Being Vegan in Japan 1: History and Challenges
Tasting the local food is an integral part and one of the major joys of traveling to a foreign country. For travelers following dietary choices, no matter if ethically, religiously or health-motivated, a certain amount of preparation is helpful to make the most out of the local culinary experience – at the lowest stress level.
Washoku, an introduction
Traditional Japanese cuisine is famous all over the world. In 2013, washoku was registered as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. 2013 was also the year I first came to Japan, and before booking my flights, I was concerned. Barely speaking the language beyond “yes”, “no” and “I’m sorry” as well as unable to read any kanji, how would I make sure not to ingest any animal products accidentally? As it turns out, getting by in Japan as a vegan is no walk in the park, but quite possible if you’re aware and mindful of the major challenges.
Based on my own experiences and supported by a kind friend’s input from a Japanese perspective, this 3-part series aims to introduce vegan (and vegetarian) travelers to the opportunities and pitfalls of Japanese cuisine.
To get a better understanding of washoku, it’s necessary to go back a bit further than 2013.
Meat, fish and dairy in traditional Japanese cuisine
Historically, meat has played a role of minor importance in Japanese cuisine. It was only after the country’s opening up to the west in the second half of the 19th century that the consumption of meat showed a widespread surge in popularity. And it was even later that dairy appeared and established itself on the culinary stage. It’s still comparatively easy to avoid eating meat and, for the most part, dairy in Japan today. Much easier, in fact, than in many European countries, where a lot of traditional or “typical” dishes revolve around the one piece of meat in the center of the plate, with anything veggie gravitating away from rather than towards it. Avoiding fish, on the other hand, is a different challenge altogether in Japan.
An integral part in many dishes, fish has always featured prominently in Japanese cooking. This is certainly good news for pescatarians, and one could be inclined to think the casting of meat and dairy in mere supporting roles would have taken care of half of the problem already from a vegan point of view. Surely, Japan should score above average on the list of vegan-friendly destinations? Sadly, this isn’t quite the case. And it’s mostly the fault of one culprit: dashi. Dashi is evil. It’s the silent, secret adversary of every vegan visiting Japan.
Dashi and bonito: know your enemies
A fish stock made from bonito (tuna) flakes, dashi is everywhere, from sauces, salad dressings and miso soup to udon and soba noodles being boiled in it. Better restaurants pride themselves on making their own dashi, and they will be inclined to cook even their vegetables in this special broth instead of lovely, ordinary water. Intriguing tofu dishes such as Shira-ae, Unohana and Agedashi become inedible even for vegetarians, especially those unable to inquire as to what their food has been cooked in due to the language barrier. From a vegan perspective, this is, of course, a shame, since Japan is known for its abundance of delicious soy-based foods. But the tofu-related tragedies go beyond dashi.
Choosing a tofu dish from a restaurant’s menu does not guarantee a vegetarian meal, as tofu can just as well accompany the meat instead of replacing it. Even if the tofu is kind enough to come without any meat attached, it might still arrive sprinkled with the courtesy of bonito flakes, the standard topping for many dishes and pretty much every festival food.
If this sounds discouraging, fear not. Parts two and three of this series will provide you with the practical advice necessary to navigate Japan’s culinary landscape as a vegan.