If you told my small town eight year old self she’d be living in Japan someday, I don’t think she’d believe it, even if you pinky swore. She couldn’t fathom traveling so far away, crossing the ocean, eating anything but grilled cheese and pizza rolls. Twenty five years later, that now grown woman (me - hi!) eats sticks of fried pickled ginger and rice balls with seaweed and everyday there is something new to see or hear or taste.
Truly I can’t take credit for ending up here. Matt and I wanted to move overseas before settling and he had always dreamt of visiting Japan. He worked hard applying for teaching positions before landing a job in Osaka. I’m beyond lucky to be able to experience living here and though there are bouts of loneliness and adapting, I do my best (though I sometimes need reminding) not to take it for granted.
So, in celebrating my time here, (which has already been 7 months!) I’m sharing what I love about this inspiring country. I’m breaking this post down into five parts starting with the most important:
Before we all get too excited, I’ll preface this by saying, if you’re looking for an extensive list of the best in Japanese Cuisine, you’ll find this post lacking. The main reason is that we’re vegan. Soon after arriving, we realized how difficult (though not impossible) it is to eat a plant based diet. Most things have meat, fish stock or eggs, and we’ve chosen to be an ounce less strict when it comes to things like baked goods and such. I wish I could experience Japanese cuisine in it’s fullest form, trying things like Sashimi, Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki, (though I have tried decent vegan versions of okonomiyaki!), but eating this way is a long standing choice and it works for us, so we eat what we can and cook at home often.
OK - let’s dive in!
These rice balls are a staple here, and you can find them in every ‘konbini’ or convenient store. They are pressed rice balls in a circular or triangle shape stuffed with things like seafood and pickled vegetables and wrapped with nori (seaweed sheets). My favorites are the pickled plum and seaweed. Note that if you get these from a convenient store, there’s a special way to open the packaging that keeps the nori separated from the rice until you eat it. It’s a 1,2,3 system and it took me like 6 months to get it right.
Although another quick peek at eight year old Becca would no doubt show her eating ramen, the cheapo Maruchan chicken flavor noodles, it’s not even a comparison to what ramen actually can be, as most of you experienced people already know. Though not all places have vegan ramen (most use bone broth) I have found some that make me want to cry. Here’s a couple of my favorites:
Towzen or Mamezen in Kyoto has some of the best ramen I’ve ever had. Its all vegan menu consists of a few types of soy milk ramen. You can choose your noodle type and even add things like chlorella and charcoal. I go for the spicy tantanmen.
T’s Tantan in Tokyo Station has this golden sesame ramen and it’s what my dreams are made of. If you like tahini or sesame mixed with creamy noodle-ness, this one is for you. Their whole menu is vegan, and you’ll find a couple locations in Tokyo. The one in the station is a great meal after riding the Shinkansen but note you’ll need to be ‘in’ the station to find it.
WASHO Cooking Class While I haven’t really found the vegan ramen in Osaka, I did have an awesome experience learning how to make my own at a cooking class. We made ramen noodles from scratch and learned how to create the broth, the toppings and seasoning. Highly recommend it. The teacher was knowledgeable and kind and teaches everything from vegan ramen to dim sum, tofu from scratch, traditional Japanese meals, udon noodles and sake (most of the options are meat or veg!)
In the US, our general options for tofu are silken, firm & extra firm, but in Japan, it seems like every time I go to the grocery store, I see a new kind of tofu. (And it’s SO cheap! Our little discount grocery sells blocks for what translates to $0.30!) The world of tofu is so nuanced and complex, I could (well I couldn’t, but some expert could) do a whole post on it. For now, I’m just going to share some of the types that I’ve tried and loved.
KINU (Silken Tofu): This has a custard like texture and is best for raw dishes, or meals where the tofu is added at the end, like in miso soup. Often, when eaten raw, soy sauce or other toppings are added before eating.
ABURAGE: Thin slices of tofu that are deep fried and often used for INARIZUSHI, where the tofu is wrapped around sweetened rice. These are eaten cold and are a great portable meal. I’ve actually just sautéed aburage and added it to salads. I also told my friend Chihiro that I was going to put it on a sandwich and she couldn’t stop laughing, for it’s such an ‘American thing to do.’
YUBA: Tofu skin! I loooove yuba. It’s like a really moist cold lunch meat which, yeah, seems gross but it’s so delicious. You can eat it plain with a bit of soy sauce or add it to soups or nabe.
GOMATOFU: This tofu is actually not made of soybeans but from sesame paste and kuzu flour. I’ve only eaten it raw and cold and the texture to me is similar to kinu tofu, though it has the flavor of sesame. Ahhhhh sesame.
TOFU DONUT: Before moving here, I found tofu donuts online and couldn’t wait to try one. Tofu pulp, Okara, is a byproduct of the soymilk process and is kneaded into the dough. I really can’t taste the tofu at all, and the donuts are similar to cake donuts in the US but less sweet. (Just about every dessert I’ve had here is less sweet than our very rich desserts back home. )
I’m already heartbroken about not having mochi on every corner when I come back to the US. It’s something I’ve fallen in love with. Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made from a short grain glutinous rice. Traditionally, its pounded into a paste in a process called Mochi-tsuki. While you’ll find some staple variations all year round, others are seasonal.
Some of my favorites include:
DAIFUKU - Small round confection in which mochi contains a sweet filling - usually anko, or sweetred bean paste. These are usually white, pink, or light green.
ICHIGO DAIFUKU - A daifuku with a strawberry in it! Ichigo is the Japanese word for strawberry and these are usually found in the springtime. It also contains a filling like anko or cream.
SAKURA MOCHI - A pickled cherry leaf encloses these red bean filled rice cakes. In Tokyo, I hear these confections are smooth, but in the Kansai region where Osaka is, the rice cakes look more lumpy. These are interesting because the rice cake itself is sweet but the picked leaf adds a whole new bite.
WARABI MOCHI - This confection, as I understand it, is not technically mochi because it’s not made from glutinous rice, but from bracken starch. The jelly like texture (chewier though than what I would call the consistency of jello) is coated in Kinako, a roasted soybean powder. (To me the powder tastes like the mild, more boring distant cousin, once removed, from peanut butter powder.)
DANGO - There are many types of dango but essentially it’s a Japanese dumpling made from rice flour. The tri-colored (pink, white, and green) dango is called Hanami Dango and is usually eaten during cherry blossom season. Another notable dango treat that I see quite often is Mitarashi Dango, which has a sweetened thick soy sauce syrup on top.
These Japanese fish-shaped cakes are named after the Japanese red seabream, or Tai fish. They are made of pancake batter and are cooked in a fish shaped mold and filled with sweets like red beans, custard, chocolate or sweet potato. You can find them often at food stalls and festivals!
THE GRAND FINALE: THE 7/11 DONUT
Don’t hate me but one of my favorite things to eat in Japan is a donut from 7/11. If you’ve been here, you’ll know the convenient stores (or konbini) are a world away from what we think of as convenient stores/gas stations in the west. They’re on every corner, they’re clean, they’re reliable, they have printers and fax machines, they have nice bathrooms, they have meals (remember our Onigiri!) While they’re all quite lovely, 7/11 is the home of my donut. It’s an old fashioned plain donut, fried to perfection and half of it is dipped in chocolate. When I realized how difficult it was going to be to get decent vegan desserts here, I tried one of these and instantly felt at home. Growing up in Michigan, cold seasons were a big part of my life, and this donut is like fall and winter in one little dessert. The plain half is everything I love about donuts in Autumn - fresh and light and ready to be dipped in cider. The chocolate half is like nestling into winter, with the richness of baked goods and feel good sweetness. If you’re visiting Japan, I recommend this gem. But! Take note, take heed, take warning: not all chocolate old fashioned donuts are the same. I’ve taken it on as my personal mission to test each one I find, and so far the only one worth crying over is from the almighty 7/11.
And, though this might not be helpful for everyone, if you’re planning a trip to Osaka and want some vegetarian recommendations, these are some of my standby’s:
AJU - I was intimidated by the website but we stumbled into this place one evening and it’s super charming and not pretentious. There’s an English menu, and for lunch they have two options to choose from. For dinner, a more extensive list opens up and you can try things like yakitori and okonomiyaki.
PAPRIKA - They have great veggie and rice bowls, good falafel, and vegan soft serve!
CAFE ATL - This place is so sweet and cute - The menu is limited but the food is great. They make their own seitan which is out of this world and the curry has lentils and an Indian flavor which is nice since I don’t particularly love Japanese curry and lentils are like gold here.
BASE ISLAND This Jamaican influenced restaurant is one of my favorites. The owner is cool, and there are both meat and veg options. It feels like a respite, a little less stuffy than many places. Vibrant, colorful, and the food is flavorful. I recommend the vegan burger in a charcoal bun. And the avocado nuggets omg.
OK FRIENDS I literally can’t talk about food anymore because now all I want to do is EAT.
And truly one could go on and on about the food here, vegan or not. Osaka in particular is known as Japan’s Kitchen, where the Japanese word Kuidaore means to ‘eat oneself into bankruptcy’ or ‘eat oneself into ruin’. I could spend all week diving into different foods, but alas, in this life I’m not a food writer but just an illustrator who likes to eat and share. <3
Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week for Part Two: TRAINS!