Japan’s food culture can come as a shock to first-time visitors. Preconceptions of a nation of clean living centenarians are dashed as soon as you step from the airport train to the waffle counter. It’s something of a ‘French Paradox’, with avenues of eye-widening eateries more reminiscent of the USA than Japan. Surely it’s sushi and pickles on the menu here?
Not just sushi. Instead, you find yourself amid a city-sized fairground of sugar-dipped, deep-fried decadence. And you can forget about being vegetarian for the most part. The concept is still very much in its infancy here. There are, however, a small handful of vegetarian-vegan restaurants where you can take shelter from the meat-laden fast food onslaught.
This unassuming little cafe provides an ambient backdrop to drizzly Tokyo nights and a heartwarming menu of vegan set meals and a la carte options. There’s some of Japan’s beloved fried food here of course, in the form of chicken-style crispy soya protein. Besides this though, is a healthy selection of stir-fried mushrooms, greens and radish, Indian influenced dal, falafel and even ratatouille. The menu changes depending on what’s available and, on the night we visited, we dined on curry with a Malaysian twang, multigrain rice, salad and pickles. It’s reasonably priced and quaint, with just a few tables. So arrive early to avoid a wait.
In exuberant Roppongi, Falafel Brothers provides a welcome distraction from the barbeque spots and upmarket meat-heavy bistros. It’s tiny. So small in fact, that a far better option is to order it to go. And it’s not budget, either. Where a falafel salad peaks at around £6 in London, here you’ll pay £10. But it’s not just lettuce leaves, onion and a few slices of tomato. You pack your bowl with a choice of vibrant green bases and brown rice, then layer on delicious healthy salad toppings, beans in various guises and sauces. The falafel is the star of the show, of course, and this one’s flavourful and crisp with a moist middle. Exactly as it should be. A good place to make a bee-line for when umami fatigue sets in.
In a relatively uneventful corner of Setagaya City sits this kitsch Hawaiian-themed cafe, serving up a vegan hybrid of Japanese and Asian dishes with an American/Hawaiian twist. The menu is abundant. From ‘chicken’ burgers to ramen to summer rolls and — love it or hate it — nattō poke bowls. The choice is almost overwhelming, meaning you may find yourself returning to have another stab. Luckily it’s a charming little place with quite possibly the kindest proprietors you’re ever likely to encounter. We ate the aforementioned nattō poke and the ‘crazy hot chicken’ (soya) bowl. Portions were plentiful and served against a backdrop of lilting ukulele.
After what seems like an eternity between fresh salads, CITRON provides the perfect respite. It’s a clean, modern space with a French influence, off a bustling street in one of Tokyo’s most affluent neighbourhoods. A salad set — we went with the ‘salade CITRON’ — with homemade soup and fresh wholegrain bread costs just shy of £10 and portions are satisfying. You’ll savour rarities like quinoa, sundried tomatoes, avocado and lentils, served up alongside a tomato gazpacho to cool a humid afternoon. They make excellent quiches and gratins too.
It would be a travesty to write up a Japanese food guide without mention of ramen. And Chabuton is one of very few Tokyo ramen shops that serve up a fully vegan version, bedecked with greens in place of meat, seafood and eggs. The broth is deliciously salty despite the absence of traditional umami pork stock and the helpings are absolutely huge. So arrive hungry, ravenous even. Then you might be in a good place to sample some of its vegetarian gyoza, too. It’s a lowkey affair with counter-style seating and an ‘eat-and-go’ attitude but if you’re searching for a hearty soup, this is it.
Set in a renovated old-style Tokyo house in foodie Shimokitazawa district, Farmer’s Cafe Project is a conscious cafe with a sustainable farm to fork focus. The menu is limited but it serves a wholesome set meal of vegetarian and vegan Japanese dishes — tempura veg, set tofu, pickles and rice — at a good price by comparison. The space is typically Japanese, with areas of floor seating and low light giving way to a shaded garden. It’s a pleasant environment in which to enjoy something a little lighter and you’ll leave feeling nourished.