Tuesday, 27 September 2011

No Pork?

神座 (Kamukura) - vegetarian beware!
The weekend before last I had the pleasure of hanging out with a dear Canadian friend of mine who was visiting Japan for a few days on the way home from an artist's tour of Beijing.  After finishing work on Friday evening, I met her at Hachiko*.  We were hungry, and I wanted to take her somewhere that would really stink of classic Japan.

This ramen shop, four blocks from Tsutaya / Starbucks on centa-gai in Shibuya had caught my eye a number of times.  Due to their use of pork stock as a base, conventional ramen shops are generally just a no go, as there are no veggie options or easy ways to modify this dish to make it veggie-friendly.  What made this place stand out was a large English sign hanging under their menu that claimed their ramen could be made without pork on request.  I consulted with a staff member on our way in, who assured me that as their soup stock was shoyu (soy sauce), based and meat free, there would be no meat or fish used whatsoever if I gave the "no pork" instruction.

We headed in, took a seat at the counter, and started to catch up, talking about how our lives had evolved in the 3 years since we'd last met.  Our ramen arrived and we dug in.  One thing I liked about this place was that there were a number of add ons you could make to your meal. I always find ramen a bit lacking in the vegetable department, so I appreciated that for 100¥, I could get a little side of bean sprouts to top up my dish.  It was fairly tasty, though I'm happy to report, I found it no match for the veggie ramen offered by Loving Hut, T's Tan Tan, or (my favorite) Cafe Proverbs 15:17 in Kyoto or their Tokyo sister  Kickback Cafe.

 I was satisfied by the experience until, near the end of the bowl, my chopsticks pulled up a little chunk of something distinctly meaty.  It was an unhappy end to the meal, but I tried not to let it kill the good vibes the evening.  I now regret leaving the restaurant without saying anything.  I was struggling to think of a polite way to explain in Japanese that I was really disappointed by the apparent lack of care that let a chunk of pork slip into a meal that was promised to be without.  Other than being upsetting for vegetarians, this kind of thing could be a really big deal for those whose religions forbid eating pork, or people with allergies.  Alas, I couldn't think of a good way to explain this without making too much of a scene, so we just left.  As for the reason the pork ended up in my ramen, my guess is that they do in fact use a vegetarian, shoyu base, but that they're not particularly careful with the utensils they use to transfer ingredients around.  Which is something they might want to work on if they're going to display a huge "we can cook every noodle without pork" sign.

On a more positive note, I'm glad to say this is only the third such incident I've had in my 3 years in Japan, and given that I've done a whole lot of dining out, I consider it not too bad an error rate.  So I suppose my conclusion is that if it's important for you to feel sure you are digging into a meat free ramen, you are advised to give 神座 (Kamukura) a miss.

* Hachiko is a popular meeting spot in front of Shibuya station, named after a famously loyal dog


  1. I had this situation before when I was in England, and it was a vegetarian Chinese restaurant in the centre. I thought I had a vegan wonton soup, but it was a real won-ton and I knew how it was smelled (seafood and the meat appearance). I grew up with wontons. It's hard to differentiate vegan and non-vegan meats, it sucked dealing with a vegan-friendly dish with a piece of meat in it. I was in Tokyo for a day last week and it was very difficult at first. I know what a fish broth smelled like, but seriously most of their products contain a lot of ingredients that are impossible to take out.

  2. Wow... I would be extra sad if that happened in a place that was supposed to be vegetarian! I agree that it can be difficult to distinguish between mock meats and the real thing (especially if you haven't eaten real meat in many years)- some of the mock meats in Taiwan kind of scared me cause they were such good fakes! Especially with the language barrier I sometimes worried that I might be eating real meat.

    Did you make it to any vegetarian/ vegan restaurants while you were in Tokyo?


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