I realize that of all the restaurants I've posted about, very few actually serve what I'd call Japanese food. This may be fine for those veggies that, like me, are living in Japan longer term and have incorporated Japanese staples into their home cooking, and can usually get their fill of them there. For those just visiting Japan, I can imagine that getting a good dose of Japanese cooking is in order, so I'd like to share with you some places where a vegetarian can do just that. If you're new to the blog, you might want to have a look at my posts on Vegetable Sushi Potager, T's Tan Tan (for ramen), Loving Hut (for ramen), and Sora no Niwa (for tofu and izakaya food). Today I want to tell you about my favourite place to go for okonomiyaki.
Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) is a Japanese savory pancake, made with a batter of flour, egg, nagaimo (a kind of yam), and shredded cabbage. Into this batter, one can throw their choice of ingredients, for most people this includes meat and/or seafood, vegetables, green onions, tenkasu (deep fried batter bits), and sometimes cheese, mochi or kimchi. With a name literally meaning "what you like"(お好み) "grill"(焼き), okonomiyaki is an innately customizable dish. The main stumbling block to being vegetarian friendly, is that okonomiyaki will usually contain katsuodashi (a fish based stock discussed further here). Most okonomiyaki restaurants, and chains in particular, will have a premixed batter containing katsuodashi, and can't or won't whip you up a fresh batch dashi-free. If you do find yourself dining in a "we use dashi, take-it-or-leave-it place", you may want to switch gears and order yakisoba with vegetables instead, which, if you fry it yourself with shoyu (soy sauce) should be a veggie safe option.
Tsuchiya is one of those rare places that does not use katsuodashi in their batter, making the vegetable okonomiyaki on the menu safe as is. This restaurant is unusually foreigner-friendly, with an English menu available, and they even have one of those maps of the world with push pins available for guests to mark where they're from. The staff is very friendly and helpful, and kindly checked the ingredients of various sauces for me to determine which one I could eat. Tsuchiya is very popular with the locals, and their walls proudly display the signatures of famous people that have come to dine over the years.
When I dropped by last week, I ordered the vegetable okonomiyaki (680¥) opting to add mochi for an extra 300¥. The ingredients are promptly served to your table in a little cup, which you mix up and then pour out on the teppan yourself. Just like a pancake, you wait until the underside is cooked enough to be flippable (about 5 min), then use the 2 metal spatulas provided to turn it over, and cook the other side too.
Okonomiyaki is especially tasty if you add some sauce, mayonaise, and a sprinkling of aonori (seaweed). Vegetarians should approach okonomiyaki sauce (and, well, all sauces in Japan) with caution as they are often made with a fish or meat base. As I mentioned before, the staff was kind enough to check the ingredients of the sauces for me, and it was determined that the sauce in the little pot with the brush was in fact veggie-friendly (while another on the table contained pork-based ingredients). At Tsuchiya, mayonaise must be ordered separately at a small additional cost, but this time we didn't bother cause they were tasty enough without. You are also likely to find katsuodashi with the condiments (more info in the dining out toolkit), but I doubt you would mistake these thin shavings of dried fish for something vegetable based cause they look and smells distinctly otherwise.
Maybe it was the cold glass of lemon-hi (450¥) that had gone to my head, or perhaps the teppan-smoky relaxed atmosphere, but I'm pretty sure this was the most delicious okonomiyaki I've eaten in my life this far.
how to get there: From Nishishinjuku station on the Marunouchi line, take exit 2 and head down the hill. At the second traffic light, you'll take a left, but first cross the road (continuing in your original direction) so you'll be walking on the right hand side of the road. Walk down this street for a few minutes, and you'll see a few Family Marts on the opposite side of the street before reaching the restaurant. If you hit another traffic light, you've gone too far. I don't recall seeing any English signage outside the restaurant, so look for the red lantern, yellow awning, and these characters: つちや.
5-5-6 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 〒160-0023
Tsuchiya is closed on Mondays.
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