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I'm heading off to Tokyo in a few weeks. I'm a vegan and have no problem being so in Santa Cruz, California, USA. However would I make a fool of myself if I were to ask for vegan sushi in Tokyo? It seems like it should be possible to make some that way but if no one wants vegan sushi I'm not sure if restaurants would make them. If they don't have it on the menu, can they make some for me? How would I order this in Japanese? I had to explain the last time I was there, that vegetarian means no sea food either.

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    but isn't sushi basically raw fish? – Ant Mar 14 '15 at 15:53
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    Sushi means vinegared rice. Sashimi is raw fish. It's like assuming a "sandwich" always has meat. You can have sushi with sashimi in it, or you can have sushi with vegetables in it. – RoboKaren Mar 14 '15 at 17:16
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    So you just want to order rice wrapped in seaweed? – Jared Burrows Mar 14 '15 at 17:20
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    @JaredBurrows: not at all — no more than a “sandwich without meat” would mean just bread and butter. In places with both vegetarians and significant Japanese communities (e.g. Australia, west coast US/Canada) you can find lots of vegetarian sushi — cucumber, carrot, avocado, bell peppers, and cream cheese are some of the most common fillings for them, just off the top of my head. – PLL Mar 14 '15 at 18:44
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    @RoboKaren - Sushi without sashimi is more like turkey pie without turkey. – Davor Mar 16 '15 at 10:34
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Vegan is more than possible in Japan. There are a number of blogs on the topic that I suggest you look at.

In terms of the specifics of a sushi restaurant, the vegan basics are:

  • Kappa maki - cucumber roll  カッパ巻き
  • Natto maki - roll with natto 納豆巻き
  • Abokado nigiri/maki - avocado nigiri or maki アボカドにぎり
  • Ume shiso maki - Plums paste with shiso herbs -- see Footnote 1 梅しそ巻き
  • Inari zushi - rice in an inari (fried tofu) wrapper - See Footnote 2 稲荷寿し 
  • Oshinko maki - pickled daikon maki お新香巻き
  • Kanpyo maki - dried calabash gourd maki かんぴょう巻き

You can also ask for your own maki variations - especially if you can see the chef in front of you:

  • Ninjin avokado maki - carrot - avocado maki 人参アボカド巻き
  • Kyuuri to ninjin maki - cucumber and carrot maki 胡瓜と人参巻き
  • Gobo maki - burdock root (used in kinpira gobo) wrap - see Footnote 3 -ごぼう巻き
  • Spinach (horenso ほうれん草), bamboo shoots (takenoko たけのこ) - see Footnote 3

Most sushi chefs will understand basic english terms with the exception of cucumbers (kyuuri). They should take making a vegan sushi for you as a fun challenge.

Now not technically sushi, but riceballs can be usually ordered at a sushi restaurant:

  • Yaki onigiri - roasted rice ball with seaweed wrapper (with toasted sesame seeds) 焼きおにぎり
  • Onigiri - rice ball with seaweed wrapper おにぎり
  • Ume onigiri - rice ball with plum paste 梅おにぎり
  • Konbu onigiri - rice ball with konbu seaweed 昆布おにぎり

Footnote 1: Real home-made or chef-made umeboshi plum paste doesn't use katsuobushi (bonito flakes). As long as you're not at a chain restaurant, you can ask the chef if the umeboshi has katsuobushi (梅干しには鰹節が入っていますか? umeboshi ni wa katsuobushi wa haitte imasuka). They may give you the stink eye because it's like asking a haute cuisine French chef if their roux has corn starch in it.

Footnote 2: Inari sushi is great if you can make sure that they don't dip the fried tofu wrappers in a non-vegan dashi (not all places dip them in dashi, most just soak them in mirin which is vegan).

Footnote 3: Spinach and bamboo shoots (and occasionally burdock root) are usually steamed with katsuobushi (bonito) dashi stock. They may be able to make a vegan variation if they still have the raw ingredients and like you.


Bonus section

If you're in Kyoto, try to visit a Kyoyasai (京野菜) restaurant -- these serve heritage vegetables from the Kyoto area. Yum.

If you're by a Buddhist temple, try Shojinryori (精進料理) -- Buddhist traditional cuisine which has no meat.

For both, you should make sure that the dashi (stock) is vegan, made from kelp (konbu dashi) or mushrooms (shiitake dashi) and not from bonito (katsuobushi). A real temple wouldn't serve bonito dashi but a restaurant might (especially in the case of kyoyasai which is more about the heritage vegetables and not about being vegan).

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    I think this makes things sound a bit too easy. A traditional sushi place (which, in Japan, means the vast majority of them) won't have avocado or carrots on hand. Katsuo dashi is ubiquitous because it adds a nice umami kick, it's not a cheap filler/sign of low quality like cornstarch. – jpatokal Mar 15 '15 at 7:12
  • I guess we've been going to different sushi restaurants. – RoboKaren Mar 15 '15 at 16:30
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    By the way, the first hit in your LMGTFY link there offers the following advice: "being vegan in Japan is just as hard ... almost impossible to be a vegan in a traditional Japanese restaurant ... your best bet is to cook for yourself." justhungry.com/japan-survival-guide-vegans – jpatokal Mar 16 '15 at 2:12
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Only barely. Vegetarianism in general and veganism in particular is very poorly understood in Japan, and this r/japan thread goes into gruesome detail on what a world of pain you're about to find yourself in.The one vegetarian sushi place I'm aware of in Tokyo (Potager) has now closed.

The only vegan items you are likely to encounter in the average sushi shop are kappa-maki (カッパ巻き), cucumber rolls, and natto-maki (納豆巻き), fermented soybean rolls. The latter is an... acquired taste.

The other vegetarian-ish items you're likely to encounter are inarizushi (sushi rice in deep-fried tofu pockets), ume (Japanese plum), takuan (pickled radish) and kanpyo (pickled gourd), but these are more often than not prepared with dashi, the bonito stock that makes its way into everything in Japanese food, including (sometimes) the soy sauce you dip your sushi into. Good luck asking the chef if he knows what went into those as well: the vast majority of sushi places focus squarely on fish and buy ingredients for side dishes like these ready-made, and since dietary restrictions aren't really a "thing" in Japan, he's unlikely have had to research this previously either.

And that's about it. "Vegetarian rolls" and such — hell, rolls containing more than one ingredient in general — are unknown in Japan. Customers requesting items not on the menu or alterations to items that are on the menu are generally regarded as meiwaku (a nuisance), not a "fun challenge". That said, if you're going to try this in Japan, a sushi counter where you're sitting in front of the chef is among the less bad options; at least you don't need to play a game of telephone with the waitress and the kitchen.

  • wow that is actually a reason not to go to Japan for me. Didn't expect that. – greg121 Mar 14 '15 at 12:03
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    I seem to remember reading that Buddhist temples in Japan serve vegan food (and I think you can stay at some? but it's not straightforward). There's some relevant info at vegan.wikia.com/wiki/Japan – user568458 Mar 14 '15 at 13:51
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    Staying in temples is also expensive. – fkraiem Mar 15 '15 at 0:43
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    And this question is about sushi, which I can't ever recall being served at a temple. It was one course out of around 12 at shojin ryori restaurant Daigo in Tokyo though. – jpatokal Mar 15 '15 at 6:53
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    @user568458 It is difficult to find reliably vegan food in Japan, and temple restaurants are not common. Of course Tokyo's a big enough city to sport a number of dedicated vegan restaurants, but the average Japanese restaurant, sushi or otherwise, doesn't really cater to vegetarians/vegans at all. – jpatokal Mar 16 '15 at 2:03
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You (as well as PLL, who commented and RoboKaren, who answered) need to straighten the confusion here. On the one hand, there is "sushi" (let's call this sushi1), which is an American food, hinted from Japanese cuisine and originated in California, and is usually served by Korean-Americans, Chinese-Americans, or other Americans. It uses normal rice, and is sometimes rolled with seaweed inside-out, has sesame toppings, and has stuffings like avocado, mayonaise, imitated crab meat, flaked tuna, etc. On the other hand, there is Japanese food 寿司, which can be transcribed as "sushi" (let's call this sushi2), which mostly is a piece of sea product, typically tuna, squid, salmon caviar, etc, on a small chunk of vinegared rice.

If you are talking about sushi1, then this is where you can expect vegan food, but you have no luck in Japan. Restaurants that serve sushi1 are rare in Japan. You will have hard time finding one.

If you are talking about sushi2, then you will see this all over the place in Japan (the best ones located in a neighborhood of a port), but the whole idea of sushi2 is eating sea products, mostly fish. If you are expecting a "vegan sushi2," that is almost self-contradictory. There are some vegan things like cucumber, but that should be considered as the minor part of the cuisine. Going to a sushi2 restaurant and keep eating only cucumber is like going to a hamburger shop and ordering pickles without hamburger, or going to a steak house and ordering fried potatoes without meat. It not only does not make sense, but it can be taken as rude and offensive to the shop.

You should not take this to mean that there are no vegans or vegetarians in Japan. Although its concept is not as wide spread in present Japan as in the Western world, there are such people in Japan. However, if you are a vegan, then choosing to go to a sushi2 restaurant in Japan is definitely a wrong idea. There are other kinds of vegetarian/vegan restaurants.

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    This is the best answer, and best explains why I am astonished by some of the comments on this post. I am completely unfamiliar with "sushi1", which I guess is widely eaten on the West Coast. "Vegan sushi" sounds like a contradiction in terms to me and an arrogant thing to demand of a chef. Avocado on sushi? Gross!! – Avery Mar 15 '15 at 12:08
  • @AveryMorrow I guess you're probably not a fan of the California maki roll then? :-) – user568458 Mar 15 '15 at 17:14
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    @AveryMorrow. Japanese sushi restaurants have always served rolls, albeit not the type that many Americans are accustomed to. But recently there are a good number of places that also serve American style rolls. – Mars Mar 16 '15 at 2:26

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