Shiitake nigiri, tofu ten yaki: Green is trending!
Vegetarian and vegan influencers in Japan are leading the way in promoting culinary diversity. “We believe in a meat/fish free diet for the sake of a better world. We are driven by our love for the environment and animals, and we want people to focus on health,” said Haruko Rolando Kawano, founder of Vegeproject, a non-profit organization that provides vegan certifications to food products.
Win Shojin Ryori back
Simple, hassle-free and nutritious plant-based eating is not a new concept in Japan. “It is the revival of the ancient wisdom of Buddhist monks,” says chef Lakhan Jethani, who celebrates the spirit of shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) at his Mizu Izakaya restaurant in Bandra with his vegan creations.
Jethani worked at a kaiseki style shojin ryori restaurant, Sougo in Tokyo, Japan. His mentor, chef-owner Daisuke Nomura, had been in charge of two-Michelin-starred Daigo, which serves ancient plant-based cuisine with modern twists. “I think it took us a while to realize that eating a meat-only diet is unhealthy for us. We are constantly working to make our range of vegan and plant-based dishes more eclectic,” says Jethani. Some of the vegan options on his menu include mock duck (made with soybeans), donburi (vegan bowl with rice, Japanese mushrooms, tofu, momiji oroshi (chili paste made in-house), sea kale (aoniri), and togarashi flatbreads, and Abura -age (Japanese fried tofu sheets).
At Megu, The Leela Palace, New Delhi, Chef De Cuisine, Shubham Thakur also incorporates the ethos of ancient Buddhist cuisine into his plant-based dishes made from fresh, locally sourced, seasonal produce. He wants to make Japanese cuisine more accessible to beginners, he says. “We don’t want people to think that Japanese cuisine is all about seafood. We now have almost as many vegetable and non-vegetarian dishes on the menu. We are inspired by Shojin Ryori, supported by the philosophies of seasonality and sustainability. We source our vegetables from local farmers instead of relying on imports. By imprinting our own harvest, we can be more creative and also give back to the farmers,” says Thakur. “We need to stop relegating vegetables to side dishes, but make them stars,” says the chef. includes Shira-ae (tofu spinach with sesame sauce), crispy asparagus, seaweed salad, miso eggplant, and tofu toban yaki.
Swapandeep Mukherjee, Executive Chef, Sakura, The Metropolitan Hotel & Spa, New Delhi, agrees that plant-based Japanese has endless possibilities. “Our Japanese guests are now more inclined towards green dishes. For example, they never ordered vegetable tempuras before. Now so many of them are asking for a vegetarian range. After the pandemic, we added some plant-based dishes to our menu,” says Mukherjee. Some of his green preparations include Tofu Steak (pan-grilled tofu in teppanyaki sauce served on an iron plate), Atsu Age Yaki (grilled soybean curd served with chopped spring onion and grated ginger), vegetable nigiris, and sushi rolls. From believing vegetarian sushi doesn’t exist to complaining about scarce green options to being spoiled for choice, we’ve come a long way, says the chef who now has nearly seventy plant-based dishes on his menu, of which there are 150. more coming in!” says Mukherjee.
Amit Gupta who founded Bento B a year and a half ago, a vegetarian Japanese restaurant in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, is also pleasantly surprised by the response his restaurant is getting. “We initially drew flak for serving vegetable Japanese. But after a few months it just took off. No Indianization, no fusion, we do pure, flavorful and healthy food,” says Gupta, who has managed to cultivate a loyal base of diners who come to the restaurant to try plant-based Miso Ramen, Agedashi Tofu and California Rolls. Plant-based gourmet is sure to conquer hearts and taste buds!
Popular in Japan in the 13th century, Shojin Ryori is an ancient vegetable cooking style of Zen Buddhist monks. The tradition based on the principle of ahimsa (non-violence) also celebrates the principles of permanence and seasonality. No meat, fish or dairy is used in the meals and the kitchen focuses on tofu, seasonal vegetables and wild mountain plants. Japanese chefs around the world are reviving Shojin Ryori with a contemporary approach. American-born Japanese author Elizabeth Andoh includes classics from Shojin Ryori in her book Kansha, a collection of 100 vegan Japanese recipes. Rooted in Buddhist philosophy, the word kansha means appreciation and gratitude in Japanese.
Silken tofu, banana blossom, jackfruit (they resemble fish because of their texture)
Vegetables such as mushrooms, pumpkin, avocado, eggplant, broccoli, corn, asparagus
Kombu (dried sea kelp) flakes to replace katsuobushi (bonito fish flakes) to make vegetable dashi broth