So you're now a vegetarian or a vegan. Trouble is, you've been invited to dine, or you've found yourself at a Japanese restaurant, and you don't know what to do. Perhaps you've eaten Japanese food before and loved it, but think you can't get much of anything now, or you've never eaten Japanese food before and think you won't be able to get past the raw or cooked fish.
I've eaten at Japanese restaurants most of my life, because my parents discovered Japanese food long before sushi became trendy. I had to learn the hard way how to order once I became a vegetarian, but, with a little willingness to ask questions, you'll find it's not too hard. You may say "But Amy, there's no Japanese restaurant within 50 miles of where I live!" Well, OK, but since you never know what the future will bring, you can't say for certainty that you will never
eat at a Japanese restaurant.
First and foremost, see if you can get a copy of the restaurant's menu so you're well armed beforehand. However, as with any other type of restaurant, talking to the restaurant staff before or during your ordering process will be a big help. And remember that Japanese cuisine, once the animal flesh is removed, is inherently vegan (except for the egg batter for the tempura, which, you'd be interested to know, the Japanese actually got from Portugese missionaries). The problem is, fish and other sealife are so important a part of Japanese cuisine that they can pop up somewhere if you forget to ask if what you're ordering contains fish. They might say "just some bonito flakes". Ask them if they can take that out. Bonito is a fish.Appetizers
: These days there will be edamame included. Edamame is green soy beans, steamed in the pod and salted. If you don't see it on the menu, still ask if they have it. I've eaten at one place where it's not listed, but they serve it anyway if asked. Pop the beans out of the pods like you would peas, and discard the pods. This is where you'll get most of your protein.
If you still can't get edamame, there are still salads. Sunomono is a pickled cucumber and seaweed salad. Be sure to tell them cucumber only; don't add shrimp or anything else. Tsukemono is a pickled cabbage salad. That's good, too. Again, make sure they don't add any sealife to it. One restaurant I frequent also offers a seaweed salad. Who knew there were so many different kinds of seaweed! If you really want to experience Japanese cuisine, it's worth a try. Ask your server if they can make you something like that if you don't see it on the menu.
This same place offers tofu steak and tofu salad as an appetizer. I've had these; they tend to be a little too bland for my taste, but if you want to make sure you're not missing out on protein at this meal, they're a possibility.
Also often listed in the appetizers section is vegetable tempura. These are vegetables cooked in an egg batter, so it's suitable only for non vegans. You may not see it listed in the appetizers section, but will usually be offered as an entree, either as plain vegetable or vegetable and shrimp. You can order it without the shrimp.
Now, the miso soup. It's like chicken soup in the West; Japanese people live on this stuff, and it's considered good for one's health. The tricky part? It's often made with a fish base, or with fish added to the base. Ask your server what kind of base they use, and if they admit to using fish, ask if they can make you a soup with a strictly vegetable base. Some restaurants are very accomodating; I ate at one place in San Francisco that made, especially for me and my sister, a HUGE bowl of vegetarian miso soup with tons of vegetables. If you are able to order vegetarian miso soup, consider asking for extra tofu, if you're still worried about getting some protein in your meal.The Entrees:
Unfortunately, this is where you can get stuck. There is usually little to be ordered from this section. If you're lacto-ovo, you can usually order vegetable tempura, either listed by itself or with shrimp (hold the shrimp). Please note: They will include a special dipping sauce for the tempura. However, there are other possibilities: for example: Sukiyaki. Sukiyaki is a stew (really, more of a soup, since it has a lot of liquid in the pot) made usually from a beef base, with tons of vegetables and the animal flesh of one's choice. However, at one place I've eaten (with prodding from my omni mother), I asked the owner if it was possible to get sukiyaki made from a vegetable base, with no beef or any other kind of meat. Voila! They delivered! A nice, big vegetarian sukiyaki with tons of vegetables and tofu, which I couldn't finish and had to take home. Another possibility: Yakuniku, which is Japanese shishkabob. Most of them include animal flesh, but some places offer just a vegetable yakuniku. Again, ask for it if you don't see it on the menu.Sushi:
No need to miss out now that you're a veg*an. Take a good, close look at their sushi menu. It will list such items as:
Egg (for the non-vegans). (Tamago) This is a piece of cooked egg wrapped with seaweed. I've eaten it when I was still lacto-ovo and enjoyed it.
Cucumber rolls: (Kappa Maki) Cucumber and rice wrapped in seaweed. This is mostly what I ate as a new vegetarian and hadn't learned the ropes of Japanese restaurant ordering yet. A lot of places will offer a cucumber roll Dinner consisting of 18 rolls with soup, salad and rice. The last time I had that, I managed to down 15 rolls before I pooped out.
Don't get the Kappa Maki mixed up with the Tekka Maki, which is tuna roll.
Vegetable rolls: (Yasai-Maki) Ah, here we go! cucumber, avocado, mushrooms, carrots, sea vegetables, you name it, with rice, wrapped in seaweed! My fave! I order this wherever I go. All veggies, dipped in soy sauce mixed with wasabi (the green stuff you see on your plate), and yes, go easy on the wasabi or it'll take you into orbit for a couple of minutes.
Other possibilities: Pickled plum roll, made with plum paste, mint leaf and cucumber. Pickled Daikon roll, made with pickled Japanese radish.
What NOT to order: Don't bother with the California roll. If this is a place where there are photos on display of the variety of sushi they offer, the California roll will look vegetarian. It's not. It will usually include something like crab or fish eggs.
If you think you're still going to be hungry, don't forget to ask for a bowl of steamed rice. You may not be used to the stickness of Japanese rice, but I've found I prefer it to other types of rice. If you are able to order a vegetarian sukiyaki, eat your rice just like the Japanese do: either pour some soy sauce, or, better yet, pour a little sukiyaki sauce, on the rice, plop some veggies and tofu on top, and enjoy!
Don't worry about figuring out how to work the chopsticks; after all these decades, I still can't quite get the hang of 'em, so I just muddle along eating my meal the best I can. If you're really having trouble, just ask for a fork. No biggie.