Veg Dining Out Toolkit

essential Japanese for restaurants and ingredients to look out for

One of the most important things you can do to equip yourself for veggie life in Japan is to have a basic knowledge of Japanese food.  More specifically, it's important to know about the ingredients that you can't eat and where they're likely to be hiding.  Of course, you are also going to have to communicate what you can and can't eat in Japanese.  Just saying "I'm vegetarian" isn't likely to get you a meal you can eat, but if you know which ingredients are likely to be used, and ask about them specifically, you are a thousand times more likely to be successful.

Basic phrases to remember:

I am vegetarian.
watashi wa bejitarian desu

I can't eat meat or fish or katsuodashi.
niku-toka sakana-toka katsuodashi wa taberemasen

Does this have meat (or fish) in it?
kore wa niku (-toka sakana) wa haitteimasuka?
これは (とか、) は入っていますか。

Can you make it without meat?
niku nuki-de dekimasuka?

Lesson 1: meet your worst enemy 

Katsuodashi, かつおだし,  鰹だし
The foundation of Japanese cooking's umami (savory) flavor, found in a huge range of dishes, is unfortunately (if you are a vegetarian who doesn't eat fish) your worst enemy.  This stock is made from bonito (fish).  Katsuodashi is used in virtually all miso, udon and soba soups.  It's hiding in nimono (simmered vegetables), the mix for okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), agedashi doufu, suimono, salad dressings, and sauces (such as tempura dipping sauce and soy sauce).  

Katsuodashi is not really thought of as fish but rather a flavor enhancer.  If you are ordering any kind of Japanese food, make sure to say specifically that you can't eat katsuodashi. Sometimes these items can be made specially for you without katsuodashi if you ask nicely!

Katsuobushi,  かつお節,  鰹節
Katsuobushi is made from thin shavings of dried bonito fish.  It's brown or browish pink and can be found sprinkled on the top of many dishes, such as okonomiyaki, hiyayakko (tofu), cooked vegetables, and salads.

Restaurants will leave it off if you ask specifically.

Without katsuobushi please.
katsuobushi nuki-de onegaishimasu.


Lesson 2: the meats

My standard vegetarian explanation I do at a restaurant is to ask if something has meat, fish or katsuodashi in it.  Generally if they say no, or agree to make something without, I receive vegetarian meal.  The problems that I've had usually arise when a dish contains only a small amount of something, or if the morsels themselves are very small.  For example, pieces of bacon, or whitebait (tiny fish) will sometimes be overlooked or not considered meat or fish.  So it's best to predict what kind of meat or fish might be in an item and ask specifically.  So before I buy a yummy looking cheese bun from a bakery, I'll ask if it has meat or fish or bacon in it.  When I order a salad I'll ask what kind of dressing it's made with and whether it contains fish or meat extracts.  

If you are at a restaurant and tell them you can't eat meat, they will probably understand you can't eat red meat or poultry.  But to be safe, here are some specifics:

meat- niku, ニク, 肉

beef- gyuuniku, 牛肉 , ビーフ 

pork- butaniku, 豚肉 , ポーク

bacon- beekon, ベーコン

ham- hamu, ハム

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

meat extract- niku ekisu, にくエキス 
Chicken, beef and pork extract (bullion) will often be an ingredient in salad dressing and various sauces, including those that appear to be vegetarian or say "vegetable" (or sometimes even "vegetarian"!) on the menu

Lesson 3: seafood

Saying you can't eat fish should ensure that you don't get a big slab of it in your meal, but things like katsuodashi, katsuobushi, shrimp, and shellfish may slip by.  The latter two are not particularly common in Japanese dishes (and are often recognizable in photos or plastic model food), so I only mention them if I suspect the dish may contain these ingredients.

fish- さかな, サカナ, 魚

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

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
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.

Watch out for those little orange guys!

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