Japan was originally vegan before Christians showed up with guns and meat-eating in the 16th Century. When U.S. Commodore Perry showed up in Yokohama Bay in 1853 with his gunboat diplomacy to force it open to trade, ushering in major changes to “catch up” with the rest of the world it had sealed itself off from during the Edo period.
The Meiji era arrived and Emperor of Japan ushered in the Meiji era and drastic changes. The Meiji Emperor publicly ate meat on January 24, 1872 after more than a millennium of a ban on meat-eating in this Buddhist country that takes ahimsa, non-harming and non-killing, seriously.
General MacArthur announced after WWII that “I came to replace the Japanese diet of rice, vegetables, fish and miso with bread, butter, milk and ham.” The country has been rabidly carniverous ever since.
But vegans and vegetarians, do not despair! There are some amazing foods in Japanese cuisine that you may have never heard of that suit our palates just fine.
Now, I must confess that when in Rome, do as the Romans do, and if I am a guest and a Japanese friend offers me fish or it’s on the plate and there is nothing else to eat, I’m going to eat it. Dashi, which is in just about every bowl of udon and just about every Japanese dish, is made from fish. You can make vegan dashi using seaweed.
Enter nama-fu 生麩 – delicious and chewy glutenous rice cake that is a specialty in Kyoto. It’s typically made from solid wheat gluten mixed with glutenous rice and millet then steamed in large blocks before being shaped, colored in a variety of ways, such as with mugwort, ヨモギ one of my favorites!
Nama 生 means raw and fu 麩 means gluten. Nama-fu is fat-free, low-calorie, low-cholesterol and high in protein with calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron and more. It’s one of my favorite Japanese foods, and it’s vegan!
Nama-fu is part of traditional tea ceremony cha-kaiseki 茶懐石 and Shôjin-ryôri, traditional Japanese Buddhist cuisine.
There is also nama-fu dengaku, which means slathered with miso and also sometimes grilled over a flame. I’ve had this a couple of times on skewers in Kyoto. Also nama-fu that is dried and baked wheat gluten is called yaki-fu 焼き麩 and is typically added to miso soup and sukiyaki.
My husband has been making seitan vegan meat here at home with wheat gluten. Apparently nama-fu is the mother of seitan. He will be trying some namafu! Here’s a recipe from NHK for a miso-slathered namafu. Here are some gorgeous pictures of nama-fu too. You can also order difficult to find Japanese food online too. Just looking at the packaging makes me yearn for Japan. It’s a nice reminder.