Meat-Free Food in Japan

written by Hanie Hidayah June 30, 2015

Japan is known for their high-quality meat, hence the amount of Japanese BBQ, Yakitori and Ramen eateries available at almost every corner. For some people of a certain faith or preference, finding pork/meat free food can be a challenge while traveling. In Japan, there are many options of high quality food that does not contain any meat or pork that every traveler must try.

I have compiled some dishes and desserts that you should try if you don’t or cannot eat meat while traveling in Japan. These dishes or desserts are available almost everywhere. Ordering food can be challenging in Japan as they were mostly written in Japanese! Fret not, just mention the ones below and chances are high that you’ll get it right!

Disclaimer : Food may contain shellfish or alcohol-based ingredients. Please check beforehand on what you can or cannot eat and find out the name of the items in Japanese i.e Mirin (alcoholic).

Zaru Soba noodles with mixed tempura

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Soba (buckwheat) noodles are pretty common in Japan, but if you don’t fancy the harder texture you should opt for the fatter, softer udon instead. They usually come in either hot tsuyu soup, or served cold. I prefer the hot soup, but cold Soba is a must-try if you have not. They’re usually served chilled on a bamboo sieve called Zaru, with some seaweed on top. You eat it by dipping them in a soba tsuyu (a mixture of dashi, soy sauce and sometimes mirin – a type of cooking wine) topped with scallions. In Tokyo, there would be an amount of eating establishments serving a set of Soba, with mixed tempura. The downside is that, most of the best underground places aren’t for tourists. We went to a restaurant in one of the underground shops Shibuya, but they barely spoke English, not even the existence of an English menu. When in Japan, you have be a little more curious and check out street corners for the plastic food window display to know what you’re getting yourself into.

Okonomiyaki

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Okonomiyaki means grill-it-yourself, a do-it-yourself version of food establishments that serves the ingredients raw for you to cook it. The tables are often taken up with a grilling stove in the middle and the food is meant to be shared. They are savoury type of pancakes so the toppings, ingredients and sauces may vary so please check with the restaurant on the choices they offer. The base is made out of flour, grated yam, water or dashi, eggs and grated cabbage. The rest of the ingredients may vary from meat to seafood. Imagine eating a larger and more satisfying Takoyaki. If you’re the type that usually do not like to embarrass yourself in public by cooking an unfamiliar dish, you can still enjoy it by asking the waiting staff to cook it for you. They’d be more than happy to help you with it.

* Please note that other customers might grill meat on the stove too, in case if you’re pure vegetarian/ halal-eater and is against using utensils used for meat. Of course they will thoroughly clean them before new guests arrives.

Onigiri

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Onigiri is a common food in Japan, sold in almost every convenient stores, kiosk and departmental stores. Onigiris are rice balls shaped into a triangular shape, wrapped in seaweed. Onigiris comes in plain or filled with all kinds of stuffing – mentaiko, salmon, tuna, egg and more. This is a great picnic food, or just for a quick fix to snack on. Try out the different onigiris in Lawsons, 7-11 or Family Mart. My favourite is the one in Tokyu Foodshow, Shibuya.

Mille Crepe cake

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I used to think that the French created Mille Crepe, until I found out that they’re essentially Japanese! The thin layer of crepe, made out of flour is layered in between fresh cream and and some, with bourbon liquor. Try out different flavours, some topped with fresh fruits (in Japan fresh fruits are a must-try) or the original flavour. My favourite would be in Le Cafe Dutour, Ginza while watching the crowd crossing, like in Shibuya.

Fresh raw sushi

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There’s nothing better than having fresh sushi served to you right in its home country. It can’t be any fresher when you’re having it right in the fish market on the same day it was caught. Don’t get me wrong, sushi in Japan is generally great but spending a little bit more cash in Tsukiji Fish Market is an unforgettable experience – the taste of fresh uni (sea urchin) and melt in your mouth tuna belly still stays fresh in my mind and might spoil your Japanese food standards hereafter. Look for Sushi Dai, a tiny 8-seater Japanese restaurant within the fish market and pay for the 11-course set. You don’t get to dictate what to have on your plate, but if you love fresh raw fish it’s just perfect for you. Wait to be served, after an amount of queueing (especially during peak hours) and let your tastebuds be tantalised by one of the best sets of sushi you’ll ever have in your life.

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If you’re traveling with a tour group, they will most likely skip this as most of the restaurants in Tsukiji can’t cater to big group of people. The set of sushi is about 3500yen (RM 100/ USD 30), but it was enough to fill us up for lunch. You can, of course, order more if you want to. Sushi served according to availability (catch of the day) and please, learn the right way to eat sushi before you visit Tsukiji or any sushi restaurants in Japan.

Pastries & Baked Goods

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Where should I start on Japanese pastries? They look good, they smell good and they taste absolutely heavenly. I’m not sure if it’s the milk they use, or the Japanese are just cooking Gods in disguise. Walk around town (especially in Shibuya, Harajuku or train stations) and you’ll find plenty of small kiosks and cafes serving all kinds of western pastries done with Japanese perfection. You’ll sometimes find them too pretty to be eaten, but don’t worry as that gives you reasons to get more the next day! My favourites would be waffles with wedged fruits/cream in Shibuya Mark City (just beside Cold Stone ice cream parlor), the plethora of crepe stands in Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori street and cake or tiramisus from typical cafes like Lavazza.

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Seriously, how do you resist such cute sheep shaped bun filled with sweet and salty custard?

Japanese Pasta

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It’s not uncommon for us to eat Japanese pasta in Malaysia as there is Pasta Zanmai but in Japan, expect the ingredients to be better and bigger in quantity. Skip the western pastas and go for the mentaiko or ikura (roe), squid and prawns in cream sauce as well as non-creamy ones. There are plenty of pizzerias and Italian restaurants that serves Japanese pasta like Sbarro, so just do some research and don’t forget the map to these places!

Japanese Convenient Store Snacks

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If you’re in Japan, the best souvenir (for friends, family and yourself!) for you to purchase would be Japanese snacks. There are plenty of places for you to buy these from, even at the airport before you leave the country. Even the western chocolates like Kit Kat have Japanese exclusive flavours according to season. However, I only found the green tea matcha and sakura Kit Kats in the airport while the strawberries and dark chocolates are available in convenient stores. I’d recommend the Pocky sticks in Japan as their flavours are great, thick and they’re available in all kinds of flavours (of course they’re much cheaper in Japan than anywhere else!).

Rice Bowls

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Rice bowls or Donburi (oversized rice bowls) are my favorite choice for a full-fledged lunch in Japan as most of them come in meal sets, which means it’s economical. Yay for Japanese set meals. You could opt for a sit down restaurant, or get rice bowls from convenience stores at almost every street. The choices are usually yakiniku bowls (beef strips in rice bowl at Yoshinoya) but since we’re going meat-free there are plenty of seafood and vegetarian options everywhere. My favorite would be the unagi (grilled eel), omelette with scallions, or fresh raw fish with avocados, peas and roe on top of hot, fluffy steaming rice.

Fresh Grilled Seafood

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During my last trip to Chiba, a small sea-side town near Tokyo I was brought to a local favorite family-owned restaurant where they served fresh seafood and giant live clams grilled right before your eyes. Although it sounds slightly barbaric (and maybe a little morbid when you watch these clams sizzle and die before your eyes), it was the freshest and tastiest clams I’ve had in my life! The flesh were juicy but not hollow with sand and debris, and you could almost taste the salt water when you slurp on the broth from the clam mixed with a slight dash of soy sauce. I know the Japanese love their food freshly caught, and they love cooking it themselves (mostly outside as most Japanese houses are tiny) so there are also fish and seafood options at any local Japanese BBQ restaurants as well.

Japanese Street Snacks

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Like any other cities where walking is part of the lifestyle, Japan has amazing street food culture (and one of the cleanest too). Most of the times, I’ve encountered classic Japanese street snacks around temple grounds where the local stores are bustling with locals and tourists that visited the temples. There were Taiyakis, fish shaped waffle-like casing filled with azuki red beans, fresh-grilled rice crackers, mochi-like snacks with all kinds of fillings you could imagine, home made ice-cream, traditional sweets, and more. Some of the snacks are available throughout every season and some are only available during certain seasons, like the grilled soft sweet potatoes in winter.

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Vegetarian in Japan

If you’re full-on vegetarian, or prefer to eat vegetarian food just to be safe, check out these sites below for lists of vegan-friendly restaurants in Tokyo.

Happy Cow | Never Ending Voyage | Japan Vegan | Vegie Tokyo

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