5 Vegetarian-Friendly Foods You Can Order at Almost Any Japanese Restaurant

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Following a selective eating regimen like the vegetarian diet can be challenging, especially when you’re fond of restaurants. In some cases, you might find your diet a bit restrictive due to the limited number of menu offerings you can actually eat.

Fortunately, there are plenty of Japanese vegetarian dishes you can choose from. This article lists down five delicious meals you can order at almost any Japanese restaurant and explains the key difference between a vegetarian and a vegan, for clarification purposes.

Vegan vs. Vegetarian: What’s the Difference?

Before listing down the mouth watering vegetarian dishes that you would find in most Japanese restaurants, it is important to establish the difference between a vegan and a vegetarian diet.

While both steer clear of meat from animals, vegans have a more limited selection since they also avoid consuming products that are derived from animals. This means they don’t eat anything with dairy and eggs. Other animal-derived ingredients that may raise a red flag for most vegans are:

  • Gelatin
  • Honey
  • Carmine
  • Pepsin
  • Shellac
  • Albumin
  • Whey
  • Casein
  • Some forms of Vitamin D3

In short, vegetarians and vegans have different beliefs concerning the use of animals. This is why some vegetarians eat dishes with eggs, even if it comes from an animal. Doing so doesn’t make them hypocrites, however. It just makes them not vegan.

5 Japanese Foods That are Okay to Eat If You’re Vegetarian

When it comes to variety, Japanese cuisine has plenty of offerings for vegetarians. This is mainly due to their rich tradition that involves using vegetables in their dishes.

Even so, eating as a vegetarian in a Japanese establishment doesn’t automatically mean you can order anything. You still need to know what to look for.

To help you out, here are five foods you can start with and some important facts about picking your next vegetarian meal at a Japanese food service establishment:


  1. Nasu (Eggplant)

Called “nasu” in Japanese, eggplants are often served as a side dish in Japanese cuisine. It can be baked, grilled, or flavored with miso sauce made from sea salt, soybeans, and koji. When prepared the right way, nasu is definitely a gastronomic delight you can look forward to on your next trip to a Japanese restaurant in your locale.

Aside from nasu, you should also try other side dishes that are great choices you’re a vegetarian, namely:

  • Konyaku – a gelatin-like food prepared using yam
  • Yamaimo potato – a root crop similar to sweet potatoes that are high in gluten and starch
  • Pumpkin
  • Raw cabbage leaves – often served with salt and paired with beer
  1. Tempura

Another fan-favorite vegetarian Japanese dish is tempura. These are basically deep-fried vegetables covered batter. Aside from being a tasty treat, it is arguably the most common vegetarian food you can find at a Japanese restaurant.

For most restaurants, tempura often comes in a vegetable variant, but be sure to ask if their contents are limited to vegetables or herbaceous plants like shiso leaves. This is because some add a variety of fish and shrimp mixed with their tempura sets.

  1. Tsukemono (Pickled Vegetables)

In Japan, pickled vegetables, which are popularly served with set meals, are known as “tsukemono.”  This vegetarian-friendly Japanese food is often soaked in brine, so expect it to be quite salty. However, there are variations of this dish that replaces brine with a mixture of sugar and vinegar to achieve a mild and sweet flavor.

The best thing about this Japanese dish is that it comes with a crunchy texture and offers a contrast to your meals, especially you ordered delicately flavored dishes.

In Japanese cuisine, tsukemono is meant to cleanse the pallet before every meal, so it can be considered an appetizer. However, it also serves as an essential element to match umami flavors in Japanese dishes and create a psychedelically balanced meal.

  1. Natto (Fermented Soybeans)

Natto, or fermented soybeans, are often served during breakfast. While it may have an unpleasant odor and quite a slimy taste, this dish is a very healthy addition to any Japanese meal. It is also considered a perfect match for your favorite sushi meals.

Aside from natto, there are several other types of Japanese fare that are made with beans, such as:

  • Edamame (soybeans)
  • Kuromame (sweet black beans)
  • Sekihan (a mixture of red azuki beans and rice)

Sweetened beans are often added to Japanese desserts like anpan, dorayaki, daifuku, monaka, manjū, and taiyaki.

  1. Nori Seaweed

One more thing Japan cuisine is popular for is their use of seaweed in their dishes. Nori seaweed, in particular, is known as a popular wrap for sushi. However, it can also be made into salad, slaw, or even crackers.

There are plenty of other edible seaweeds you can find in Japanese dishes, including:

  • Hijiki
  • Tokoroten
  • Aonori
  • Konbu
  • Wakame

Another type of seaweed you can try is mozuku. This delicious product from Okinawa can be fried together with vegetables and served much like tempura.

The Takeaway

Staying in a vegetarian diet and enjoying delicious Japanese food is not impossible. All you need is the right knowledge on what to look for and a bit of luck in finding establishments that offer excellent Japanese cuisine that can also cater to your specific food preferences.


Chiara Bisignani is the F&B Marketing Executive at Saadiyat Beach Club. She oversees website maintenance, PR requests, marketing initiatives and all general guests’ enquiries for the company’s destinations of KOI Restaurant & Lounge, Boa Steakhouse and Caramel Restaurant and Lounge in Abu Dhabi.