Photos by Kiely Ramos
In an age of clean, lean and green
dining, Tokyo restaurants are still loath to give meat the chop. But as Stuart Braun
discovers, vegetarian is slowly creeping into the culinary lexicon.
Vegetarianism has long been one of
Tokyos great enigmas, an esoteric domain inhabited by macrobiotic monks and anemic
animal liberationists. The dearth of vegetarian fare has not helped matters, with the
question Niku nukide dekimaska? (Does it come without meat?)
provoking horror and bewilderment on the faces of waiters the city over. Times are
changing though. While 100 percent animal- and seafood-free restaurants remain scant,
spates of vegetarian-friendly eateries are making a green mark on a carnivorous culinary
There are some hard and fast rules for die-hard vegetarians looking to eat out in Tokyo.
To request your meal niku nashi (no meat) will only guarantee that sizable chunks
of cow have been withheld-dont be surprised to find your dish infused with chicken
and bacon, acceptable vegetarian items in many eyes. As for ramen, removing the meat will
still leave the pork broth. While this also applies to your average miso ramen, a number
of ramen shops offer
request your meal niku nashi (no meat) will only guarantee that sizable chunks of cow have
been withheld-dont be surprised to find your dish infused with chicken and bacon,
acceptable vegetarian items in many eyes.
Chiri Mente, with two ramen joints in Shibuya and others dotted around the city, offers
meat-free shiro ramen with rice noodles, fresh tomatoes and spring onions. The same can
rarely be said for soba shops, however, with fish derived bonito flakes dominating most
soba broth-which is a pity since the buckwheat noodles are highly nutritious.
In the quest for beast-free fare, look no further than your traditional wa
(Japanese) eatery. Tofu, edamame (soybeans), tempura vegetables, miso soup, nori
rolls, vegetable sushi, onigiri, daikon salad and namasu (daikon radish and
carrot pickles) are some of an infinite variety of Japanese vegetarian food items
available on most street corners. But again, purists need to watch out for the use of
bonito flakes (katsuobushi) in broth, particularly miso soup. Still, traditional
soup broth will usually only incorporate shiitake mushrooms, konbu and kelp.
|Down to Earth' preperations...
Tokyo is home to a number of dedicated
vegetarian Japanese restaurants such as Guruppe in Ogikubo (run by the natural food store
of the same name) and, at the new wave fusion end, Cafe Eight in Aoyama. Some are so good
they have attracted international attention. Mominoki House in Jingumae is a macrobiotic
restaurant to the stars, providing fresh organic Japanese dishes for visiting veggo
luminaries such as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Variations on the Japanese theme
include Midorie restaurant in Meguro, which includes Italian flavors in predominately
local dishes made from domestically grown organic soybeans and vegetables. Highlights
include fried brown rice (JY800), grilled organic vegetables with three types of sauce
(JY800) and organic wine. Midorie is one of a number of tasty, healthy and
natural organic restaurants-Jingumaes Crayon House remains one of the
best-known-to spring up around a city whose grocery stores and restaurants tend to stock a
lot of bland, genetically modified produce.
Tofu restaurants are another guaranteed vegge-friendly option within the wa culinary
kaleidoscope. Derived from soybeans, tofu is a highly nutritious food that packs plenty of
protein and serves as a good meat substitute. Ume no Hana, in Kita-Aoyama, is a tofu and
yuba specialty restaurant while Tofu-ie specializes in tofu dishes such as dengaku
(charcoal-roasted, dipped in a miso-based sauce), ganmodoki (mashed tofu mixed
with finely cut vegetables and konbu, then formed into patties and deep fried) and gomadofu
(sesame tofu). Most restaurants serve the two most common types of tofu-the soft, fine
textured kinugoshi (filtered through silk), and the slightly thicker textured momen
(filtered through cotton cloth). Hiyayakko-cooled tofu dipped in soy
sauce and condiments-is a popular tofu dish during the summer.
Among the more interesting vegetarian
eating options in Tokyo is the Indian food emporium Nataraj, which offers vegetarian and
some vegan (no meat or dairy products) fare using homegrown organic ingredients at a
reasonable and spiritually fulfilling price. More daring is the Asa restaurant in
Shimokitazawa, featuring a menu derived almost wholly from hemp seeds-hemp chips, hemp
seed salsa, hemp seed tofu, baked vegetables with hemp seed sauce and hemp patty burgers.
While there is meat on the menu, the emphasis is on herb-based dishes that might be
different but are nonetheless high in the protein many other vegetables lack.
Elsewhere, a number of restaurants, while not exclusively vegetarian, offer a rich
selection of meat-free dishes. Down to Earth in Daikanyama is typical of a number of
eateries, found largely in the up-market parts of town, catering to the new wave of
part-time vegetarians looking to heighten their kudos and lower their cholesterol. Down to
Earth offers a number of sprightly salad dishes-organic baby leaf (JY1200) and watercress
and avocado (JY1200)-while main dishes not to be missed include their tasty garden burger
made with a veggie patty (JY1200), vegetarian pita sandwiches (JY1200) and Genovese pasta
(basil pesto, JY1200). These can be complemented with a number vegetarian dips such as the
tofu curry dip with papadums (JY600). The more established Natural Harmony is a forerunner
to this trend, serving meat and fish but forming its reputation on plant-based cuisine.
Try the moroheya tempura, pickled wakame with myoga (a type of ginger),
and stewed winter squash, all served with miso soup-the daily lunch buffet is a great
opportunity to check out the natural goodness. And while the natto omelet with daikon
sauce might sound a tad adventurous, remember that natto (fermented soy beans),
though an acquired taste, has been hailed as the great ameliorative for a number of
maladies, including heart attacks, strokes and cancer. It is also rich in essential B12
vitamins that tend to be lacking in vegetarian diets.
With a keen eye and a discerning palate, Tokyoites can experience a potential
vegetarians paradise. Remember, however, that to request your meal niku nashi is no
guarantee and a bit of research will best ensure that youre not dining from the fat
of the lamb.