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Here is the guide you’ll need to get started in Japanese vegetarian and vegan cooking! Learn how to build a well-balanced diet, pantry items to stock up, best recipes to get started, and more.
Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, or simply looking to cut back on meat, you’ve come to the right place! Why Japanese cuisine? Because a Japanese vegetarian diet has the potential to be incredibly varied and satisfying. Most importantly, it leans greatly on many superfoods ideal for the plant-based lifestyle.
Here, we’ve put together a guide specifically written for anyone who wishes to expand their repertoire in Japanese vegetarian and vegan cooking.
You’ll find topics such as:
- Essential tips for a well-balanced vegetarian and vegan diets
- Pantry items to stock up
- Most popular Japanese vegetarian and vegan recipes for you to get started
- Substitutions and Resources
We hope this will be your source of excitement and the perfect opportunity to discover new flavors and a whole new culture!
7 Tips for Japanese Vegetarian and Vegan Cooking
1. Build a balanced meal by putting nutrients in mind
Balance has always been the anchor of Japanese cuisine, and this should also be the guiding light for anyone who follows a vegetarian or vegan diet.
In a typical Japanese meal, we focus on putting a variety of foods that include grain, protein, and vegetables. A wholesome diet not only fills you up but ultimately it provides the well-rounded nutrients that your body needs. When you find yourself more satisfied, you don’t feel the need for snacking or craving for sweet sugary treats constantly.
2. Consider flavor & texture
Food has a powerful way to dictate how you feel. When you eat healthy and delicious food, you’ll naturally feel good.
But first, you want your food to be exciting! The first easy way to make vegetables or tofu exciting is to take advantage of little flavor helpers. Sometimes just using enough salt will get you halfway there. Simple touches like a savory glaze of soy sauce can transform almost any meal with great results. Aromatics like garlic, ginger, green onions, or even a sprinkle of sesame seeds would do the trick.
Secondly, texture. Use a mix of vegetables and layer it with your plant protein. When you have both flavor and texture in your meal, you’d feel satisfied.
3. Embrace umami
Since Just One Cookbook is a Japanese recipe blog, the word ‘umami’ is almost the default term we use to describe everything that is full of savory deliciousness or the so-called fifth taste. The natural umami found in meat and seafood is satiating. It makes you crave for the food. That’s why we often hear people say ‘I’m so hungry that I can easily chow down a giant hamburger’.
The good news is Japanese cuisine uses a lot of plant-based ingredients that are high in umami. There are soy sauce, dashi, and miso as the staple seasonings. Then, there are edamame, mushrooms, and edible seaweeds that are full of umami. These ingredients empower you to cook up an everyday Japanese vegetarian meal that is not lacking in flavors.
4. Eat seasonally
The most wonderful thing about vegetarian and vegan cooking is the seasonal bounty. When in-season vegetables and fruits are at their freshest, you can savor their natural sweetness and flavors. they also offer optimal nutrients. So seek out produce from your local farmers’ market if you can. Better still if you preserve the seasonal produce by pickling.
5. Learn different cooking techniques
Challenge yourself and explore various cooking methods like steaming, stir-frying, deep-frying, and simmering. These skills come in handy for Japanese cooking. The same old broccoli can taste wondrously amazing when it gets a new treatment. Besides roasting Kabocha squash, try simmering or stir-frying or deep frying.
When you keep things exciting, it’s easier to follow it through. Your vegetarian and vegan dinners can be a whole lot more fun and inspiring!
6. Swap this for that to make it vegetarian
Don’t turn away immediately when you see a delicious recipe that has a few slices of meat! If something looks good, you can potentially turn it into a vegetarian or vegan food to your liking. For example, my Yakisoba recipe is easily adaptable to vegetarian or vegan. Simply leave out the meat, or swap it with mushrooms. Fancy the sauce I used in this meatball recipe? Use it over your vegetarian meatball.
Drooling over this Wanpaku sandwich? Swap the meat with roasted sweet potato.
7. Fresh ideas
For those who like to follow a template, you can even create easy-to-follow dinner themes for your vegetarian and vegan cooking. With each recipe, there is always room for interpretation so they’ll never become monotonous. Here are just some examples:
- Rice Bowl Monday – Vegan Poke Bowl and Soy-Glazed Eggplant Donburi
- Noodle Tuesday – Soba Noodle Salad or Kitsune Udon or Shiso Garlic Pasta
- One-Pot Wednesday – Vegetarian Japanese Curry or Kabocha Gratin or Curried Mushroom Doria
- Thrifty Thursday – Leftovers (Vegetarian Japanese Curry Udon)
- BBQ Friday OR Hot Pot Friday – Vegetarian style teppanyaki or Shabu Shabu
- Soup & Salad Saturday or Sandwich Saturday – Kabocha miso soup or Tofu Salad with Sesame Ponzu Dressing
- Street Food Fun Sunday OR ‘Ichiju Sansai’ Sunday – Indulge in your favorite Japanese street foods such as Vegetarian Okonomiyaki or Vegetable Gyoza or Vegetable Tempura. Or take the time to make a full spread of Japanese meal. Read our Ichiju Sansai post for vegetarian ideas.
Pantry Ingredients To Stock
The Japanese pantry items are not much different for non-vegetarian cooking, but we’ve highlighted some staples that will become your new best friends in the kitchen!
- Soy sauce
- Rice vinegar
- Dashi (Japanese soup stock) – Kombu Dashi or a combination with Dried Shiitake Mushrooms!
- Sesame oil
- Rice and noodles – Japanese short-grain rice, soba, udon, shirataki, harusame (Japanese glass noodles), pasta
- Mushrooms – Shiitake, shimeji, king oyster, enoki, matsutake, and maitake, etc
- Tofu & tofu products such as aburaage
- Edamame and soybeans
- Edible seaweeds such as wakame seaweed, hijiki seaweed, nori seaweed
- Japanese curry roux
- Shichimi Togarashi and Yuzu Kosho – for a kick of spice
For More Resources, read:
- 26 Japanese Ingredients Pantry Ingredients to Add to Your Shopping List
- Discover Seaweed: The Essential Ingredient of the Japanese Diet
- Top 5 Japanese Superfoods
- Ingredient Substitution for Japanese Cooking
Good to Know – Buddhist Temple Cuisine
It’s also worth noting that the vegetarian and vegan diet has a long history in the Japanese food culture, and the best example is the Buddhist Temple Cuisine known as shōjin ryōri (精進料理).
Introduced by the Buddhist monks around 552 CE, Shiojin Ryori was once the dominant diet in Japan and the consumption of meat and fish was not allowed.
The cuisine is guided by a broad philosophical ethos and makes the best of seasonal and umami ingredients, and this has largely influenced the broader vegetarian cuisine in Japan. We’ll need a separate post to talk about Shiojin Ryori itself, but if you’re vegetarian or vegan, you will want to check out the temple cuisine when visiting Japan.
Most Popular Vegetarian Recipes to Get You Started
You’ll find a scrumptious collection of our fan-favorites, which includes vegetarian ramen, vegan poke bowl, vegetable gyoza, vegetarian curry, and more!
More Vegetarian & Vegan Adaptable Recipes You’ll Like:
Questions or Recipe Request?
We’d love to hear from you! Leave your questions or any vegetarian/ vegan recipe requests in the comment box below.