Between the time when Buddhism came to Japan in the Asuka era and the reforms of the Meiji era, red meat was rarely seen in the Japanese diet. More traditional families continued this trend up to and after World War II. My mother in law can still recall her mother in law, a well to do wife of a merchant, being baffled at how to prepare red meat since she had never prepared it before.
For a country that has a rich history of avoiding meat, one would think that keeping vegetarian or vegan in Japan would be easy. This is the land of tofu, right? Well, it’s actually quite like most traditional cultures, where the definition of meat is a bit vague.
You don’t eat meat? That’s perfectly fine. I’ll just cook some fish.
In Japan, fish isn’t really considered meat, and fish or fish derived products often find their way into seemingly vegetarian dishes. Most Japanese people don’t consider meat derived cooking ingredients, such as broth, oil, or garnishes, as things vegetarians would want to avoid. As I stated in a previous article, my friend asked if his pasta contained any meat, was told it didn’t, but got it with heaps of shredded ham on top. It’s not meat. It’s garnish.
The best way to avoid the situation is to cook for yourself or at least to become aware of what ingredients are commonly used in various dishes. There are ways to cook traditional Japanese dishes without any meat products. It is easy enough that my mother in law modified her cooking at the last minute for some vegetarian friends and it didn’t involve any big changes at all.
The foundation of most Japanese meals is rice. By itself, this is already vegan and vegetarian friendly. You can ball it up and eat it with nori as a basic onigiri, or add your favorite ingredients to give it some flavor.
When at a restaurant, be careful of certain types of maze gohan (混ぜご飯), which can contain animal products such a broth or bits of meat. Maze gohan is basically any ingredients cooked with rice. This is a great way to dress up plain rice, and you can use whichever ingredients you wish.
I love cooking with mushrooms, though you should be aware of the amount of liquid that comes out of the vegetables you are using. If you add normal amounts of water to cook the rice, the water from the vegetables will only add to that and make your rice the wrong consistency. Cooking your vegetables first and then using the resulting broth with whatever liquids you add, such as water, sake, or soy sauce, will make your rice flavorful.
Traditional Japanese cooking heavily relies on soy sauce, vinegar, sake, mirin, and dashi. Most dressings or complex sauces are a mix of these basic sauces with additional ingredients like sugar, crushed sesame seeds, or miso. You can make shoyuzuke, or soy sauce quick pickles, by using equal parts vinegar, soy sauce, mirin, and sesame oil as a marinade and letting it stand for a few hours.
While most of these ingredients are soy or rice based and vegetarian, dashi is a more complex ingredient and can pose problems for vegetarians and vegans.
Dashi is a quick 5 minute broth that is typically made from smoked dried bonito flakes (katsuo bushi), small dried sardines (niboshi), and kelp (konbu). To make vegetarian dashi, one can use just the konbu and some mushrooms to add some additional flavor.
Many people nowadays use instant or bottled dashi rather than making their own. These easy options are typically made with fish products, so be aware that if someone says that something contains dashi.
Miso is a very versatile vegetarian ingredient. Be aware that some miso comes prepackaged with dashi added, and that dashi may contain fish products. If you get plain miso, you will have no problems. You can use the miso as a soup base by adding vegetarian dashi to it along with your favorite soup ingredients, or you can use the miso as a sauce by mixing it with sake, mirin, and sugar. The sauce tastes great on tofu or vegetable dishes.