Can You Spot the Fish?

Last week I told the happy, if not 100% successful as it turned out, tale of my vegan munch-fest in Toronto, Canada. This week you get to join me on a brief flash-back tour of Japan, from where Alan and I recently returned. It’s quite a different story!

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I’ve been to Japan before and am aware that they seem to have an obsession with dashi – a traditional stock made from dried bonito or sardines along with seaweed. At home I make this without the fish, but in Japan it’s fishy, it’s popular, and it’s in just about everything. I made the choice to ignore the presence of dashi in my food in favour of eating in restaurants while in Japan, especially since I wanted to eat Japanese food rather than spend my holiday dragging Alan to out-of-the-way vegan restaurants serving raw food, Indian curries, or macrobiotic vegan dishes. Happy Cow (as great resource if you’re looking for vegan places to eat) lists about 10 vegan / vegetarian places to eat in the huge city of Osaka, none of which serve Japanese food or happened to be close to where Alan and I found ourselves at mealtimes. Some of the cities we visited had no listings at all. Fortunately I like the challenge of trying to find something to eat wherever we are at mealtimes rather than planning my day around the location of veggie restaurants anyway.

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So, having decided to ignore the dashi it should have been easy for me to eat like an almost-vegan in Japan, right? Wrong. Here’s a little test to get you started. This is a breakfast tray I put together in Okayama for the sake of a photo. No, I didn’t eat all the items on it. Can you spot the fish? I’ll give you a hint – it’s not in the small covered pot. That contains natto (fermented, sticky soybeans), which is a bit of an acquired taste. As a second challenge, can you the dashi-free foods?

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The fish are the small dark brown things in the white dish next to the rice. The rice, pickled radish (yellow), natto, chilled tofu and white slimy yuka puree (top left) are vegan. Probably. 

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Our first day in Japan was spent in Osaka, where we were lucky enough to arrive on the opening day of the cherry blossom viewing at the mint. We, along with “a few” other people , were treated to a spectacular show put on by the various types of cherry blossom trees. It was really beautiful (in an very crowded, hot, sweaty kind of way).

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We emerged from the viewing area and headed down to the market stalls by the river looking for something to eat. To my delight one (and only one) of the stalls had tofu, konnyaku and vegetables simmering away in stock (probably dashi), served with a blob of mustard. I’m not saying it was tasty (it wasn’t), and I’m not saying it was good (I didn’t eat the flavourless, glutinous, squidgy konnyaku), but it was the only almost-vegan food around so I was grateful.

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We were surrounded by stalls selling meat or seafood on BBQ grills or being steamed in large pots, but I was still a bit surprised when we came across a stall with a shallow tank containing small, live, goldfish. What appeared to be serving bowls sat next to the tank with a list of prices. “Do you eat these?” I asked the guy manning the stall. He looked at me in astonishment then began to laugh. And laugh and laugh. I know my Japanese is bad, but I didn’t think it was that bad. He wiped tears from his eyes before replying. “No, we don’t eat these. It’s a game for the children. They try to catch the lucky fish.” He’s probably still telling his friends about the hilarious foreign woman who thought his goldfish were food, and laughing every time.

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But, really, why weren’t they food? I’ve lost count of the number of fishy meals I had in Japan after specifically ordering something with no meat and no fish. Chilled tofu with ginger, coated in a thick layer of shaved bonito. Vegetarian noodle soups with a pile of shaved dried fish sitting in the middle. A “romantically lit” restaurant in Kyoto served me a vegetarian meal of tofu, salad and rice. It wasn’t until I ate a mouthful that I discovered the tiny white fish coating the surface of the rice. Oh for goodness sake! Fortunately I’ve mastered the art of spitting food into a tissue.

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It wasn’t all fishy doom and gloom however. On Mount Shosha, where parts of the Tom Cruise movie “the Last Samurai” were filmed, I had a very seaweedy vegan soup, which was lovely. As a bonus Alan might have visited the very same toilet at the top of the mountain which Tom Cruise himself used! It even had a heated seat! Although, as some party-pooper pointed out, Tom probably had his own trailer and never used the public washroom.

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In Okayama we found a cafe serving Japanese style curry suitable for vegetarians! It was fabulous. So much so that when we found a restaurant by the same chain in Takamatsu we went in for dinner. I ordered the exact same curry, but when it came it looked…different. I poked it with my chopstick. “Is this meat?” I asked the server. “Yes, of course” she replied. I showed her the menu. “But I ordered this one. This is vegetarian?” “Yes.” she answered. “But this is meat?” I poked it again. “Yes.” she replied. “But I’m vegetarian. I don’t eat meat.” At last she understood the problem. “Ah. I’ll get the chef.” He came over and looked at the dish. “Shall I make you the vegetarian one without the meat?” “Yes please. Thank you.” And when it came, it was fabulous.

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I learned from this experience, and when I saw a restaurant in Osaka advertising a 12-vegetable curry I asked the server if it contained meat before heading to a table. “It’s vegetarian” she said. “It has 12 vegetables. It’s very good.” “But does it contain meat?” I asked. “Yes, of course.” she replied. We headed back into the rainy streets of the Dotonburi area where I had vegetables on a stick. With no fish. Although, in retrospect, there might have been both dashi and egg in the batter.

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がんばりました. Hey ho. I tried. 私は試した. 

Karen 🙂




2 thoughts on “Can You Spot the Fish?

  1. at the deli in dan’s supermarket the workers at the sushi bar are japanese and the same thing happens!! i think maybe in japan ‘vegetarian’ might be understood as just ‘having vegetables’ rather than ‘not having meat?’


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