Culture Tuesday: an Exploration of Japanese Cuisine

Culture Tuesday is a weekly column in which Best of Vegan Editor Samantha Onyemenam explores different cultures’ cuisines across the globe through a plant-based and vegan lens. Before you start exploring vegan Japanese cuisine with her today, you might want to click here to read her column about Singaporean cuisine, here to read her column about Indian cuisine, and here to read her column about Jamaican cuisine.

Culture Tuesday – Japanese Cuisine

Washoku (Japanese Cuisine) is a cuisine that encompasses fresh seasonal plant-based ingredients. Between the 6th century and late-1800s, the cuisine was (mostly) plant-based due to the shunning, or discouragement, of eating meat in the Buddhist and Shinto religions – the two most dominant religions in Japan. Even those who did not practice either religion adhered to a plant-based diet as consuming meat (including fish) was not a cultural practice within the nation.

The meatless culture of ancient Japan stemmed from both religious and practical beliefs. Those who practiced Buddhism and Shintoism held strong beliefs concerning respect for life. In addition to this, Buddhists believe in reincarnation and the possibility of being reincarnated as an animal after death. For this reason, abstaining from consuming meat was a way to ensure that one does not unknowingly eat their ancestors who might have been reincarnated as an animal. For practical reasons, the people of ancient Japan avoided breeding and raising animals for food because of space limitation, their usefulness on farms, and the fact that the people got the useful nutrients (now popularly sought in animal products/by-products) in plant sources.

Vegan Japanese Cuisine: Sushi
Abura age maki zushi. Image credit: @kyotochef. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

The cultural cuisine began to shift from solely meals made from seasonal plant-based ingredients to somewhat westernized meals in the 16th century when Portuguese missionaries migrated to Japan. During their time in Japan, they influenced the nation’s cuisine through the introduction and spread of aspects of their own culture, both those that could be maintained as plant-based and those that, during those times, were not made in a plant-based way. These introduced dishes, such as tempura, are what the locals from Kyoto refer to as, ‘waka.’

Between the VI-XIX centuries, Japanese cuisine was (mostly) plant-based due to the shunning, or discouragement, of eating meat in the Buddhist and Shinto religions – the two most dominant religions in Japan.

Despite the noticeable change in cuisine after the arrival of the Portuguese missionaries, the general Japanese cuisine remained rather simple, fresh, seasonal, and plant-based until Emperor Meiji opened Japan up to more Western influences in the late-1800s. The exposure to other cultures led to levels of comparison (such as the physique of Japanese locals compared to others) that resulted in a shift in cuisine. Japan began to adopt cooking practices and dishes from nearby nations, such as China and Korea as well as those from Europeans and (continental) Americans. However, many locals still choose to adhere to the previous culture and religious practices of the nation.

Vegan Japanese Cuisine: Miso Soup
Miso Soup. Image credit: @bentoyacooking. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

The Makings of a Meal

‘Ichijū Sansai’ (one soup, three dishes), is a term which refers to the foundation of a traditional Japanese meal. These meals consist of gohan (rice), shiru (soup), okazu (one main and two side dishes), and kuono mono (pickled seasonal vegetables). The rice and pickled vegetables are not included in the term describing a typical Japanese meal because they are staples that are always included as part of meals in the cuisine.

The practice of Ichijū Sansai stems from the meal-serving system, Honzen Ryōri. Honzen Ryōri, a simplified version of the Shichigosanzen/Gogosanzen cooking style of the Edo Shogunate, was a banquet style of eating previously reserved for nobles and samurais during the Muromachi period (1336-1573). During this time, a range of elaborate dishes were served in an arrangement on zen (legged trays/tray tables). They were presented to those of the classes they were prepared for in sets of 3, 5, or 7 – the honzen (main zen), ninozen (second zen), sannozen (third zen) and yonozen (fourth zen), gonozen (fifth zen), and so on.

The Honzen Ryōri style of eating was further simplified over the years to make it more suited to everyday meals regardless of the time of day thereby forming the ‘one soup three dishes,’ Ichijū Sansai, a more modern style of eating.

Vegan Japanese Cuisine: Breakfast
Japanese Breakfast: Steamed rice with homemade sour plum, ombu namul, radish pickle w/yuzu and chili, raw seaweed tossed in sweet soy sauce, braised burdock and carrot. Image credit: @pascalestable. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

The Heart of the Meal – Rice

Rice is the most valued crop in Japan as it is a staple part of the cuisine, cheap, relatively easy to cultivate and it is filling even small quantities. It is such a central part of the cuisine that it is used as both a meal, condiment, seasoning, drink, and ingredient as it is processed into liquid, whole, and powdered/floured forms. The four most common forms it can be found in are hakumai (short grain sticky white rice – the most commonly eaten), genmai (short grain brown rice), multigrain rice (such as mugi gohan – rice and barley, or juhachikoku – an 18-grain mixture including rice) and mochigome (also known as glutinous rice, sticky rice, and mochi rice). 

Rice is such a central part of Japanese cuisine that it is used as both a meal, condiment, seasoning, drink, and ingredient.

The various types of rice are used to make drinks and ingredients such as sake (rice wine), rice vinegar, rice flour, and nuka (rice bran). As well as dishes like gohan (plain cooked rice), mochi (chewy rice cakes made from glutinous rice flour), makizushi (rolled sushi), nigirizushi (hand-formed sushi), onigiri (rice balls wrapped in nori seaweed), inari (aburaage/bags of deep-fried tofu skin filled with rice), chazuke (a dish consisting of hot water, tea or stock poured over rice and topped with umeboshi – pickled fruit or pickled vegetables), kayu (rice porridge), donburi (plain cooked rice topped with stewed ingredients) tempura or katsu, chahan (fried rice), nukazuke (rice bran pickles) and komepan (rice bread).

Snacks and treats are also made using rice. These include senbei (rice crackers), daifuku (sweet red bean paste filled mochi), ohagi (sweetened red bean paste filled coarse pounded mochigome, and kushi-dango (skewered mochi dumplings).

Vegan Japanese Cuisine: Bento
Bento Box: vegan fried egg (turmeric tofu) rice, tofu steak, steamed broccoli, pickled okra, sweet corn. Image credit: @pascalestable. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Tempura

Tempura are crispy pieces of lightly battered and deep-fried foods that were introduced to the Japanese people in Nagasaki by the Portuguese missionaries. The batter can be made by combining plain flour and cornstarch with ice-cold water. It is eaten as both a main dish and side dish as well as a topping for rice dishes such as donburi or similar dishes made from noodles.

Some common plant-based tempura are kabocha tempura (pumpkin tempura), satsumaimo tempura (sweet potato tempura), nasu tempura (aubergine/eggplant tempura) and kinoko (mushroom tempura).

Vegan Japanese Cuisine: Tempura
Vegan Tendon (tempura bowl). Image credit: @cookingwithyoshiko. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

The Beloved Curry

Karē, Japanese curry, is a popular dish both within and outside Japan. It was introduced to Japan by the Europeans during the Meiji Period, when the nation was initially opened to international influences and relations. However, its roots are found in Indian cuisine as it is based on a curry spice mixture (curry powder) invented by Europeans which was based on the ingredients used in Indian curries. These powders were altered to suit the tastes of the Japanese locals and further adapted into the curry roux brick form now commonly found.

The roots of Japanese curry are found in Indian cuisine as it is based on a curry spice mixture (curry powder) invented by Europeans which was based on the ingredients used in Indian curries.

The base of the curry, unlike Indian curries, is usually a blend of vegetables and root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, and onions. The curry is then flavored and thickened using a curry powder and/or curry roux brick and cooked down till it reaches a relatively thick consistency. When done cooking, it is usually served as karē raisu (curry rice) as it is often accompanied by a serving of rice as well as pickled vegetables such as spring onions (green onions/scallions), ginger, or radish.

Various karē dishes exist, but one of the most popularly found dishes is the katsu karē. Katsu karē is a dish consisting of the Japanese curry served with rice and topped with katsu – crispy pieces of breaded deep-fried foods such as tofu, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, aubergines/eggplant, or seitan.

Vegan Japanese Curry
Vegan Japanese Curry. Image credit: @bylisakitahara. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Tofu

Dofu (Tofu) is a rather important part of the Japanese cuisine despite its origins being in China. It is made by compressing curdled soy milk to push out excess liquid and form a block.  It has a subtle taste that easily absorbs any flavors introduced to it. Depending on the amount of moisture pressed out of it, tofu can be found as soft/silken tofu, firm tofu, or extra firm tofu.

Vegan Japanese cuisine uses tofu in dozens of ways: it’s deep-fried, freeze-dried, soaked and marinated, cooked in soup, breaded, used as dumpling filling or noodle topping, and eaten hot and cold.

It can also be found as aburaage (deep-fried tofu skin/thin sheets of tofu), atsuage (deep-fried blocks/cubes of tofu), tofuyo (fermented tofu made by soaking tofu in awamori liquor and malted rice), and koyadofu (freeze-dried tofu). These forms of tofu are used to make a wide range of dishes such as those aforementioned dishes as well as miso soup (a soup made from fermented soybean paste and often including cubes of tofu and seaweed), yudofu (tofu cooked in soup that is boiling then dipped in soy sauce of ponzu/citrus-flavored soy sauce just before being eaten), agedashidofu (deep-fried breaded tofu in a soy sauce broth), tofu shogayaki (tofu ginger stir-fry), vegetable gyoza (vegetable dumplings), and kitsune udon/soba/ramen (an udon/soba/ramen noodles topped with sweetened deep-fried tofu).

Tofu and Eggplant Ginger Stir Fry
Tofu and Eggplant Ginger Stir Fry (shogayaki). Image credit: @veggie.gohan. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Noodles

The three most commonly eaten noodles in Japanese cuisine are udon, soba, and ramen. Udon noodles are thick noodles made from wheat flour while soba noodles are thinner flat/strip noodles made from buckwheat flour and ramen noodles are even thinner string noodles made from wheat. They are used in similar and different ways to make a range of dishes.

Some common udon dishes are kake udon (udon noodles in a hot broth), tempura udon (kake udon topped with tempura), karē udon (udon served in a bowl of curry), chikara udon (kake udon with the addition of mochi rice cakes), yaki udon (stir-fried udon noodles), and zaru udon (cold udon noodles served on a bamboo mat and dipped in a sauce prior to being eaten). 

One of the most popular soba dishes is yakisoba. However, this dish is not made from traditional soba noodles. A common soba dish made with the traditional noodles is kake soba (soba noodles in a hot broth). This, and the soba variants of all the aforementioned udon dishes, are also common Japanese meals as well as those that are a ramen variant.

Vegan Yaki Udon (Japanese Stir-fried Udon Noodles)
Yaki Udon (Japanese Stir-fried Udon Noodles). Image credit: @plantbased_matters. Click on the image above to view the full post on Instagram.

Recipe – Vegan Omurice

Omurice (Omelette Rice) is a popular Japanese dish which, although part of the cultural cuisine, is a fusion of the Western omelette with chahan (Japanese fried rice). In this recipe, Liz Miu (@itslizmiu on Instagram) walks you through her method for making a delicious vegan omurice.

Vegan Omurice (オムライス) by Liz Miu

Vegan Omurice

Click here to see the full recipe.

Author: Samantha Onyemenam.

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