Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Summer festival food

One of the many things I adore about Japan is the many traditional festivals throughout the year.  In the summer, every town has its own little (or huge!) festival complete with taiko drumming, drinking, omikoshi (portable shrine carried or pulled by residents), and people clad in yukata or jinbei.  The real reason people come, of course, is the food.  A visit to a summer festival can't be fully enjoyed without eating some kind of food on a stick!  In general, eating while walking or in random public places (such as on a train platform) is frowned upon and not done except by clueless foreigners and naughty high school students.  Festivals, thankfully, are an exception to this rule, and you can see all kinds of people not so daintily enjoying street food and boozing in the streets.  Horray!

While most festival foods are not vegetarian friendly, I'd like to introduce you to a few of the options available for those who would rather pass on whole grilled squid on a stick.

Hot, steamy じゃがバター (jyaga bataa) is just a baked potato, salt, and a slab of butter thrown on top.  Mayonaise optional.  Simple and delicious!

If it's a steamy hot day, a lovely cool 冷やしきゅうり(hiyashi kyuuri) is always nice.  While these cucumbers are usually just seasoned with salt, I think they may occasionally contain katsuodashi, so if you are not a fish eater it's a good idea to double check.

This is the first time I can recall seeing 冷やしトマト(hiyashi tomato) as a festival food option.  It's just a cut up chilled tomato, with perhaps a sprinkle of salt.

焼きとうもろこし(yaki toumorokoshi), or grilled corn on the cob, is a satisfying vegetarian festival food option.  While it's usually safe, the sauce may occasionally contain meaty or fishy extracts so I always ask the vendor before buying.


Moving on to sweets, your least junky option may be a chocolate dipped banana.  So cute, but unfortunately the chocolate they use tends to be super low quality so I often find the taste a bit disappointing.  Not that this has ever stopped me from getting one.

A sure Japanese festival classic is かき氷 (kakigoori), or shaved ice.  Like a snow cone, these guys are usually topped by brightly coloured sugary flavored syrups, and sometimes condensed milk is also poured on top.  You can occasionally find more gourmet stands serving syrups made with real juice and frozen fruit.  I love the (now rare) old fashioned machines with the hand crank!

Mini castella (sponge cake) is another of the regulars.  You can find these little bite sized cakes shaped into characters like Kitty-chan (Hello Kitty), Doraemon, and Pikachu, selling in bags of about 20 pieces and up.

I don't think I've ever actually tried あんず飴 (anzu-ame), despite how pretty they are.  Apparently they're made from an apricot (and sometimes other fruit) surrounded by a glutinous starch syrup.  Throw a stick in there, ice, and you're ready to go.

Happy nibbling!  What's your favourite vegetarian summer festival food?  I'm curious to hear about local specialties across Japan.  For my international readers, what's your favorite veggie summer festival food in your country?

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Nagi Shokudo

vegan restaurant 

I've made it over the last hurdle of the summer: my school's second sleep away camp.  Added to the long days and superhuman energy expenditures required, this camp was a challenge for me because (as I mentioned a few posts back) I had to bring all of my own food for the 3 days.   It turned out quite well as there was a fridge and microwave in the dining area, and a dish soap and sponge equipped sink nearby to wash my dish.  My meals consisted of those ready to eat Indian curries, tofu burger patties, bread, natto, and a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables.  The kids got such a kick out of seeing me eat fruit and veggies as is, as it's pretty well unheard of in Japan.  The (non-vegetarian) meals provided by the camp were popular enough with the kids, but the other teachers were pretty unimpressed.  A lot of my coworkers were wishing they had brought their own stash too!

Back in Tokyo, with a day off to relax before heading back to a regular class schedule, I thought it was about time to do another restaurant post.  I'd never been to Nagi Shokudo before, but I'd heard good things.  My trusty Japan Vegan Restaurant Pocketguide said it's quite popular, and reviews on Happy Cow are positive.  The restaurant has a relaxed vibe, completed by an array of knick knacks as decoration, books and zines around to peruse, and interesting musical selections.  Half of the dining space is a raised platform for low Japanese table style dining, and the other half standard tables and chairs.      

I was inclined to order the 2 person dinner set, as they tend to be crowd pleasers, and as they often move faster than other menu items, tend to be fresh.  A-chan thought the set looked a little heavy on the karaage type fried items, so we ordered a selection of other menu items.  The stir fried cucumber and yam (nagaimo) (350¥) turned out to be rather disappointing.  It lacked flavor and the several of the nagaimo pieces were staring to go bad.  The plate of sliced tomatoes and avocado with tofu mayo (350¥) were nothing to write home about, but not bad either.  We tried their eggplant and mushroom curry (480¥) next.  It had a nice flavor, but quite watery in texture.  The ratatouille was reasonably tasty and I had no complaints about the brown rice (actually genmai), pickles and miso soup set (350¥)... except perhaps that you only get two tiny slices of pickles.  The tastiest item we ordered was definitely the falafel with tofu sour sauce, perhaps not coincidentally also the only deep fried item we had. Maybe we should have gone for the 2 person dinner set after all!

Other than not being all that impressed with the food, I should mention that A-chan found the interior of the place quite unappealing. She said the washroom and the open kitchen looked pretty dirty, the utensils and menu had seen better days and the decor looked more like an oddly decorated house than a restaurant.  In my eyes, the place just looked relaxed and a bit quirky, and I didn't find it dirty.  But hey, I'm someone who eats food that falls on the floor, so I tend to be quite relaxed about such things.  Overall, given the wealth of great veggie food options in Tokyo, Nagi Shokudo is not going on my list of places to return to, though if I did end up back there, I'd like to give the dinner or (well reviewed) lunch set a try.


menu: In Japanese and often oddly translated English

おすすめ / recommendation: falafel with tofu sour sauce, plus I hear the lunch plates are yummy

good points:  relaxed setting, zines available for your reading pleasure if that's your kinda thing

bad points:  the food was so-so overall and sometimes not very fresh

Address: 15-10-103 Uguisu Dani-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo


It's about 10 minutes walk from the South exit of Shibuya station.


Thursday, 18 August 2011

Living it up in Vegetarian friendly Taiwan

Hello friends!  I'm back home now after a lovely 6 day trip to Taiwan.  We had a great time and found that our money really went a long way, it was possible to really live it up and still have money left over at the end of the trip.  Other than the flight, I think we only spent about 70, 000¥ for the two of us.

One of my favourite things about travelling in Taiwan was the food.  Compared to veggie life in Japan, Taiwan was quite easy, as everyone understands the meaning of vegetarian.  According to Wikipedia, about 10% of the Taiwanese population is vegetarian at least some of the time.  Coupled with the Taiwanese culture of dining out, that means that you can find a vegetarian restaurant pretty much anywhere!  The trick, of course, is finding one of these places, particularly if you can't speak or read Mandarin.  While there is quite a lot of English spoken in Taiwan, particularly by younger people and those who work in tourism, most vegetarian restaurants don't get a lot of foreign customers, and are unlikely to have English signage.  To help you identify vegetarian places, I recommend you remember these characters: 素食 (sùshí) can be found as part of the restaurant name or otherwise prominently displayed out front, or as a heading for a veggie section of an omnivorous menu.  My guide book said that looking for a savastika ( Buddhist symbol that looks like a backwards swastika) is a good way to identify vegetarian restaurants, but I didn't notice any of these symbols in sight at many of the places we visited.

Did you spot the characters for sùshí?

This sign was on the inside of the same restaurant. So no savastika outside, but here it is on the menu of the vegetarian options.

 It would be, of course also very helpful to learn how to say "I'm vegetarian" in Mandarin.  At the first hotel we stayed at, I asked the clerk to teach me how to say this, and also to write it down on a piece of paper (我是素食者).  Unfortunately, upon trying this phrase out in restaurants, the staff either had no idea of what I was trying to say, or thought I was asking for sushi- apparently my tones need a little work!  So in the end, I found that a flashing my piece of paper, and using sign language was the most effective.  Ordering in Taiwanese restaurants often involves marking off your desired order on a (pictureless) menu/ orderform. If you can't read Mandarin at all it's a bit hilarious, as you'll have no idea what you are getting, but in a vegetarian place (if you aren't a picky eater) that can be kind of fun.  Checking out what other diners are eating and gesturing wildly towards a meal that looks yummy is also a good bet.  Veggie places in Taiwan feature lots of dishes with often scarily convincing but delicious mock meat.  From what I understand, the food should be mostly vegan, but one blog I read on the topic said some dishes might contain (non vegan) mayonaise, some restaurants will use eggs and sweets might contain dairy.  So vegans (who don't speak any Mandarin) would probably be safer bringing some written down phrases to double check.  Another note about Taiwanese vegetarian food is that it also doesn't contain onions or garlic.  I can't imagine cooking without, but in a way this just adds to my awe of how delicious Taiwanese veggie cuisine is!

You will find a lot of vegetarian buffets in Taiwan.  I found that even after stuffing myself silly, I generally felt pretty good  and that "too full" feeling didn't stick around to haunt me.

 One thing vegetarian travelers, especially those living in Japan, will appreciate is the abundance of cheap and delicious fruit in Taiwan!  Living in Canada, fruit always made up a good chunk of my diet, but given the cost of fruit in Japan, my choices are usually limited.  Fresh fruit juices, smoothies, and tea/juice blends are also popular in Taiwan and can be found as easily as the ubiquitous convenience stores.  Be warned, though- Taiwanese people have a sweet tooth, and sugar is often added to juice and smoothies.  I'm not sure if this is standard, but when I ordered a fresh watermelon juice, the vendor poured in something that looked like vegetable oil, so it might be wise to keep an eye on what's being added and be prepared to intervene if this is something you'd rather leave out.  

Yummy fresh juice will only set you back around NT$25- around 100¥ or a bit more than $1 Canadian or US.

So if you're considering countries in Asia for a vacation,  Taiwan is a great choice.  You'll find a good amount of English signage (at least in Taipei and near Taroko National Park), clean and convenient public transport options, warm and friendly people, and great shopping (the night markets are fun and cheap if you can handle the crowds).  I hear there are also beautiful beaches and great hiking if you venture out of the cities.  The delicious, cheap, veggie friendly food is sure to please vegetarian and vegan travelers, and if you are a tea lover, you are in for a treat!  I heart Taiwan.  Seriously.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Fuji Rock and surviving summer camp

久しぶり!It's been 3 weeks since my last post, as I've been busy with all sorts of summery things.  The last weekend of July I headed up to Niigata for the Fuji Rock Festival.  Not wanting to blow my summer travel budget, I decided to go as part of a work team with one of the vendors.  My booth was a rather un-vegetarian friendly establishment, as we served fish and chips, meat pies, beer and gin and tonics.  Luckily, the boss was cool and hooked me up with some free veggie meals from the other vendors.  Overall, the festival is decent when it comes to vegetarian selection, so if you are going as a guest, you shouldn't have any problems finding food.  I didn't get to see a lot of music, as we worked pretty long hours, but we had a great crew and it was a lot of fun to soak in the festival atmosphere.  A piece of advice to future Fuji Rockers: bring rain boots!  It rained a lot this year, and the sea of mud was intense.

Don't even think of coming to Fuji Rock without rain boots and a waterproof jacket (or poncho)!

I did manage to catch the Chemical Brothers.  Great visuals!

This week I was at summer camp in Nagano with my school from Thursday to Saturday.  I was told I'd be fine food wise, as the meals were buffet style, but just to be safe, I packed some supplementary nutrition.  I was very glad I did, as the buffet was a bit short on vegetarian protein sources and fruit, the gaps between meals were long, and lunch on two of the days turned out to be (meaty fishy) obento.  In my emergency pack: meal sized ready to eat portions of beans, nuts, raisins, dried apricots, and a pack of granola with nuts. Oh, and 3 cans of Redbull (we worked 17 hours a day!).  I kept nuts and a pack of beans with me at all times, and when hit with the first surprise obento lunch, ran back to my room for my granola.  It was interesting talking to the kids about why I was eating nuts and beans instead of meatballs, compared to adults they were really accepting of the idea that some people don't eat meat and fish.  They were also really excited when I shared my dried apricots with them.  Cute!

We are going on a second round of camp in the fourth week of August, this one to another location (I think it's in Yamanashi).  I've been informed that all of the meals are obento style, so I should bring what I need I feed myself for the entire 3 days.  There will be no place to buy food, and whatever I bring needs to survive for most of a day unrefrigerated.  I may try to bring some natto up in in a small cooler pack, but otherwise it needs to be dried or packaged so it won't go bad. In addition to the kind of things I brought to the first camp, I'm thinking that those pre-made Indian curry packs could be a good idea.  They are supposed to be heated, but I think I could get away with eating them as is.  Other than that, maybe a loaf of bread, and some hard fruit and veggies?  There will be a fridge and maybe a microwave and hot water, but virtually no prep time as I'm supposed to be watching the kids at all times.  Any suggestions?

I'm embarking on another summer adventure tonight: a 6 day trip to Taiwan with my sweetheart.  I'm really excited for the food, as I've heard Taiwan is quite veggie friendly due to a fair percentage of Taiwanese Buddhists being vegetarian (fulltime, or parttime for spiritual or health reasons).  If you've travelled to Taiwan (or of course, if you live there) I'd love to hear your recommendations for restaurants or any other must visit places, food related or not.

I hope you are all having a great and summery summer.  Stay cool and keep hydrated!
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