Vegetarian food in Tokyo: where to find the finest
A list of restaurants that dish out delicious meatless meals in the land of sushi, sashimi and Wagyu beef.
A vegetable and tofu salad. Photo: 123Rf
A well-known Gujarati industrialist describes his travels to China and Japan as “one suitcase kapda, one suitcase khakra”. And it is true that for Indian vegetarians to overcome dietary differences abroad is no trivial matter, particularly when English can’t be used as the lingua franca. But must we be compelled to surreptitiously scarf suitcased sustenance? Or scavenge outposts of the Indian diaspora (or, God forbid, Hare Rama temples) for tadka dal and alu chhole? Must we all switch to the latest vegan/paleo/raw/local-sourced diet?
Absolutely not. With some effort, a sense of adventure and a little luck, lacto-vegetarians can expand their culinary horizons and participate in the integral part of travelling (and life) that is eating.
Let’s start with Tokyo, capital of Japan, land of sashimi, sushi and Wagyu beef—not the most vegetarian-friendly of environments. And the ubiquitous katsuobushi (fish flakes) and persistent use of dashi (stock made with fish flakes and kelp) in Japanese cuisine makes it almost impossible to be vegetarian. Even restaurants featuring the famous shojin ryori (devotion cuisine) of Zen Buddhism use bonito (a kind of fish) in the dashi. It’s difficult to organise a vegetarian kaiseki (traditional Japanese meal), but if you can, it’s well worth the effort. Here’s my list of places that make it possible:
With its two Michelin stars and masterful presentation, this is a vegetarian’s doorway to the artistry and subtlety of Japanese cuisine. One has to just sit back and enjoy each meticulously crafted course. But you will have to call a day in advance to explain your specifications. The outdoor gardens are beautiful, too. (Website) ¥¥¥
A lotus root dish. Photo: Tohru Minowa/a.collectionRF/amanaimages/Corbis
The legendary tempura restaurant has a number of branches, but the Ginza one remains the best. The menu, conveniently, has sketches. Order the vegetable tempuras (the lotus root is outstanding). There is no chutney here, but as tempura purists will insist, there is salt and lemon (the regular tempura soy sauce generally has fish). As a final course, ask for the ten-cha (vegetable tempura and rice in hot green tea). It sounds strange, but the different textures and tastes are really quite compelling. (Website) ¥¥
Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi
Don’t let the simple décor and casual demeanour fool you—this is serious dining. At this Michelin-starred restaurant, you’ll get multiple courses of vegetarian sushi, beyond the usual cucumber and avocado rolls. Some of the dishes (including a lovely Japanese pickled plum) created here are truly unique. (+81-3-5413-6626) ¥¥¥
These are not your run-of-the-mill survival pizzas but some of the best pies in the world. The chef spent a year in Italy and came back to open Seirinkan in the largely residential area of Nakameguro. It’s a bit difficult to find but well worth the effort. The menu is simple—margherita and marinara. Try both. (+81-3-3714-5160) ¥¥
The Japanese love Italian food, which means that there’s a whole new genre of hybrid food—basically Italian food served with Japanese attention to detail. Al Dente is no different—a tiny space and bar counter like all sushi restaurants, except it’s pasta that the chefs are making. It is popular with local Ginza shoppers as well as visitors. The eggplant spaghetti is absolutely perfect and true to the restaurant’s name, al dente. Make sure to ask for chilli flakes, meticulously cut and without seeds. (+81-3-3574-7470) ¥¥
It is conveniently located between the high-end boutiques and architectural marvels of Omotesando and the street fashion of Harajuku and Shibuya. Las Chicas bills itself as an art gallery, bar and event space, but the main feature is its large terrace. They specialise in quasi-American comfort food—nachos, salads and sandwiches. (Website) ¥¥
The City Bakery
Enjoy your pretzel croissant with muffins and hot chocolate at The City Bakery.
If you find yourself passing through Shinagawa Station, stop by the Tokyo outpost of the New York institution. If the balance of sweet and salty in the pretzel croissant is not Japanese in its simplicity and perfect execution, then I don’t know what is. (Website) ¥
Brown Rice Café
This small vegan café, with a nice terrace in Omotesando, follows the ‘whole food’ philosophy. It specialises in vegetables complemented with brown rice and miso soup. (Website) ¥
Although not wholly vegetarian (it serves fish), it has been a lifesaver on more than one occasion. It is known for dishing out super-healthy macrobiotic food, and its location in a media and advertising hub makes it a favourite with office-goers. The ‘sets’, the Japanese equivalent of a thali, are extremely popular. These include an appetiser, main, salad, dessert and drink. The food is guilt-free and delicious to boot. (Website) ¥
Anirudh Patni / CNTraveler India