Plant-based cuisine: Modernizing Japan's vegetarian traditions

By Momoko Nakamura
The Japan Times
October 23, 2019

The communal power of food: Strangers share a plant-based meal at a farm outside of Tokyo. | MOMOKO NAKAMURA

“Vegan,” “vegetarian,” “organic” and “superfood” are just a few of the key phrases used to smithereens in recent years.

These yokomoji (Western words) are also a popular marketing tool in Japan, an effective way to associate brands with health and wellness and, to a lesser extent, environmental and ethical responsibility.

From the trendiness of these words alone, one may assume that such products and services will be gone tomorrow, together with the feverish demand for tapioca milk tea drinks. But what if these words are a modern-day variation on, or a natural evolution of, the Japanese table? Vegan, vegetarian, organic and superfood concepts, are, in fact, rooted in how Japanese people have approached eating for centuries.

Mountain-to-table: Rice, pickles and tempura wild plants form the foundation of this plant-based meal from Ehime Prefecture. | MOMOKO NAKAMURA

From fermented products to shōjin ryōri (traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine), Japan has a unique food history. “Plant-based” cooking — a vegetable-centric everyday lifestyle, focused on what we eat, how it is prepared and understanding where ingredients are sourced — may be a more appropriate phrase. Plant-based eating is a health and wellness decision, as well as a pivot toward environmental and ethical responsibility, but one that emphasizes an important part of Japanese food culture.

The Japanese table has been historically very much plant-based. When Japanese people evolved from nomadic hunters and gatherers to settled farmers, a food culture centered around wild and farmed plants developed. The microseasonal calendar was introduced to Japan some 2,000 years ago and, over time, it was meticulously edited to reflect Japan’s unique climate and culture.

The traditional Japanese microseasonal calendar breaks down the four standard seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter into 24 subseasons (nijūshi sekki), which break down further into 72 microseasons (shichijūni kō). Each microseason’s poetic title tells a tale of how each slowly but surely evolves into the next — “Peach Blossoms Smile” and “Frogs Begin to Sing” are just two of these 72 microseasons. Plant-based farmers who till their land without the use of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers listen for markers of the microseasonal calendar and make small adjustments based on the unique qualities of the year.

'I will have this meal': A pair of chopsticks sit horizontally in front of brown rice onigiri (rice balls) and a homemade pickled plum with miso. | MOMOKO NAKAMURA

Japanese eaters often yearn for ingredients that are in season, and often only available for a short period of time. In Japanese, there is more than just the word shun (seasonal). There’s also nagori, which refers to ingredients that have passed their prime but are still available, offering flavor profiles and textures reminiscent of the previous season, and hashiri, which are ingredients not yet at their prime but offer exciting previews of what’s ahead.

When Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China around the sixth century, so was the concept of shōjin ryōri, which evolved around Japan’s terroir and continued to be refined through the Kamakura Period (1185-1333). Shōjin ryōri is a simple vegan menu based on the concept of ichijū sansai (one soup and three sides — often vegetables, sea vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, seeds or beans). This approach also takes into consideration five colors (white, green, yellow, black, red); five flavors (sweet, salty, bitter, acidic, spicy); and five cooking methods (raw, steamed, grilled, deep-fried, braised). Qualities from these various fives are selected to effectively complement the microseason.

During this time, rice was known as the shushoku (main dish), and it’s said that during the Edo Period (1603-1868) the average person ate four to five gō of rice per day — about 1,650 grams of cooked rice, or 12 bowls today. The Japanese table today often consists of rice as well as a separate “main” of fish or meat, relegating the grain to simply the carbohydrate category.

While the average Japanese table of today is by no means shōjin ryōri, the what, how and why behind Japanese cookery stems very much from its teachings. In Japan, chopsticks are placed horizontally on the table, between the diner and the meal. Once itadakimasu (“I will have this meal”) is said, picking up chopsticks serves as a visual reminder that we are crossing the line between humankind and Mother Earth’s generous bounty before us.

There are other signs that interest in plant-based eating is on the rise in Japan. In 2013, washoku was inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. This year, NHK dubbed Gunma Prefecture the “Vegetable Kingdom,” highlighting Gunma’s abundant produce and vegan-friendly restaurants. And the nationwide Vegan Gourmet Festival is already in its ninth year.

As inbound tourism rises in Japan — with over 30 million foreign visitors in 2018, a number that’s expected to rise to 40 million by 2020 with the upcoming Olympics — there is no better time to celebrate the origins of the Japanese table, all the while showcasing dishes and restaurants that accommodate varying food restrictions and eating traditions.

But what’s even nicer is to be able to remind our visitors, as well as ourselves, traditional Japanese cuisine is, in fact, plant-based.

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