Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Tokyo Apartment Cafe

vegetarian friendly restaurant

This Saturday was baking hot, so after a few hours of shopping in Shibuya and Harajuku, nobody was in the mood to search out a new veggie friendly restaurant.  As we often do, A-chan and I headed to Tokyo Apartment Cafe on Omotesando.  I was looking forward to sinking my teeth into a vegetable and cheese panzerotti (630¥), so was a bit disappointed when we were told we had to choose from the limited lunch menu.  A quick scan of said menu revealed no vegetarian choices, but the server said I could order the ハーブたっぷりリーフサラダ (leaf salad with plenty of herbs, 700¥).  I do love the herb salad, which is huge and tossed in a zesty (definitely vegetarian and most likely vegan) vinaigrette, but I'll usually order it to share along with another dish.

Tokyo Apartment cafe boasts an extensive drink menu, with fancy cocktails, fancy blended cocktails (840¥), beer (577¥), wine (from 420¥ a glass), spirits, as well as coffees (from 472¥), teas, and a decent list of other soft drinks.  They also have some yummy looking desserts on display (from 367¥).    

Fitting with its おしゃれ (stylish) location on Omotesando, TAC's thoughtfully designed interior provides a cool ambiance for dining or chilling over drinks.  The concept, outlined by a floor plan on the wall close to the entrance, breaks this restaurant into various rooms of an apartment.  I always feel like sitting in the smaller rooms, like the couchy space straight in from the entrance (I'm guessing the living room?), but the nonsmoking section is the main room in front of the open kitchen.  One good thing about this space, (other than not having to struggle to breathe) is that it's a good spot for people watching, as you can see people strolling by on the sidewalk outside.


menu: Japanese only, but you can get pretty far if you can read katakana!

おすすめ / recommendation: ベジタブル チーズ (vegetable cheese) panzerotti,  ハーブたっぷりリーフサラダ (herb salad),  スパニッシュオムレツ ( Spanish omelette  682¥ - unlike most omelettes in Japan, it does not contain katsuodashi or meat extracts)

good points: convenient location, cool ambiance, yummy

bad points: limited vegetarian options, even worse for vegans, at lunch your only choice is the herb salad

how to get there: from Harajuku station on the Yamanote line, take the main entrance (marked as exit 2?) and head to the overpass in front of you.  Cross over the street and start heading down the hill.  You'll be on Omotesando, a major shopping street and will pass a Doutor coffee shop in the first block. Several blocks down, you'll see a subway exit, (exit 5 of Meiji Jingumae station on the Chiyoda line).  Tokyo Apartment Cafe is right in front of the subway exit.

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Sunday, 17 July 2011

見つけた!I found it!

A couple weeks ago, I posted about a natto vending machine I came across in Shimokitazawa.  I also mentioned a banana vending machine that I'd heard about, but never seen, that was said to exist somewhere in Shibuya station.  On Saturday, we were hunting for an English guide book for Taiwan (just bought tickets, hurray!) and stumbled upon said vending machine outside of a bookstore in an underground shopping area.  Coincidentally, this is a building I visit pretty often- my yoga studio is on the 5th floor but I've never ventured into the basement.  

At 130¥ per banana, and given that Japanese people don't really eat fruit as a snack, I doubt that they do a lot of sales.  I suspect that the banana vending machine is more of a conversation piece or an advertising vehicle for Dole (which I suppose is working if they have people blogging about it!).  Regardless, I think it's kind of clever.

Friday, 15 July 2011

tips for incoming inaka JETs

Before I had the pleasure of calling Tokyo home, I spent a year out in the countryside of Mie ken, teaching with the JET program.  I didn't have it so bad as some of my JET friends, as my little town had a foreign food store and even a Starbucks, but it felt pretty rural to me. My commute consisted of riding my bicycle down a path between rice and nashi fields, and other than my one British co-worker, I only ever met one English speaking foreigner living in the town.

It was a really interesting year of my life, and though I decided about a week into living out there that I would not be renewing my contract for an extra year, I'm really glad to have had the experience living in small town Japan.

It's that time of year again when a new batch of JETs are anxiously awaiting their departures.  A decent number of JETs are vegetarian, so much so that the meals they served at the Tokyo orientation the year I arrived were prepared with mock meat instead of the real thing! (Though I've heard from other JETs that this was not the case for them).  As the vast majority of JETs are not placed in big cities, the shift to small town life adds to the challenging adjustment to vegetarian life in the context of a new culture and language.   For all you vegetarian (and vegan) incoming JETs, here is some advice to make your transition to inaka vegetarian life a little smoother.  

Things you can start doing before you come to Japan

1) If your Japanese is lacking or nonexistent, start studying NOW!  If you don't have access to classes or a tutor, try to get a your hands on a good textbook (the Genki series or Minna no Nihongo are pretty good), or make use of some of the resources online.  For a while, I was using Japanese Pod 101 to supplement my studing, and I found it helpful.

Japanese is a challenging language to learn how to read and write fluently (I'm still a LONG way from that) but you can get a great start by learning hiragana, katakana, and a few key food kanji.  Most people start with hiragana (as Japanese kids do) but it may make more sense to start with katakana if you have limited time, as it is more helpful for menu reading.  You can probably get it somewhat memorized with maybe 5 hours of serious studying and suddenly you will be starting to sound out menus!

In addition to the universally necessary greetings, personal introductions, thank you's, and apologies, vegetarians and vegans are HIGHLY ADVISED to learn some food specific Japanese.  Before you get on that plane, I suggest you learn how to say what you can't eat in Japanese.  (Check out some basic phrases here or a video version here.)  Just saying you're vegetarian isn't going to cut it.

2) Improve your knowledge of Japanese food.  The more you know about Japanese dishes, and what they contain, the better you'll be able to feed yourself.  If you are someone who doesn't eat fish, I suggest you become an expert on katsuodashi.

3) Communicate with your supervisor and/ or your school about your dietary restrictions.  There will, without a doubt, be welcome parties for you that will, without a doubt, revolve around food that you won't be able to eat unless you make things extremely clear beforehand.  If you are lucky, someone in your line of predecessors will also have been vegetarian.  Even if this is the case, you will find yourself explaining your dietary choices many times.  Be patient but honest.  Letting people know ahead of time will save a lot of hurt feelings and wasted food.  If you will be working at elementary schools, (and in some cases, at Jr. high schools) there will be a kyushoku (school lunch), that will not be veggie friendly.  I recommend telling your school no thank you and packing your own lunch.

After you arrive in Japan

4) stock up your kitchen, you're going to be spending a lot of time there!  Buying unprocessed food like fresh veggies and fruit, tofu, soba, rice, and cooking them up yourself is the safest way to ensure what you're eating is actually vegetarian.  It's also healthier, cheaper, and can't be bad for your culinary skills, either.  Learn how to cook some vegetarian versions of Japanese dishes!  A lot of your favorite meals to make from back home will be difficult find ingredients for.  While it's worth hitting up the foreign food stores when you venture to a real city, you will find a lot of foreign foods expensive.  Learn to love what is cheap and plentiful in your area.

5)  Find an Indian restaurant in your town!  If you live in the REAL inaka, you may not have one, and I will direct your attention back to my last piece of advice. Luckily for most of you, Indian food is an ethnic food that enjoys a lot of popularity in Japan, so you should be able to find one within cycling distance or with a few stops on the train.  Even in Mie, there were quite a number of Indian places around.  Indian vegetarian curry will virtually always be actually vegetarian, and they may be able to do a vegan version too.  You should always double check that your curry contains no meat, but an added bonus of Indian places is that quite often the staff can speak English.  Italian food is also very popular in Japan, and there will usually be a few safe options.

6) Once you find a place with veggie options or willing to make you a special dish, become a regular!  Always having to check labels and explain yourself can be quite exhausting.  Having a restaurant you regularly go to where they remember you (it won't be too hard if you are the only foreigner in town!) and your food requirements is great because you can just order the usual without having to worry.  Also, it's great to financially support the places that are veggie friendly!

7) Challenge yourself to try new foods and learn to love them.  In Japan you'll find lots of unfamiliar dishes and ingredients. Be curious, look at labels, ask questions, develop a love (or at least a tolerance) for some new foods.  It took me a year in Japan and many many unpleasant taste tests before I started to like natto, but it has become one of my favorite foods.  I encourage you to be adventurous!

8) Be patient and realize you are making a difference. As touched on in #3, you may soon tire of explaining what a you can and can't eat and why you are vegetarian.  Some people will find the idea hilarious, some will be annoyed by your selfishness, some will be curious, and some will just write your vegetarianism off as another foreigner oddity.  If you are veggie for ethical reasons, you will find that a lot of Japanese people just don't really get it.  There seems to be some fundamentally different ways in the way Japanese culture and western cultures think about animals.  A willingness to talk about your diet and the reasons behind it is an important piece of cultural education, which is one of the fundamental goals of the JET program.  Exposing Japan to new cultures and lifestyles is part of your mission.  I can tell you that in the 13 years since my first trip to Japan, there has been a shift in awareness and availability of vegetarian food.  If you are a vegetarian or vegan living in Japan, you are part of this shift.

がんばれ!(Do your best / hang in there!)

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Yoyogi Park weekend festivals

One of my favourite things to do on a weekend in Tokyo is head to Yoyogi Park.  A quick walk from Harajuku station and you're in an oasis of green in the center of the city.  Yoyogi Kouen is a fantastic spot for people watching: all types of people come out with their friends, lovers, families, and pets to spend a little time on the grass to unwind at the end of the week.  You can watch the rockabilly dancers do their thing near the entrance of the park, join a drum circle near the fountains, and hoolahoop or play frisbee on the grass.  Yoyogi Park is a lovely place to have a picnic, and you can bring along a bottle of wine, a few cold beers, or a sweet umeshu to savor on the grass.  I love that drinking outside is allowed in Japan, and have always thought it rather annoying that my hometown (Vancouver) 's laws prohibit this, though it would probably be more appropriate to direct my disapproval at the kind of hooliganism (rioting because you lost a hockey game?!?) that makes these laws necessary.

Another cool thing about Yoyogi Kouen is that nearly every weekend of the warmer months has some event happening in Yoyogi Park event square, just across the road in the south end of the park.  There are cultural festivals, with plenty of stands selling food and drinks from the country of the week, as well as shops selling other items like clothes, accessories, and groceries.  You can get information on travel, as well as learn about NPOs and community groups with links to the featured country.

The food at these events caters to Japanese tastes, so there usually aren't a ton of vegetarian meal options.  When I go I like to try interesting sweets or drinks that can't usually be found in Japan.  At the Indonesian festival last weekend, for example, I had a yummy avocado smoothie drizzled with chocolate sauce.

These events are a great, very cheap (free entry, it'll only cost you what you eat) option for an outing in Tokyo.  I also love that at these events, you see a more relaxed side of Tokyoites than usual, and people can be seen to be doing such things as (gasp!) sitting on the ground (even without a leisure sheet!) and eating.

Yoyogi Park upcoming event schedule ( summer 2011)

July 2011

21st (Thurs) - 25th (Mon) Yoyogi Park Oktoberfest

30th (Sat) - 31st (Sun) Morning Market Earthday

August 2011

13th (Sat) - 14th (Sun) India and Africa
I heard that, in order to conserve power, this year some of the cultural festivals will be sharing a day.  I'm guessing that's the reason for this pairing.  Of course, the Indian festival should be better than most for vegetarian options!

21st (Sun) Morning Market Earth Day

September 2011

17th (Sat) - 18th (Sun) Vietnam

23th (Fri) - 25th (Sun) Namaste India

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Hope to see you there!!!

Monday, 11 July 2011


If you've read the dining out toolkit or the combini shopping section, you will be familiar with katsuodashi, a vegetarian's biggest obstacle to eating in Japan.  The use of katsuodashi is extremely widespread, but lucky for us, katsuo is not the only dashi in town.  Combudashi and shitake dashi are two other traditional Japanese stocks, and are safe for vegetarians and vegans.

Before we get too far into the specific dashis, I want to back up a bit.  I have a question for you.  When you think of the basic tastes, what comes to mind?  If you are from a western country, you will most likely have answered sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and perhaps spicy.  If you ask a Japanese person, they will tell you that there are 5 tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami.

Umami is the taste of nucleotides or glutamates hitting your tongue.  The body needs these building blocks of protein to survive, so we are hard wired to enjoy this taste.  But what exactly does umami taste like?  The closest word we have in English is probably savory, but that doen't quite do it justice.  Umami rich foods include meat, seafood, including combu and other seaweed, and vegetables like ripe tomatoes, shiitake mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, as well as other items like parmesan cheese and soy sauce.  When mutiple umami rich foods are combined, some kind of magical umami multiplication effect occurs and the total taste becomes far greater than the sum of the ingredients.  Because of this, a mix of fish and combu dashis forms the flavor base of many Japanese dishes.

Now to the specific dashis.  Katsuodashi  (かつおだし,  カツオだし,  鰹 だし) made from dried bonito fish, and is the most widely used.  Similar, but less widely used is nibodashi (にぼしだし,  ニボシダシ,  煮干出し), which is made from dried anchovies.  If you are vegetarian or vegan, you should make friends with kombudashi (昆布だし), made from dried kelp, and shiitakedashi (椎茸だし), made from dried shiitake.  

Dashi is considered an essential base to all kinds of Japanese dishes, including pretty much every kind of soup (miso, soba, udon... ), nimono and more less anything cooked in a broth.  As katsuodashi, or some combonation including katsuodashi is generally used, be very careful when eating in a restaurant or buying prepared food from a combini or grocery store.  When you cook at home, you can use combudashi, shiitakedashi or a both to create a rich base flavor for your dishes.  When buying dashi in a grocery store you have two basic options.  You can buy actual dried combu or shiitake, and make the dashi yourself, or buy powdered dashi, which includes individually wrapped portions in little paper packs.  These days, most Japanese people buy the powdered version, as they require no work, but the traditional version is healthier (the powdered version also contains salt, sugar, and other additives) and unambiguously vegetarian and vegan friendly.  If you are buying the powdered version, check to make sure that the your combu or shiitake dashi doesn't also contain katsuo.  Also, the instant version will usually contain amino (アミの酸), amino acids from which source (animal vegetable or mineral?) they don't bother to write.  

This brand is vegetarian, other than containing the ambiguous amino.

How to prepare combudashi and shiitakedashi

Using dried combu or shiitake to make your own dashi is really quite easy.  The standard way to make combudashi is to wipe a piece of combu with a damp cloth, then soak in a pot of water for at least 20 minutes.  Turn on the heat on low and remove the combu from the pot just when the water comes to a boil. You can save the combu you used for your stock to use in other dishes.   

When I make miso soup, I just throw a piece of combu in before the vegetables, not bothering to presoak cause I'm a lazy cook.  You can remove the combu before serving, but it's quite nutritious, so I like to eat it along with my soup.   


 This combu is cut into convenient dashi making strips.

For shiitakedashi, the recipes I've seen really vary.  Start by rinsing a handful of dried shiitake.  You can get a fair amount of flavor by simply soaking the mushrooms in water (for a half hour, a few hours or overnight), or for a stronger flavor, simmer the shiitake for about 20 minutes.   You can then use those mushrooms in other dishes.  Shiitake dashi is often made with both shiitake and combu for a richer flavor.   

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Okarakonnyaku- giving new life to soymilk refuse!

Marketed as a dieter's food, okarakonnyaku (おからこんにゃく) is a relatively new product made from the fusion of two traditional Japanese foods.  It can be found in the refrigerated section, likely near the tofu, of some supermarkets, and also at health food stores.

Okara (おから) is a biproduct of soymilk production.  When soybeans are pureed and the liquid is strained out, the pulp that remains in the filter in okara.  Most okara ends up going into animal feed, as consumers buy a lot more soymilk than they do okara, but it is also a great food for humans, being low in fat, high in fiber, and a source of protein, calcium, iron, and vitamin B2.  (Thanks wikipedia!)  You'll find it used in Japanese, Korean, and Chinese cuisine, and more recently in vegetarian products in the west.  It doesn't have much of a taste by itself, but can be made into delicious dishes like unohana.

Konnyaku (蒟蒻,  こんにゃく)is a jelly made from the root of a tuber (potato-like plant).  It has all kinds of crazy English names that are relatively unknown: have you ever heard of devil's tonge, voodoo lilly, or snake palm?  I certainly hadn't!  In Japan, konnyaku is made from a mix of konnyaku flour, water, and limewater.  As it contains almost no calories, and is high in fiber, it is known as a great food for those trying to lose weight.  Fresh konnyaku has a somewhat stinky fishy smell, though I can assure you it is vegetarian, and the smell disappears once cooked.  I'm not crazy about the taste of konnyakku itself, but it's not bad with a yummy sauce, or tucked into flavorful dishes.

The wonders of Japanese food technology have fused these two healthy, traditional foods into something rather meatlike in texture, and seemingly healthy.  To be honest, after reading in Defense of Food by Michael Pollan (which, along with The Omnivore's Dilemma, I highly recommend to any thoughtful eater), I've become rather suspicious of wondrous modern food technology, but from my limited research, okarakonnyaku seems pretty decent.  For one, this product contains a fairly short list of recognizable ingredients, the opposite of which (long list, unfamiliar, scientific sounding ingredients), Pollan believes we should try to avoid.

In Japan, okarakonnyaku's target market is dieters and health conscious eaters, but this is also a great product for vegetarians as it makes a great mock meat to throw into a stir fry.  Which is precisely what I did tonight.

"Soon he started to develop a new food with his positive thinking. The wish to eat a tasty food is common all over the world. He held out!"

This quote is from a cute description of the birth of okarakonnyaku found here. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

wagashi boom

"My boom" or "(***)boom" are expressions used by Japanese speakers to talk about something they've been really into lately.  For example, 最近サングリアブームです!(saikin sanguria boom desu!)  Means that you've been really into drinking sangria recently. (See postscript on this language below.)

My boom at the moment is wagashi (Japanese sweets), in particular, 豆大福 (Mamedaifuku).  Daifuku is a mochi (glutinous rice) cake stuffed with anko, or sweet red bean paste.  Anko is a common component of traditional Japanese sweets, and a flavor that it took me a while to warm up to.  As a vegetarian in Canada, beans were a regular part of my diet, but the idea of sweet bean as a dessert flavor took some getting used to. There are several different kinds of daifuku, but my very favourite is mamedaifuku, as it contains whole beans tucked into the mochi portion.  The addition of these beans doesn't change the flavor so much as adds another interesting dimension to the texture palate: thick, sticky anko, chewy mochi, and harder beans.

Daifuku can be found at combinis, supermarkets and specialty shops.  I think the main catalyst for my wagashi boom is that I discovered a lovely little wagashi shop by my work.  Though the price is double what one pays at a combini (200¥ rather than 100¥), the difference in flavor is well worth it.  My specialty shop's diafuku is so much more flavorful, and a look at the ingredients reveals a better quality and a simpler list.  The specialty shop's daifuku are made from rice, beans, and sugar (and starch?), while the combini version is a longer and more artificial list, allowing a cheaper product with a longer shelf life.  I also love that my local shop is a small business, and the employees are able to interact in a more genuine and less scripted way.

Though mamedaifuku is my #1 favorite, I've tried a few of their other goodies too.  The photo below is a seasonal treat, with a pancakey outside and mochi inside.  I was assured that the fish link was in shape only!

So pretty.  Wagashi are popular as gifts so presentation is extremely important.

Unlike most western desserts, wagashi are generally vegan.  The little jellied ones below, however, appeared to be made with gelatine.  When I inquired about this, the lady behind the counter said they indeed were made with gelatine, but the older man resting in the back of the store insisted they were made with kanten (a seaweed based jelling agent).  They insisted back and forth for a bit (family businesses are cute!) and the matter was never solved.  I'm going to assume they are not vegetarian, but they sure are nice to look at.    

Postscript: The above use of "boom" was ok'd by my Japanese advisor #1.  But, as I'm paranoid about teaching you bad Japanese, I ran it by a few Japanese coworkers today, and they said it was a bit off.  Both said that the expression (***)boom is used when something is popular with a big group of people, while one should say "my boom" when talking about something that one person is into.  They suggested: 

saikin no maiboom wa sanguria desu.

Do any Japanese speakers want to weigh in on this?  

Another interesting note about this language is that you can also talk about another person's "my boom". So it would be permissible to ask your friend the equivalent of "what's your my boom these days?".

Monday, 4 July 2011

EL Pato - Koenji hamburger shop

vegetarian friendly (?) restaurant

I must admit, I have some reservations about recommending this place on a vegetarian blog.  Let's be clear: El Pato is a meaty paradise, and there isn't a veggie burger in sight.  That said, I seriously love this place. For me, fabulous vegetarian living means not limiting myself to vegetarian restaurants, but also finding yummy things in seeming danger zones like yakitori (grilled chicken) restaurants.  My sweetheart and most of my friends are not vegetarians, and while sometimes they'll indulge me by dining at a veggie place, they usually want to sink their teeth into something meaty.  And as long as I can find myself something satisfying to eat too, that's cool with me.

Back to El Pato.  Not far from Koenji station, you'll find this little gem.  El Pato specializes in American cuisine, and is also a bar in the evening (or anytime you have a hankering for a Heartland beer or Mohito (750¥)).  This place has a cool, diner-ish atmosphere, and is beautifully finished with lots of wood and stainless steel.  If you come for dinner or drinks in the evening, you'll find tealights charmingly twinkling out of pickle jars.

The first time I ate at El Patio, when I explained my dietary restrictions to the server, she recommended that I order a BLT (890¥) with avocado instead of bacon.  The resulting sandwich, ordered with fries (free with lunch, 150¥ with dinner), was fabulous.  What made it so delicious?  The homemade bread?  The kick of dijon mustard?  The generous serving of fresh vegetables?  Any lingering disappointment over lack of veggie burger was quickly forgotten.

This time, after inhaling my ALT, I thought that for the sake of VegOut Tokyo I'd better order a dessert.  The brownie with pecan nuts topped with vanilla ice cream caught my eye.  At 700¥, I had high expectations.  When the brownie arrived, I couldn't help but do that excited clapping thing that Japanese girls sometimes burst into when a yummy looking dish arrives.  My dining companion, who had said she didn't want dessert, quickly claimed half of the brownie, and her share of the berry sauce drizzled ice cream.

The service at El Pato leaves nothing to be desired.  The lone server was really attentive and helpful, and the chef (and owner?) speaks great English.  According to the diplomas hanging on the back wall, he studied at the California School of Culinary Arts.

So if you don't mind watching other people stuffing their faces with meat, I definitely recommend a trip to El Pato.  If you're not familiar with the Koenji neighborhood, spend an afternoon kicking around the quirky  shops in the shotengai and connecting streets.  This area is also known for having a great nightlife, with lots of cool little bars and livehouses (concert venues), so a visit to Koenji at night is also well worth it.


Menu: The hamburger menu has both English and Japanese, however there's not a veggie option on it.  Ask about the vegetarian version of the BLT.  The main menu, bar menu, and the 200¥ tapas (!) menu are in Japanese only.

I inquired about other menu items that were vegetarian, and was told that the tomato salad, lettuce salad and pickles (all 200¥) were all fine (including the dressings).  Also, the blue cheese pizza is safe.

おすすめ / recommendation:  avocado, lettuce and tomato sandwich, brownie, fresh squeezed orange (actually mikan) juice

Good points: delicious, cool atmosphere, great service, English spoken

Bad points: no veggie burger (yet!), vegetarian choices are limited

How to get there: Head to the North exit of Koenji station.  Across the street you will see an uncovered shotengai (shopping street) with a yellow sign arching over the entrance, with a 7/11 on the left side.  Head to your left, and walk around the bus area towards the shotengai.  As you enter, you'll pass between the 7/11 and a drugstore.  Walk straight down this shotengai until it ends at at T.  Take a left and then the next right.  Walk straight for a block and a half and you'll see El Pato on your right.

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