Vegan in Japan

Before going to Japan, I had thought that this country would be the perfect place for vegans and vegetarians, as Japanese are known for eating a lot of tofu, rice, vegetables and, on the whole, healthy things. But they also eat a lot of fish and, unless otherwise specified, the food that you can order at the restaurants and the processed products that you can find at the supermarkets are highly likely to contain fish or fish derivatives. So I basically cooked, and that turned out to save me a lot of money. More or less the same amount that I had to spend today on a new pair of lenses for my glasses because they woke up broken this morning. But that’s a story for future posts!

Back to food, this is what I took home on my first visit to a Japanese supermarket:
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Rice is sold in very large packages, the one you see there is 2 kg and it was the smallest one I could find. It was also easy to find other basics as olive oil (expensive and of poor quality but, as a Spaniard, I can’t cook without it), beans and vegetables. What you see in the blue bowl is seaweed salad. I really like seaweed and in Japan it’s very cheap compared to Europe (100 JPY=0.7 EUR):

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I guess what I got was basically Wakame, which is very rich in calcium, so it is a good source of this nutrient for those who don’t consume dairy products. I like using it in salads: I soak a teaspoon of the dry Wakame from the bag in water for around ten minutes, and it’s then ready to eat.

On my last days in Kyoto I went for more Japanese products:

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It’s hard to believe that I only paid 500 yen (3.6 EUR, 4.9 USD) for all that. Apart from the water, the bananas and the lettuce, you can see:

Nori seaweed: it’s known for being used for wrapping sushi. Usually you should toast it before eating it… unless you are staying at a hostel where there is no easy way to do it, in which case it’s not so bad to eat it as it comes in the package.

Tofu: there were so many kinds of tofu! And so cheap! For the ones who have never tried tofu, remember that it has a special (lack of) taste, so you should try to add some sauce or some spices when you cook it. How to cook tofu? If it’s smoked tofu, I just fry it for some minutes in a pan. If it’s normal tofu (white and fluffy), I boil it for 20 minutes with (optional) a small piece of Kombu seaweed so that it will be softer. Usually, as I’m always cooking some cereal to eat with it, I boil the tofu together with the cereal. That way I save energy, time and another dirty pan.

Umeboshi plums: my biggest addiction. They are pickled Japanese plums with a very sour taste and lots of properties: they can be used against fatigue, hungover, digestive problems… I like them so much that I could add them to every meal. The problem is, in Europe (at least in Germany and Spain), a package like the one in the picture costs around 10 €, although umeboshi vinegar has also similar properties (but less intense flavour) and a small bottle costs 2-3€. But in Japan the plums are very very cheap! I think I had just too many on my days there. Even my mum, who is not exactly a fan of exotic products, always uses umeboshi vinegar in her salads, so you get an idea of how addictive it can be.

Udon noodles: very easy to cook. I just boiled or fried them for a couple of minutes and they were ready to eat. I had never tried them before and I don’t know the prices in other countries, but the ones you see on the picture were just 15 yen (0.11 EUR, 0.15 USD). A great way to save money in Japan!

And this are some examples of what I cooked with those ingredients:

– Beans with umeboshi plums, carrots, rice, nori seaweed and olive oil:

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This is the typical dish that I would have for lunch, because I like having my protein (beans) in the middle of the day in order to have enough energy for the afternoon. As I’ve mentioned before, a way to make it cheaper outside Japan would be using some umeboshi vinegar instead of the plums.

– Spaghetti with tofu, carrots, umeboshi plums, lettuce and nori seaweed:

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I don’t usually eat gluten because it makes me very sleepy, but after a week of having just rice as a carbohidrate source, I felt it was time for some pasta (the only bread I could find in the supermarket had clearly milk or butter on it). This is a quick and easy dish, I just boiled the spaghetti together with the tofu and a carrot. I would have preferred to use buckwheat, millet or quinoa instead of pasta, but they are just too difficult to find in Asia.

– Rice with lettuce, carrots, nori seaweed and tofu (for the road):

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This is similar to what I used to take for lunch when I was working, but in this case I prepared it for my last plane journey. I like to put the rice in the bottom so that the dressing will leak and get there by the time I eat it and make the rice tastier. Ideas for dressing are olive oil, my beloved umeboshi vinegar or lemon juice. Or a combination of olive oil+umeboshi vinegar or olive oil+lemon juice. Lemon juice and umeboshi vinegar are maybe too different to be combined… but I also try that from time to time.

My culinary experiences in Japan end here. For the meat-eaters reading this, I’ll just let you know that you’ll probably only need to be able to point with your finger when you order in a restaurant, because they often have a plastic model of each dish to help you decide. For example, you can order a flying pizza slice:

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Next post: Kyoto and my encounters with cute deers and monkeys. Oh well, just an advance:

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