Japanese Vegetarian Food Guide: How to Savor Japan's Cuisine
Japan is known for its incredible cuisine with a large variety of dishes for every taste. If you’re a vegetarian visiting Japan, or simply interested in Japanese cuisine, you may be wondering about the Japanese vegetarian food options available. You’ll be pleased to know that the options are extensive—from vegetable tempura to sushi filled with pickled vegetables, hot pots brimming with tofu and fresh vegetables to healthy noodle and rice dishes.
Here’s a rundown of some common non-vegetarian Japanese ingredients to look out for, and a guide to some of the most popular dishes you can enjoy as a vegetarian in Japan with little or no adjustment.
Non-Vegetarian Ingredients to Note
As seafood has historically been an essential component of the Japanese diet, many people in Japan don’t consider fish or seafood as meat, so in addition to requesting no meat—“niku nashi”, you can also request no seafood—“sakana nashi”.
A key ingredient in many Japanese dishes is dashi, a stock made with katsuoboshi (bonito fish flakes), dried fish, kombu seaweed or shiitake mushrooms, so if your dish features dashi, you may want to make sure a fish-free variety is used. Katsuoboshi are also commonly used as a condiment on top of dishes—to request no bonito flakes are used, you can say “katsuoboshi nashi”.
Common Japanese Vegetarian Food Options
Tempura is a Japanese dish of battered and deep-fried ingredients. There are many vegetable options available at tempura restaurants, making it an extremely vegetarian-friendly meal. Popular ingredients include renkon (lotus root), sweet potato, eggplant, kabocha pumpkin, mushrooms, asparagus, gobo (burdock root), broccoli, green peppers, and shiso (perilla) leaves. Tempura comes with a light dipping sauce made from soy sauce, mirin and dashi, so be sure to request a non fish-based dashi if you don’t eat fish products.
While most people equate sushi with raw fish, there are a number of vegetarian types of sushi. Sushi rolls, known as maki-zushi, come in many vegetarian varieties—kappa-maki (cucumber rolls), natto-maki (fermented soybean rolls), avocado rolls, shiitake mushroom rolls, and oshinko (pickled Japanese radish) rolls. Gunkan-maki, sometimes called a “battleship roll”, is a ball of rice wrapped with nori seaweed and featuring a variety of toppings. Many of these toppings are vegetarian-friendly, such as seaweed salad, sautéed mushrooms, and potato salad.
Another vegetarian option is inari-zushi, a pouch of sweetened deep-fried tofu filled with sushi rice.
Tamago nigiri, or “egg sushi” is yet another vegetarian sushi option—a ball of rice topped with a sweet seasoned omelet. If you’re a strict vegetarian or particular about fish-based products, be sure to check if the restaurant uses a fish-based dashi for their omelets.
Vegetarian Yakitori and Kushikatsu
Skewered foods are very popular in Japan. This includes yakitori (also known as kushiyaki)—skewers of ingredients grilled over an open flame, and kushikatsu (also known as kushiage)—skewers of breaded ingredients that are deep-fried and served with a sweet and savory dipping sauce. Like tempura, yakitori and kushikatsu offer many vegetable options, such as mushrooms, green peppers, onion and eggplant, as well as some other ingredients that aren’t found in tempura, like mochi (rice dumplings) and gingko nuts.
Hot Pots and Soups
Japanese hot pots are a delicious and filling meal of ingredients cooked in steaming broth. One style of hot pot, called “shabu-shabu”, is a particularly good option for vegetarians as you cook the ingredients yourself tableside, so you have control over what you eat. Nabe is another popular type of hot pot often filled with tofu and vegetables, although it may feature meat or seafood, so you’ll need to ask for “niku nashi” and “sakana nashi”. For both types of hot pot, you may also want to check if a vegetarian dashi, such as kombu dashi or shiitake dashi is used.
Miso soup, one of the essential dishes of Japanese cuisine, is a delicious and highly nutritional soup made with fermented soybean paste and either hot water or dashi. Like with the hot pots, you should make sure to request a vegetarian dashi broth.
Soba, Somen & Other Japanese Noodles
Japan has a number of characteristically vegetarian noodles dishes. These include chilled noodles served with a dipping sauce, such as zaru soba (buckwheat noodles) and somen (thin white noodles similar to vermicelli), as well as dishes of hot noodles served in soup, like kitsune udon (thick flour noodles topped with sweet and salty fried tofu). A fish-based dashi may be used in the preparation of the dipping sauces or the soup broth, so be sure to ask if vegetarian dashi is available.
Maze-gohan, Onigiri & Other Japanese Rice Dishes
Japanese rice dishes are good vegetarian options, both delicious and filling. Maze-gohan, is a dish of various ingredients mixed together with cooked rice, and takikomi-gohan or kama-meshi features ingredients cooked together in a pot with rice. Some common mixed rice dishes are edamame-gohan (soybeans mixed with rice), kuri-gohan (Japanese chestnut rice), and takenoko-gohan (rice cooked with young bamboo shoots).
The omnipresent triangle-shaped rice balls—onigiri—are not only cheap and readily available at convenience stores and supermarkets, but are often filled with ingredients such as umeboshi (pickled plum), kombu seaweed braised in soy sauce, and takana (sautéed mustard greens). Ochazuke, a dish of cooked rice and toppings with green tea poured over it, is another good rice-based vegetarian option, but you may want to check that no seafood is included in the toppings.
You can find many tofu dishes on the menu at Japanese restaurants, such as yudofu (hot tofu cooked in a dashi broth), hiya-yakko (chilled tofu with toppings—make sure to ask the restaurant to leave off the bonito fish flakes), miso-glazed tofu, agedashi tofu (fried tofu served in a dashi broth), and goma-dofu made from sesame rather than soybeans.
Common Vegetable-Based Sides & Salads
At many different restaurants you can find side dishes that are vegetarian-friendly. Salted edamame, and chips made from gobo (burdock root) or renkon (lotus root) are popular snacks.
Tsukemono are pickled vegetables, and are widely available. Aemono are dressed salads, with some popular varieties including shira-ae (mashed tofu) and goma-ae (sesame). Ohitashi are blanched vegetables in a dressing of dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. Ohitashi are often garnished with bonito fish flakes, so you may want to request it without the fish flakes.
There’s many vegetarian-friendly Japanese salads, such as hiyashi tomato (chilled tomato), kinpira gobo (carrot and burdock root), namasu (daikon and carrot) and Japanese potato salad. Japanese potato salad can sometimes include bits of ham, so be sure to ask before ordering.
Vegetarian Versions of Popular Japanese Dishes
Other popular dishes such as okonomiyaki (a savory pancake of mixed ingredients) and monjayaki (a pan-fried batter similar to okonomiyaki), can be requested to be made without meat. Just remember to specify “sakana nashi” in addition to “niku nashi” if you’re particular about fish-based products. Gyoza (Japanese fried dumplings) often also come in vegetarian-friendly varieties, containing a mixture of tofu, mushrooms, cabbage and spinach.
Japanese Vegetarian Dishes are Delicious and Diverse
While vegetarianism is still relatively new to Japan, Japanese cuisine and restaurants all have a wide variety of vegetarian-friendly options. Look for dishes with a focus on vegetables, tofu, and rice, and be sure to ask if the restaurant offers vegetable-based dashi broth. If you need assistance with finding a vegetarian restaurant while in Japan, Gurunavi’s Japan Restaurant Guide can filter search results for Vegetarian Menu Options to help you enjoy Japan to the fullest while meeting your dietary needs. Itadakimasu!