Friday, 26 April 2013

Being Vegetarian at Japanese Work Parties

Beautiful autumn opening dish
This post is my contribution to the "Eat, Drink, Cook" Japanese bloggers' carnival.

The other contributions are:

Eating My Way Around an Island by Big Red Dots and Squggly Inkblots. Furiida blogs about her experiences as a JET Programme participant in the rural prefecture of Oita.

The History of Yakiniku by Angry Gaijin. Cameron Ohara is a Gaikokujin (foriegner) living in Japan. But get this - he was actually Japanese in a previous life! Now it's all he can do to get his Japanese comrades to look beyond his red hair and tall nose and see the Japanese human that exists within!

Samurai Sushi by Gaijin Explorer. Zacky Chan studies aikido and kyudo, and informally practices whatever else is relevant. He can usually be found on his days off exploring forests and mountains on his mountain bike.

Check them out!
The starter course, Japanese-style restaurant

For vegetarians who are preparing to start their ALT stint, enkai and other work parties are a source of considerable fear and anxiety. When I first got here I was so worried about causing “meiwaku” with my vegetarianism that I just paid for the parties and tried to drink my money’s worth. Which is hard since alcohol is very cheap in Japan and enkai are very expensive. At the second enkai where I did this the school nurse told me that it was ridiculous, summoned the manager and asked what they could make that I could eat. They slapped some salad together and after much apologising, told me that if I had asked in advance they could have done a whole separate menu for me. Since work parties are usually “course menus”, meaning everyone pays a set fee for set dishes, I had assumed that any variation would be impossible. The next party we had, I asked the organiser to request a vegetarian meal for me but hastened to add that I’d still come if it wasn’t possible. The organiser asked me to write a list of what I couldn’t eat, just to be sure, and there were no problems. In coming up to four years of enkai I have never had a party at the same venue twice, and never had a venue refuse to make a vegetarian menu for the same price as the course, including Japanese and seafood restaurants. However, when I say vegetarian I need to emphasise what I said in my introductory post about being vegetarian in Japan: You need to decide how bendy your rules are. I don’t ask if my miso soup was made with fish stock and I don’t ask if the pudding is thickened with gelatine. If you are religiously or unwaveringly vegetarian, it might be impossible to have a separate menu because even the sauces and seasonings would have to be made from scratch for you. With that disclaimer made, I haven’t had any problems at all, despite being very worried about it before I came. So, as I wrap up my ALT tenure, I thought I’d show you some examples of enkai meals I’ve enjoyed over the past few years. The photos are all sneakily (and frequently drunkenly) taken with my phone, so apologies for the poor quality.
The green stuff is konnyaku (devil tongue?) sashimi. Restaurants often try to give me something similar to what everyone else is having (in this case, obviously, sashimi)
They were onto a great thing with the veggies but then they just had to stick an f-ing crab cake thing in there. But I can't complain, because that is an actual matsutake mushroom and I didn't pay any more than the chumps who got a single shrimp in their turnip!
Autumn mushroom steamed custard
Simple but yummy~ everyone else had grilled fish. My packet has three kinds of mushrooms, onions and sweat potato

I love the effort they've gone to using a grilled shiitake mushroom for nigirizushi
 Most of these photos are from autumn (fall) parties, I don't always get given so many mushrooms! This last photo is from a different kind of experience.

As I said, I usually get something similar to the original menu, but this particular party was in a seafood restaurant so there was really no way to vegetarian-ify the menu for me. In stead they just cooked whatever random things they wanted. It was amazing, course after course of random stuff from deep-fried cheese to chazuke, caesar salad to a tofu nabe. Sadly I didn't manage to get any other photos that were in focus. It's not my fault, I had to represent my section in a beer drinking competition. They were counting on me.
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  1. Hell yeah to school enkais! Had my fill and one of the greatest parts of being an ALT. More than vegetarians in Japan, I pity non-drinkers most of all. They're missing a whole lot of fun at these types of events. But then maybe I'm missing out on the purity of life or on not doing stupid things. ANYWAY! I'm totally impressed that these places happily made separate courses for you. Says a lot about Japanese people and their food. I have to say, isn't Japan one of the best countries to be vegetarian in? Great post! Thanks for organizing all of this!

    1. Yes, being a non-drinker would kind of suck. But I am sure they will have the last laugh when our livers give out!
      I think if you eat fish Japan would be very easy, but if you don't eat seafood it can be quite hard being vegetarian here. That being said though, I've had a much easier time since moving here in 2009 than I did back in 2005-2006 when I lived in Nagoya. People seem much more aware about issues like vegetarianism but also allergies. I've been to quite a few restaurants in the last two years especially that list common allergens (shell fish, wheat) on their menus. I never ever say that back in the day.

  2. Wow! That's awesome that they'll make a whole separate menu for you! That's service in Japan: Awesome!

    For a little while I was trying to stay away from wheat products - which was tough because soy sauce is made with wheat, and practically all sauces have soy sauce. Even soba noodles are usually made with wheat flour.

    That mushroom sushi is an awesome idea! And beer drinking contests? Haha, sweet.

    Awesome post for the blog fair! :D

    p.s. Why is konnyaku called 'devil's toungue' in English???

    1. If you're still interested in the gluten free thing, there's a nice post over at

      Konnyaku is made from the root of a plant called devil's tongue, voodoo lily or snake palm. It makes sense when you see the flower. But since I am assuming most people wouldn't actually know that (I didn't, I just read wikipedia ;) I put it in quotes.

  3. This entry is actually really helpful!!! I have 2 vegetarian friends coming over to Japan who are worried about this exact thing so I will be linking this post to them asap. I had no idea what to tell them so thank you.

    Great post :)


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