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Food & Beverage

Vegan sushi is the new frontier for plant-based cuisine in Japan

Japanese chefs skip the animal protein to re-imagine traditional favorites

A food delivery service in Japan is offering lunchboxes with vegan sushi. More restaurants are using plant-based ingredients to make traditional Japanese dishes. (Photo by Makoto Okada) 

TOKYO -- Vegan cuisine is winning new fans in Japan, and not just the typical tofu burgers. Traditional Japanese dishes are being re-imagined using only plant-based ingredients, and Japanese chefs have won international prizes with visually elaborate vegan dishes. Now the country's major food processors are joining in, developing new vegan products.

In Tokyo's upscale Ginza district, an eatery called nu dish Deli & Cafe served vegetarian ramen and curry for a limited time in the fall. Ramen flavored with salt and yuzu, a citrus fruit, sold for about 1,000 yen ($9).

"I come here because I've been eating too much meat recently," said a company employee near the restaurant, which was full of people from all walks of life. The management bet that many customers would crave good vegan food at reasonable prices, and the bet paid off.

The recipes were provided by T's Restaurant, a Tokyo-based eatery that opened 10 years ago and serves vegan dishes. "We want to create a restaurant where vegans and nonvegans can enjoy dining together," said Masako Shimokawa, a spokesperson.

T's Restaurant has expanded to four other locations, and sales of a high-end instant ramen it helped develop have risen 50% over the past four years.

There are several reasons why vegan cuisine is catching on in Japan. Restaurants are preparing for an influx of overseas tourists who will come for the Tokyo Olympics this year. About 30% of the population in India and more than 10% each of the population in the U.K. and Taiwan are vegetarian, according to an estimate by Frembassy, a food information website. Of the visitors who came to Japan in 2018, about 1.5 million, or 4.8%, are believed to be vegetarian.

And the reasons why people are forgoing meat are diverse: Some want to help combat climate change, which livestock contribute to, others do so for health reasons. A multiparty group of Japanese lawmakers was formed in November to discuss ways to better accommodate vegans ahead of the Olympics.

"Japanese companies don't have the option to do nothing," said Toshiya Takahashi, chairman of the Made in Japan Halal Support Committee, which provides the tourism industry with business advice.

Restaurants of all types are starting to adapt. In Tokyo's Hiroo district, where there are many embassies, the Hawaiian-themed vegan cafe Swell Bowls has put a vegan spin on famous Hawaiian dishes. Its Tofu Benedict features a toasted English muffin served with tofu and vegetables, but no eggs, and the Vegan Poki Rice Bowl is prepared without fish.

"Vegan meals are creative and interesting," said Yuko Ino, the cafe's owner.

And it is not only restaurants that are taking advantage of the trend. Oisix ra daichi, a food delivery service, started selling boxes of vegan sushi last summer. Radishes, deep-fried eggplant and mushrooms soaked in seaweed broth replace fish atop vinegared rice.

The company also started delivering vegan meal kits last fall. "We've been receiving more orders than we expected," said a company official. One of the popular recipes is bibimbap -- Korean-style mixed rice, but cooked without meat.

In the international world of high cuisine, Japanese chefs are making their mark. In making new vegetarian dishes, they employ the same techniques that have given traditional Japanese cuisine its reputation for visual aesthetics.

The Vegetarian Chance, an annual vegetarian cooking competition, takes place in Italy. In 2017, Japanese chef Hitoshi Sugiura made the top 8 with his dish titled "Bouquet," a dish made of thinly sliced vegetables made to look like colorful petals, served on a plate made to look like a cupped pair of hands.

After working as a chef for parties for dignitaries held overseas by the Japanese government, Sugiura became the executive chef at food services operator Onodera Group. He has since been developing various menu items, including vegan recipes for company cafeterias, as part of an effort to promote vegan dishes.

A dish made by Yoshiko Hondo, who coined the term wa-vegan.

In 2018, Yoshiko Hondo took second place in the Vegetarian Chance. She first came across vegan dishes while training in the U.S. After returning to Japan, she developed what she calls "Wa-vegan," a combination of Japanese and vegan cuisines.

"A good point for vegan cuisine is that anyone can dine together, regardless of religion," she said. She added that vegan chefs across the world are taking note of Japanese cooking techniques and ingredients like soy sauce, seaweed broth and miso, a paste of fermented soybeans.

The growing number of overseas tourists is also powering the rise of vegan cuisine. In November, local tourism-related companies and vegan food makers held a networking event in Yamanashi Prefecture, near Mount Fuji. They were meeting because many tourists who come to see the stately mountain do not stay overnight, in part because there are few dining options for vegans.

Demand for vegan ingredients is rising sharply, according to companies that took part in the event. "Until last year [2018], we were actively passing out samples at trade shows, but this year [2019] customers have come to us and asked for them," said one company official.

Large companies are also taking note. A unit of trading house Mitsubishi Corp. has rolled out vegan ramen soup, and rival Mitsui & Co. has invested in a U.S.-based meat substitute venture.

Big Japanese retailers are taking orders for vegan Christmas cakes and sechi-ryori, food traditionally eaten during the New Year holidays.

At the networking event, the vegan suppliers managed to win at least one new convert, a local worker who had sampled some soy meat and vegetarian curry. "This is the first time I've tried it, but you could serve something like this in a restaurant."

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