When you travel to Japan, it is not difficult to realize how uncommon the plant-based diet is in their culture. Japanese meals are typically with rice as their main staple, a variety of vegetables, different kinds of seaweed, and a moderate amount of animal protein from the sea or land.
However, cooking vegan Japanese food can actually show us the characteristics of Japanese cuisine more clearly—its elegance, beauty and deeply nourishing deliciousness. We can taste the crux of Japanese cuisine directly in the art of vegan food, as we would experience a complexity that stimulates our different senses through its simplicity.
And it is not difficult to make such authentic and delicious vegan Japanese food in your own kitchen! All that it requires is some mindfulness. And with the 7 essentials I present here, you will have a real Japanese cuisine experience at home.
1. Cooking rice
Rice is the major staple food in a Japanese diet, and Japanese people LOVE rice! Over centuries, Japanese people bred the rice to make a more resilient sort to endure the climate, but also they dedicated to create a more delicious variety. There are different rice brands in Japan, and people have their preference. Around November, there is even an excitement in the air, as there is the new harvested rice on the market.
In Japan, rice is cultivated in wetlands. Therefore, it is rich in all elements—earth, air, water, and fire. In the springtime, the seedlings are planted in the muddy earth covered with water. This water and the intense sun in the summertime will grow the plants. By the fall, the earth is dried and the harvest season arrives. In old times, people harvested by hand, then hung the rice plants on the outdoor rack to dry the grain in the air and sun. Therefore, in the grain, blessings and the energy of nature are concentrated, and it has been nourishing Japanese people’s body and soul.
Although a majority of Japanese people prefer and tend to eat more white rice today, I recommend brown rice, since it is a complete food with so much more nutrients. Especially for the vegan and vegetarian diet, brown rice can substitute many nutrients which are contained in animal food. On top of it, brown rice is so much more delicious! Brown rice, with its rice bran and germ, has many more vitamins and minerals compared to that of white rice. For example, 12 times more Vitamin E, 5 times more Vitamin B1, 4.8 times more Magnesium, and more (Reference here). Besides this, as it has 6 times more fiber, the absorption of sugar in carbohydrates goes much slower. The rice bran has a strong detoxing ability and it is very helpful to cleanse our intestine and keep our gut healthy.
In fact, I am actually called the Brown Rice Baby by my mother. As my mother struggled with infertility for eight years, she was told by her Eastern medicine doctor to eat brown rice. And I was born! Its complete nutrients are supportive for overall well-being, including the flow of Qi, as well as health of the reproductive organs.
But here is an important thing to remember. As much as the brown rice has wonderful nutrient contents, to let them be absorbed well into our body, we have to soak the grain before we cook it. This is one of the most important points of cooking brown rice. By soaking it for over 8 hours, it becomes easier for our body to digest, and becomes surprisingly more delicious as well.
You can learn how to cook brown rice here.
2. Seasoning basics
Here are 8 essential seasonings for Japanese cooking which I always want to have in my kitchen.
- Sea Salt
- Soy sauce
- Brown rice vinegar
- Ume plum vinegar
- Sesame oils
I would say that the first three listed are the absolute musts. You can cook Japanese food without the second four by substituting (i.e. brown rice vinegar to another type of vinegar, or mirin to maple syrup) or just cooking without them. But they definitely add special flavor and aroma of the authentic Japanese cuisine. If possible, I highly recommend to get all of them in the organic quality. Many of these seasonings are fermented products. When you don’t get organic, it is very likely that they are not made with a natural fermenting process but quickened for the mass production, or even made to taste similar but with some additives. For example, in the United States, I recommend the companies such as Oshawa, Mitoku, and Eden, which create high quality organic Japanese ingredients, and that are accessible nationwide.
Here are short descriptions for each of the ingredients below:
Sea Salt: Although I love and often use Himalayan salt, for Japanese cooking, I recommend to get salt from the sea which is as pure and clean as possible. Himalayan salt has a rather sharp flavor, and it does not suit to Japanese cuisine, which is compatible with a gentler and rounder flavor.
Soy Sauce: In the U.S., I hear people often talking about “Tamari” as soy sauce. Tamari is, however, one specific version of soy sauce, which is usually used only in a limited purpose in Japan for its flavor as well as its rareness. Shoyu is the usual soy sauce which is made with wheat and soy beans, whereas tamari is made only with soy beans. Tamari has a thicker texture and stronger flavor than regular soy sauce, and is usually used for eating sashimi (raw fish) or sushi. I have only organic raw soy sauce (nama-shoyu) in my kitchen. It’s the product by Ohsawa, which they ferment in the cedar barrel for over two years.
Miso: Miso is fermented soy beans together with salt and koji bacteria. The most famous usage of miso is for making miso soup. But it can be used beautifully for seasoning stir fry, making dressing, and more. There are different kinds of miso depending on which koji it is made with and how much of it. (Koji bacteria for miso is developed in the rice, barley, or soy beans.) Rice miso is one of the most common miso in Japan. And yet, I love barley miso for its gentle, round, and deep flavor. I have barley miso and white miso in my kitchen. White miso is made with more koji, hence the shorter fermenting time, and it is known for its sweeter and lighter flavor, which is quite different from all other miso. I use white miso for making dressing, sauce, and sometimes add it in the soup made with vegetable stock for bringing some gentle flavor.
Brown rice vinegar: For a long time, I didn’t have brown rice vinegar in my kitchen while living abroad, since it was not easy to get organic quality in the country I used to live. And it worked just fine. However, now that I live in the U.S., and have this vinegar in my pantry, I am so happy. Brown rice vinegar is not as sweet as apple cider vinegar and not as sharp as grape vinegar, and it is absolutely suitable for Japanese cuisine. When using brown rice vinegar, the dressing immediately becomes more to the taste of my country. Also, I love adding the vinegar at the end of the stir fry which brings a lightness beautifully into the food.
Ume plum (Umeboshi) vinegar: Ume plum vinegar is a byproduct of umeboshi—fermented salty ume plum. In Japan, it is known to be high in citric acid, alkaline, anti-oxidants, and anti-bacterial. Its fresh and salty taste can be used both for seasoning the sautéed vegetables and soup, as well as for the dressings and sauce. As it is high in salt, you can think of it as a salt alternative as well.
Mirin: Mirin is a fermented liquid made with sweet rice, rice koji bacteria, and alcohol. It has a sweet flavor and is a wonderful seasoning addition for cooking savory dishes, but can also be used for making sweets. Be aware that there are many non-authentic mirin on the market (also in Japan) which is a liquid flavored like mirin. Authentic mirin’s flavor is developed through the fermentation process. Soy sauce and mirin are the classic combination; its sweetness adds different dimensions to the savory dishes.
Sake: Like cooking Western food with some wine, Japanese people sometimes cook food with sake. Sake, especially when it is naturally fermented without any additives, will bring depth and complexity to the overall flavor of the dishes with its umami flavor due to its various amino acids and organic acids, even when it is used in a small amount. It also has the effect to soften the ingredients. When sautéing or stir frying, it is good to remember that the best timing to add sake is not at the beginning, but around the middle before adding other seasonings. Unlike wine, sake can be stored at room temperature for months. So, getting one bottle of good quality sake might not be a bad option!
Sesame oil (clear as well as toasted): Sesame oils are the idea oils for Japanese cooking. Not only are they the oils which Japanese people have been using traditionally, but also they are one of the oils that can endure high temperature, and they are high in unsaturated fat. There are numerous health benefits with this oil as well, including being anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-stress, and more. The clear sesame oil has hardly any aroma and it can cook various dishes without leaving its presence in flavor or aroma. With its health benefits can definitely be used well for various world cuisine including Western, due to its neutral flavor. The toasted sesame oil has a particular, beautiful, and toasty aroma which itself acts almost as one of the seasonings. I use them both for cooking and raw (for dressings and sauces).
3. Three essential “dashi” (broth)
What brings flavor into Japanese cooking is not only the seasoning. Dashi (Japanese broth) is the key ingredient to bring “umami” to the overall flavor. The word “umami” has been recognized internationally for several decades, which stands for one of the five major characteristics of the flavors together with sweetness, saltiness, sourness, and bitterness. The word “umami” was founded by a Japanese scholar, Kikunae Ikeda, who discovered the glutamic acid in kombu seaweed as its primary source of umami flavor.
The flavor of umami could be regarded as rather indistinct compared to the other four flavors. However, its existence can be perceived so clearly when you try to cook with and without it. For example, miso soup cannot be prepared with just water and miso. When you dilute miso paste with just hot water it is quite far from what one can taste as delicious. Broth is as equally important of an ingredient as miso is to make miso soup. The broth brings depth, roundness, and complexity to its flavor. It is like an alchemist of the flavor. It’s the same thing for making dishes. For instance, when you sauté or cook vegetables, adding some broth will expand the spectrum of flavor both in its width as well as its depth.
There are three essential vegan broths in Japanese cooking: kombu broth, dried shiitake broth, and kombu-dried shiitake broth. Unlike making vegetable broth, making good quality kombu and shiitake broth takes some patience, as it takes many hours. And yet, there is not much for you to do but just wait, as the time itself is doing the work, instead of your labor. Here you can learn more how to make these broths!
4. “Sozai wo ikasu”—how to treat the raw ingredients
There is an expression that describes the Japanese cuisine so well—Sozai wo ikasu. It can be translated as “let the raw ingredients express themselves.” As simplicity and depth within are what you can observe well in Japanese art, the same goes with Japanese cooking. The flavor, aroma, texture, shape, and color. Different characteristics that each raw ingredient has are the most beautiful and fascinating components for cooking. And the process of cooking is to enhance its inherent beauty and deliciousness as much as possible.
In 2010, I was visiting one of the significant historical areas in Japan called Ise. There was a very small but well-known macrobiotic restaurant. My friend and I went there for lunch. There was a stir fry of seasonal greens and deep fried tofu. The looks of it was as simple as could be. And yet it was so delicious that it is still an unforgettable experience for me to this day. I asked the cook how she prepared it. Then she answered that she just sautéed the greens and the tofu with oil while adding some good quality salt which her father made. The consistency of the greens was just so right; not overheated so that its freshness still remains. And the seasoning was just simple salt so that the subtle sweetness and bitterness of the greens could be tasted, while the deep fried tofu was absorbing its beautiful mixture of all flavors.
For example, preparing dishes with carrots. When you want to eat them raw, I think how I want to cut them. Cutting lengthwise, horizontally, or shredding, not only changes its looks, but also the flavor, energy, and texture when you have it in your mouth. When you want to steam, whether cutting them in smaller pieces or in chunks, a quite different flavor of carrot will be brought out. When sautéing, cutting in the thin strips or half circle also brings out quite different characteristics of carrot. Japanese people enjoy and appreciate these subtleties in cooking.
5. Composing the menu—balance, colors, and variety
Japanese meals mostly consist of different dishes together with rice and soup. Every time I compose a meal, I would pay attention to the balance, colors, and variety of the dishes I combine with. In one meal, I would like to offer dishes made with different cooking methods—raw, steamed, sautéed, fried, grilled, baked, cooked, and fermented—as well as different seasonings—salt, miso, soy sauce, ume plum vinegar, with or without spices. Consistency is also an important aspect—crunchy, soft, chewy, juicy, etc. We taste not only through our tastebuds but also through experiencing the textures in the mouth. And we also taste through our eyes, which is what Japanese people would say. Different colors in one meal bring out beautiful satisfaction to our senses.
I grew up told by my mother always, “Eat 30 different food ingredients a day!” Eating a variety of food ingredients brings us health and balance. These days, she tells me “Eat 350g of vegetables a day!” Yes!! Eating a variety of organically and preferably locally grown vegetables (which is far more nutritionally dense and full of vitality) in a good amount every day with various cooking methods is definitely supporting me and my family’s well-being.
6. Sensing the season
Bamboo shoots, rape plants, wild plants in the springtime, cucumber, zucchini, tomatoes, berries, nectarines, apricots, melons in the summertime, winter squash, sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts, onions, apples in autumn, and various root vegetables, spinach, kale, and tangerine in the winter season! Not only can we sense and appreciate the seasonal changes through eating seasonal foods, but we can get the nutrients that our body needs to adopt and stay healthy in the particular season. Eating and appreciating seasonal food is an essential component of Japanese cuisine.
However, preparing food according to the season does not limit us to what we eat. How we prepare is also a big part of it. In the summertime, we eat more raw and colder food, as well as stir fry with spices in larger heat for a quicker fix. In the wintertime, we have many hot pot dishes, or the dishes which are slowly cooked by simmering heat for a long time or baked in the oven. In this way they bring more heat into our body. Cooking and eating through sensing the seasonal transition allow us also to appreciate the beauty of nature.
7. Presentation and dining
Preparation of the meal does not end when you are finished cooking all of the dishes. Choosing the right plates and bowls and designing the presentation of the meal is a big part of Japanese cuisine. In Japan, there are many towns around the country famous for their own pottery/ceramic art. Each region has their characteristic soil, culture, and history, hence also their different style of pottery/ceramic art. I love to select from the plates and bowls that I have collected little by little over the decades for each dish that I make. The presentation can enhance the beauty of the food so much more and make the dining experience more special.
In Japan, at the beginning of the meal, we say, “itadakimas.” The meaning of this expression is quite different from wishing each other to enjoy the meal. Its literal translation is the polite expression of “I am beginning to receive.” This is an expression of gratitude before receiving the food into our body and all of its senses—gratitude to nature, farmers, those who prepared the meal, as well as those who share the meal together. At the end of the meal, we say “gochisousamadeshita,” which is also an expression of gratitude for the food we ate.
I was raised being told to chew at least 30 times for each bite. Eating slowly with thorough chewing is what Japanese people often say is one of the keys for good health. Eating slowly allows gentle digestion for our digestive organs. Chewing many times also allows the food to mix with our saliva which transforms it for the better digestion, as well as bringing us greater sense of satisfaction without eating too much. And lastly, “hara harchibunme,” is what we often say. It means a belly which is 80% full. Don’t eat until you are completely full, but up to 80%. In this way, we won’t strain our digestive system and feel satisfied and lighter after the meal.