Niku nashi

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 Tokyo’s 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 landscape.

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-don’t 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

To request your meal niku nashi (no meat) will only guarantee that sizable chunks of cow have been withheld-don’t be surprised to find your dish infused with chicken and bacon, acceptable vegetarian items in many eyes.

vegetable-based stock. 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.

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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-Jingumae’s 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.

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...and earthy veggo-friendly interior

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 vegetarian’s paradise. Remember, however, that to request your meal niku nashi is no guarantee and a bit of research will best ensure that you’re not dining from the fat of the lamb.

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Vegg-ing out

Down to Earth
2-5 Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya-ku.
Tel: 03-3461-5872. Open: 11:30am-3:30pm, 6:00-11:00 (last order) Mon-Sat. Nearest stn: Daikanyama

Kitazawa Bldg 3F, 2-18-5 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 03-3412-4118. Open: 5pm-12am Thur-Tue. Nearest stn: Shimokitazawa

Natural Harmony
Pazuru Aoyama 1F, 3-38-12 Jingumae, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3405-8393. Open 11:30am-2:30pm, 5:30-10:00pm daily. Nearest stn: Gaienmae

Cafe 8
34-27-15 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-5464-3207. Open Tue-Sun, closed Wed.
Lunch 11am-3pm, cafe 3-6pm, dinner 6-9:30pm, bar, weekdays 10pm-1am, weekends 10pm-3am. See Nearest stn: Omotesando

Sanyo Akasaka Bldg 1F, Akasaka 3-5-2, Taito-ku. Tel: 3582-1028. Open: 11:30am-1:30pm, 5-10:30pm (last order) Mon-Fri. Nearest stn: Akasaka

Ume no Hana
Bell Commons 6F, 2-14-6 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 3475-8077. Open: 11:30am-3pm, 5pm-9pm daily. Nearest stn: Gaienmae

Sanwa-Aoyama Bldg B1F, 2-22-19 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Open: 11:30am-3pm, 6-11pm Mon-Fri, 11:30am-11:30pm Sat, Sun and hols. Nearest stn: Gaienmae

Mominoki House
2-18-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3405-9144. Open 11am-10pm Mon-Fri, 3-10pm Sat and hols. Nearest stn: Harajuku

Gakugeidaigaku Sky Scraper 1F, 2-21-10 Takaban, Meguro-ku. Tel: 03-5721-6655. Open: 11:30am-10pm. Nearest stn: Gakuei-daigaku

5-27-5 Ogikubo, Suginami-ku. Tel: 03-3393-1224. Open: 5-9:30pm (last order) Tue-Sat. Nearest stn: Ogikubo

Crayon House
3-8-15 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku. Tel: 3406-6409. Open: 11am-9pm (last order) daily. Nearest stn: Omotesando

Chiri Mente
2-23-10 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku. Tel: 03-3461-3848. Open: 10am-12pm. Nearest stn: Shibuya
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