat, don’t be afraid to ask if they can make a special one for you. Japan’s largest and most popular curry chain Coco Ichibanya serves some of the best curry dishes in the city but not all of their branches serve vegetarian curry dishes. However, their branch in Shinjuku Station does and it can be a fulfilling meal after a hard day’s work.
- Soba noodles – this delicious noodle dish is served with cold buckwheat noodles, perfect for a summer afternoon, accompanied by spring onion, nori, wasabi, and dashi. If you’re not keen on adding dashi to your noodles, you can always skip it and the result will still be delicious! Itasoba Kaoriya (1F Century Park Bldg., Shibuya, Tokyo) serves one of the best soba dishes in the city with generous servings of noodles and you can always ask for extra dipping sauce just in case you run out of it.
If you would like to make your own vegetarian sushi, check our Vegetarian Sushi Making Class.