Avoiding hidden non-veg*n ingredients
Generally, veg*n awareness in Japan compares unfavourably to the West. That is to say, Japanese people generally know stuff all about what it means to be vegetarian, let alone vegan. So to succeed as a veg*n in Japan, we need to arm ourselves with as much knowledge of Japanese food and language as we can. In this post I’ll talk a bit out the food, and in a later post I’ll cover some survival Japanese language (obviously not your survival, but the animal’s).
Here I’m going to explain many of the hidden traps for veg*ns that Japanese food has to offer. Over time I hope to grow this list as I discover new and even more horrifying ways that they slip that stuff into our food.
katsuo かつお 鰹
Public enemy number 1 of veg*ns in Japan. Wikipedia says the English is ‘bonito,’ but I speak this language pretty well and I’ve never heard that word before, so lets call it katsuo. This fish finds its way into soups and broths. ‘Who cares about soup?’ I hear you say. Well, Japanese people do. Had your hopes on eating some ramen? Sorry. Udon? Sorry again. Soba?… you get the idea. Okay, okay, what about humble little miso soup? …
You’d better learn to cook soups at home, with some good old fashioned kombu or shiitake stock. Just be careful of pre-blended miso.
For the lacto-ovo vegetarians out there, you’re likely to come across katsuo flakes if you head out for okonomiyaki (or, I’m sure, other things that being vegan I have no idea about). If you ever find your food covered in paper-thin dried pink wafery stuff, it’s probably a good time to call it a night. Or at the least, cry into your Asahi.
animal extracts エキス
You can find extracts in anything. Japanese curry can be one of the tastiest and easiest to prepare dishes for a vegetarian in Japan – that is, if you’re able to find a curry roux without any meat extracts. Likewise, many snack foods will contain unexpected animal-origin extracts.
My general rule, is if I see the word ‘エキス’in the ingredients list, and it’s not preceded by 昆布 for konbu extract (kelp extract) or 酵母 for yeast extract, then I’ll refrain from buying it. Common non-veg*n extracts include but aren’t limited toチキンエキス (chicken extract), ビーフエキス (beef extract), 豚肉エキス (pork extract).
Yes, even bread is a vegan minefield in Japan. Ignoring the fact that it’s almost exclusively nutritionally empty white bread, bread in Japan often contains milk, butter and even eggs. I’ve never found a mass-produced vegan loaf except for very low quality ‘French’ style breads. Your best bet is to head to a local bakery – chain bakeries rarely have many options, but I’ve had a lot of luck with independent places. Bakeries that state 自然酵母 (shizen-kobo – natural yeast) seem to be more likely than others to make bread without animal products. If you’re unable to read the allergy cards in store (which usually show if a bread contains milk 乳 or egg 卵), then you can use the phrases from my survival Japanese post and speak to a clerk.