combini: ingredients to look out for

A list of ingredients vegetarians can't eat 
for Japanese combini shopping

Buying prepared food at a combini (convenience store) or supermarket?  This is a list of non-vegetarian ingredients to look out for.  A lot of them are also on the list in the dining out toolkit, but this is a bit more inclusive.  It isn't a complete list, as there are so many different kinds of (less common) seafood and meat products out there, but if you can remember these (or carry a print out along with you) you can feel pretty confident about what you are buying.  I have enlarged some of the denser kanji so you can get a better look at them.

Combini staff (and service industry people in general) in Japan are very polite and generally willing to help.  If there isn't a line of customers, they probably won't mind if you ask them about a specific item. The Japanese phrases listed in the dining out toolkit could be used in this situation too.

Sneaky ingredients that hide in safe-looking food

gelatin- zerachin, ゼラチン
Many yogurts contain gelatin (made from animal skin and bones)

shortening- shootoningu, ショートニング
Can be made from animal or vegetable fat (unfortunately is not specified on labels).  If you're not okay with the uncertainty, watch out for shortening in breads and other baked goods.

lard- raado, ラード
Lard may be added to bread and baked goods.

amino acid- amino-san, アミノ
May be animal, vegetable or microbial based.  Eat or avoid?  The choice is up to you!

extract- ekisu, エキス
Look out for chicken extract (チキンエキス) or chicken stock (がら), pork extract (ポークエキス), and beef extract (ビーフエキス)

***also see the katsuo family in the seafood section!


meat- niku, ニク, 肉
This character is one you definitely want to remember, even if you are only visiting Japan for a short time.  The kanji for many kinds of meat contain it, so it comes in handy when scanning labels or ordering at a restaurant.  If you see this kanji, the item is almost always not vegetarian, with a few notable exceptions: 梅肉 means umeboshi (salty pickled plum) and is the filling of an often vegetarian safe onigiri (riceball).  Also, just to confuse you, the kanji for tofu contains the meat radical 豆腐

beef- gyuuniku, ビーフ, 牛肉

pork- butaniku, ポーク , 豚肉

bacon- beekon, ベーコン 
Often found in bread and buns at combinis and bakeries.

ham- hamu, ハム
Often found in bread and buns at combinis and bakeries.

sausage- sooseeji, ソーセージ, winnaa, ウインナー
Sometimes found in combini or bakery bread.

chicken- chikin, toriniku, チキン, とり肉,  鶏肉


fish- さかな, サカナ, 魚
This is another essential kanji to remember.  It may be on its own or part of another kanji.  When you see it, the item almost always contains fish.  Shiso 紫蘇 is one notable exception.  Shiso is a Japanese herb that may be found in vegan onigiri in combinis.  Speaking of onigiri, they are often one of the best vegetarian (and vegan) options for real food in a convenience store.  Generally, most will be stuffed with seafood, and sometimes other meat (particularly chicken), but there will usually be a few safe options.  The trick is learning how to identify them.  The list of seafood below will help you identify which not to buy.

bonito fish - katsuo, かつお,  カツオ,  
As discussed in the veg dining out toolkit section, katsuo products, especially katsuodashi are a major obstacle to vegetarian eating in Japan.  I'll list several different products bellow, but perhaps the easiest way to remember if you have limited or no Japanese, is to memorize (write down, or tatoo into your arm) the hiragana, katakana, and kanji versions of katsuo above.  If you've already committed to memory the fish kanji, you will recognize it on the left side of the kanji.   

bonito extract- katsuoekisu, かつおエキス,  カツオエキス,  鰹エキス
Found in many items, such as salad dressings in combini salads, and potato chips.

bonito stock- katsuodashi, かつおだし,  カツオだし,  鰹だし
Also found in a wide range of items, including soups, dressings, snacks, and onigiri.

bonito flakes- katsuobushi, かつおぶし,  カツオブシ,  鰹節

dried anchovies- niboshi, ニボシ,  煮干し

dried anchovy stock- niboshidashi, にぼしだし,  ニボシダシ,  煮干出し

tuna- tsuna, ツナ
         shichikin, シーチキン
         maguro, まぐろ,  マグロ,  

horse makerel- aji, あじ,  アジ,  

eel- うなぎ,  ウナギ,  鰻

makerel- saba, さば, サバ,  鯖 

jakko (small fish)- じゃこ,  ちりめんじゃこ 

salmon- sake, shake, さけ,  しゃけ,  サケ,  シャケ,  

seafood- gyokairui, shiifuudo, 魚介類,  魚貝類, シーフード

shellfish- kai, kairui, かい,  かいるい,  カイ,  カイルイ,  貝,  貝類

squid- ika, いか, イカ

octopus- たこ, タコ

shrimp- えび,  エビ,  海老

clam- asari, あさり,  アサリ

scallop- hotate, ほたて,  ホタテ,  帆立

cod roe- mentaiko, めんたいこ,  明太子
              tarako, たらこ,  タラコ,  鱈子
These small red-orange fish eggs can be found lurking in pasta sauce, onigiri (rice balls) and buns at the bakery.  Because of their size and color, they can be mistaken for tomato sauce if one is not looking closely. 

*** In writing this list, I relied heavily on Veg out:  The Vegan & Vegetarian Survival guide for Japan, written by Simonette Mallard, published by HAJET Publications.  A useful book for vegetarians and vegans living in Japan, it includes a more complete ingredient listing, nutrition information, restaurant listings, and descriptions of Japanese produce.  It can be purchased here.

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