Vegetarian Journal

VRG Home | About VRG | Vegetarian Journal | Books | Vegetarian Nutrition
Subscribe to Journal | Vegetarian Game | Vegetarian Family | Nutshell | VRG-News
Vegetarian Recipes | Travel | What's New | Bulletin Board | Search | Links

Vegetarian Journal Cover

Vegetarian Journal


July/August 1996
Volume XV, Number 4

Japanese Vegetarian Cuisine

By Larry Litt

Check out the Japanese recipes!

A traditional Japanese (storytelling) performer tells the tale of a young Zen monk named Masu who wants to learn about the secular ways of the world. To attain this goal he decides to leave his monastery to seek reality.

When he announces his plans, his master warns, "You must prepare yourself to resist the many worldly temptations that might distract you from the goal of spiritual perfection. Meditate on the no-mind of reality and you will remain pure."

After many adventures, Masu lands on the forbidden Island of Spices. There he meets Obakeman, a demon who tries to lure him into a life of riches and carnal pleasure. She uses rare hot spices to tempt him away from his quest for real knowledge and, ultimately, perfection. After a frightful stay on the island, he returns home to his monastery, looking much older and wiser.

Masu's master, who had never left the insularity of the monastery asks , "Masu, what did you learn from your experience of reality?"

Masu answers, "I sought reality and was tempted by worldly pleasures. I indulged in spices that aroused me to heights of desire that a man cannot easily resist. I learned that if you don't want to risk carnal temptation, don't eat hot spices from the forbidden Spice Island. These spices create sensations which can be satisfied only by carnal means. "

"Hmm," said the old monk with satisfaction. "Reality and the struggle to resist temptation sound horrible. I wouldn't give up the quest for perfection just to eat spices."

"Me neither," replied Masu with a knowing smile. "But every so often it's fun to cheat."

On our first day in Tokyo, our strictly vegetarian host, Johnnie Walker (yes, that's really his name!) said, "Traditional Japanese vegetarians prepare a variety of vegetable dishes that are combined with relatively mild spices called dashi.

"It's a fairly standard home cooking style," continued Johnnie, "that you can find in most restaurants that offer a well-rounded menu. In restaurants, ask for the meatless and fishless dishes. Other dishes can't be altered, because the recipe is fixed in advance. Even if a dish appears to be vegetarian, be on guard for bonito flake garnishes or bonito products in the dashi as well. Also be aware that most of the miso soup served in restaurants isn't vegetarian. Flavoring miso paste with bonito stock is an undying national tradition."

Johnnie gave us another survival strategy. "If you're staying in one place for a while, it's best to find a relatively inexpensive neighborhood restaurant with a cooperative cook near your lodging. Communicate to the owner that you will be eating there regularly and would like to try as many vegetarian dishes as possible. They'll get to know you and your special requirements. Be sure to ask for yasai soba, vegetable and square noodle soup. The varieties of garnish an imaginative cook can come up with are endless. If you can find green tea soba noodles, these are just great, too!"

As we wandered around cities and towns, we stopped at the ubiquitous take-out food shops that line the streets. There were many vegetarian items that I'd never seen before, so I tried as many of them as I could afford. We would take two or three items back to our room and feast on the unusual flavors and textures. The tofu novelties were especially good. Tofu skin stuffed with sweet vinegared rice (inauri zushi) is irresistible served with green tea as a snack in the afternoon.

In Tokyo, we looked forward to dining at shojin ryori, the Buddhist vegetarian restaurants found in temples and occasionally at larger shrines. Unfortunately, these traditional establishments are very expensive the cheapest we found charged $50 per person. We could try only one or we'd go way over our food budget for the week.

Outside of Tokyo, it's easier to find less expensive vegetarian restaurants near monasteries and temples. The restaurants located just outside a temple's gates are reasonably priced and frequently serve similar menus to the shojin ryori. These meals consist of many courses of small, delicately prepared dishes. Traditionally, meals in the temples are served only at four in the morning and four in the afternoon. It's another good reason to search for alternatives, unless you wake up very early to meditate or to run.

I fell in love with the small vegetable dishes that are part of a shojin ryori meal. The following recipes come from a restaurant in Edo, the oldest, most traditional section of Tokyo. I used rice syrup instead of sugar.


New Potatoes in Sesame Sauce)

(Serves 4)

Try this potato appetizer.

11/2 Tablespoons soy sauce
1 Tablespoon Japanese rice vinegar
1/2 teaspoon rice syrup
1/2 teaspoon karashi Japanese mustard
1 teaspoon Oriental sesame oil
2 medium-size new potatoes
2 small cucumbers

Start a 3/4 full, 3-quart pot of boiling water on the stove. Mix the soy sauce, rice vinegar, rice syrup, mustard, and sesame oil together in a small bowl. Let this mixture stand.
Peel and cut the potatoes into 1/4 inch julienne strips, 2 1/2 to 3 inches long. Rinse the julienne pieces, then drop them into the boiling water. Make sure all the potatoes are in the boiling water. When the water reboils, count to 10 slowly, then empty the potatoes into a bowl with cold tap water running into it. Wait until the potatoes are cool, then drain and let them sit in a colander.
Peel and seed the cucumbers. Cut the trimmed cucumbers into julienne strips the same size as the potatoes. In a bowl, mix the potato and cucumber strips together, then gently pour the sesame sauce all over the vegetables. Let the dish marinate a few minutes. Serve at room temperature or cold.

Total calories per serving: 84
Fat: 1 gram

(Quick Turnip Pickles)

(Serves 4)

Turnip pickles are served with just about every meal in Japanese vegetarian restaurants and monasteries.

5-6 fresh turnips, no more than 2 1/2 inches in diameter
3 teaspoons sea salt

Remove the leaves and stems from the turnips. Wash leaves, stems, and turnips carefully, then cut the turnips into 1/4 inch rounds. Place on a flat plate, then sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of salt. In a pot, boil the turnip leaves and stems for 1-2 minutes. Cool under running water. Cut into 1/4 inch long pieces. Sprinkle on the remaining salt. Spread the cut, salted leaves over the salted turnips in a screwtop pickling jar, or place turnips and leaves under a heavy weight. Leave the vegetable to cure overnight.
It's a good idea to rinse the turnip pickles slightly before serving, then toss and drain in a colander. Serve cool. Add soy sauce to taste.

Total calories per serving: 20
Fat: 1 gram

(Mushroom and Seaweed Seasoning Broth)
(Serves 4)

A fresh vegetarian dashi that can be prepared in 3-4 hours from shiitake (mushrooms) and kombu (seaweed) blended together with seasonings such as sea salt. This broth is a base to which many other flavorings will be added. I have yet to see it for sale in any stores in the United States.

4 x 4 inches of kombu seaweed (available in Oriental groceries and health food stores)
4-5 high-quality, dried shiitake mushrooms
4 cups water

Wipe the kombu clean with a damp paper towel. Let the kombu soak in the water for at least 3 hours, then heat the water until it is just about boiling. Turn the flame off, remove the kombu, add the shiitake mushrooms, and let stand for 20 minutes. Remove the shiitakes (use them in a stir-fry dish fairly soon). You now have shiitake-kombu dashi. Store the liquid in the refrigerator in a closed container.

Total calories per serving: 14
Fat: 1 gram

(Sweet Cooked Carrots)
(Serves 4)

This carrot recipe makes use of the shiitake mushrooms from the shiitake-kombu dashi.

1/2 pound peeled carrots
4-5 shiitake mushrooms, soaked in hot water 30 minutes, then sliced 1/4 inch thick, or from the shiitake-kombu prepared in the above recipe
1 cup shiitake-kombu dashi
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon rice syrup or other sweetener
1-2 teaspoons mirin (sweet vinegar available in Oriental groceries)

Peel the carrots and cut in rounds about 1/4 inch thick. Combine all ingredients except carrots and mushrooms in a saucepan and cook together five minutes on low heat. Add the carrots and sliced mushrooms, and simmer 5-10 minutes or until all the liquid is absorbed in the soft vegetables. Serve at room temperature.

Total calories per serving: 54
Fat: 1 gram

(Steamed Eggplant)
(Serves 4)

Any leftovers can be left in the sauce for one day.

4 or 5 3/4 pound Oriental eggplants (the long, purplish ones) or 2 one-pound European-type eggplants
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon chopped onions
1 Tablespoon rice vinegar
1/2 to 1 Tablespoon rice syrup

Cut away the tops and bottoms of the eggplants. Steam them gently 5-7 minutes, or until soft. Test with a toothpick or bamboo skewer. When eggplants are done, let them cool. When they're cool, cut them into quarters, lengthwise. Refrigerate until ready to serve, then spread the cool eggplants around a flat plate to form an 8-pointed star. Combine the sauce ingredients and pour all over the eggplants. Serve with hot rice at room temperature.

Total calories per serving: 78
Fat: 2 grams

(Okra Stew)
(Serves 4)

Another recipe using shiitake-kombu dashi.

20 okra pods
2 teaspoons salt
1 cup shiitake-kombu dashi (see previous recipe)
1 teaspoon usukuchi (light) soy sauce
1/2 Tablespoon mirin (sweet vinegar)
Sesame seeds (for garnish)

Wash the okra, then cut the stems off. Rub each pod with salt, taking off the okra fuzz on the skin with your fingers. Wash your hands after this operation. Drop the trimmed and cleaned okra into a large pot of boiling water until they soften slightly, about 3-5 minutes.
Combine the dashi, usukuchi, and mirin in a 3-quart pot. Bring to a boil, add the okra and let them boil for 1-2 minutes. Remove from the heat. Let the pot stand until it is cool. Arrange on a serving dish, then sprinkle dry roasted sesame seeds over the stewed okra.

Total calories per serving: 40
Fat: 1 gram

This article originally appeared in the July/August 1996 issue of the
Vegetarian Journal. We encourage you to subscribe to the magazine.

Thanks to volunteer Jeanie Freeman for converting this article to HTML

VRG Home | About VRG | Vegetarian Journal | Books | Vegetarian Nutrition
Subscribe to Journal | Vegetarian Game | Vegetarian Family | Nutshell | VRG-News
Vegetarian Recipes | Travel | What's New | Bulletin Board | Search | Links

The Vegetarian Resource Group Logo 1996- The Vegetarian Resource Group
PO Box 1463, Baltimore, MD 21203
(410) 366-8343   Email:

Last Updated
September 20, 1997

Graphic design by DreamBox

The contents of this web site, as with all The Vegetarian Resource Group publications, is not intended to provide personal medical advice. Medical advice should be obtained from a qualified health professional.

Any pages on this site may be reproduced for non-commercial use if left intact and with credit given to The Vegetarian Resource Group.

Web site questions or comments? Please email