When I landed in Japan I knew I had no concrete plans save my initial nights booked at a hostel in Kyoto. Hiroshima, Osaka, and Takayama were all last minute, uncoordinated decisions that were erratic at best.
Much like this blog post, which winds all over the road before ending with a recipe for vegan okonomiyaki.
Osaka wasn't high on my priority list, but I was keen to try Oribio restaurant, a tiny affair on the outskirts of the city. After an exchange of confusing hand gestures with locals, I boarded a bus upon which two Japanese women enlisted all passengers in aiding my quest to find this restaurant. Of course, because this is my life, one of them was heading to Oribio as well!
For lunch I enjoyed kitsune udon with a light dashi broth (thick, slippery udon noodles with sweet fried aburaage tofu) and the one thing I will always order from any menu offering it: fresh yuba.
If you have ever slowly heated milk over time you doubtlessly noticed a thin film forming on the surface of the liquid. Yuba is the soya equivalent, formed by simmering concentrated soy milk over low heat until a skin forms across the surface. This film is gently lifted off and put aside while another layer forms. It's a frustratingly slow process with high reward; fresh yuba has a delicate melt in your mouth texture and a subtle sweetness that makes it the closest vegan approximation to fresh cream I have ever tasted.
Space is tight, with only eight 2 person tables in a narrow room, so it is advisable to book ahead or show up with really sad eyes (and a man who can speak Japanese and presumably explain your ordeal finding the place).
My only evening in Osaka was spent engaging in my favourite pastime in any big city: wandering aimlessly and finding myself hopelessly lost. Thankfully that lead me to Le Coccole for dinner. My meal was doria, a Japanese gratin made with rice and white sauce. What makes Le Coccole's variation stand out is not that it's 100% vegan, but that alongside a rainbow of vegetables it also utilises subtly sweet sake lees (a byproduct of sake production). The umami-rich flavour characteristics of this ingredient are brought about by a combination of exhausted yeast and leftover sugar and starch from rice fermentation.
If you go to Hiroshima, I suggest two activities: eat vegan okonomiyaki at Nagataya restaurant and picnic at nearby Miyajima Island, where incredibly cute and also very tame deer will unnerve you.
The menu at Nagataya makes it clear which okonomiyaki are suitable for vegans, but specify anyway so they bring you vegan otafuku sauce. Thin crepes are fried on a full counter flat grill, topped with noodles and cabbage, and pushed toward you to eat off the cooler edge of the same heated surface. Your utensil is a miniature okonomiyaki spatula, and if you are like me you will try to copy how other people eat but will fail. Surprisingly I did not burn myself. The mind boggles. Vegan okonomiyaki isn't common at restaurants in Japan, so I think Hiroshima is worthwhile if only to try it once.
Miyajima island is a popular tourist destination known for its floating torii shrine just offshore, stunning scenery, and fearless wild deer population that run the land. You know the weeping angels from Doctor Who? The Miyajima deer are like pleasant, starving versions that aren't deadly. If you so much as blink then it is guaranteed that whatever it is you're eating, holding, wearing, whatever, will be in a deer's mouth when you open your eyes. The most creepy lunch experience of my life was eating onigiri while maintaining constant eye contact with one of these creatures. I can't even maintain eye contact with a human being for longer than 9 seconds. Awkward.
Takayama & Kamikochi
Hida-Takayama, a rural mountain city known for its preserved old town and annual Takayama Festival, was my last stop before ending my trip in Tokyo. My couple of days there were appreciatively slow, with simple meals prepared in my hostel kitchen. Steamed pumpkin, fried shiitake mushrooms and tofu with mirin and soy sauce, rice and pickles. The unmissable morning market, backed by the river and facing other curio shops and sake outlets, is full of spectacular seasonal produce.
One morning I took a bus to nearby Kamikochi National Park, where I spent a few hours hiking before ending my afternoon at a nearby onsen. This was my first Japanese onsen experience, and it mostly consisted of a bunch of women asking me if I liked natto and squealing with delight when I said yes.
Okonomiyaki is a combination of two words: Okonomi, meaning what you want or as you like and yaki, meaning grilled. Widely available throughout Japan, Okonomiyaki is strongly associated with the Kansai and Hiroshima regions, each distinct in style. Despite this, toppings and preparations vary across the board and this Japanese soul food comes in many varieties.
In Hiroshima okonomiyaki is prepared in layers - first a thin pancake and then a heap of shredded cabbage and other ingredients. Fried noodles are a common layer in Hiroshima. This pancake is then often flipped on one or both sides onto fried eggs.
Osaka (Kansai) style okonomiyaki is different in that the ingredients are mixed into a batter before being fried, and noodles are an unlikely component. The recipe below is in this style, and is both simple and quick to make.
Vegan Okara Okonomiyaki
This vegan variation on batter fried Osaka style okonomiyaki uses fresh okara, the byproduct of tofu production, as well as chickpea aquafaba, the cooking liquid from chickpeas. If you don't have okara, double the quantity of cabbage (the dough will be a little runnier but will work nevertheless). Slather the finished pancake with otafuku sauce and mayo and you'll be hooked.
- ¼ cup chickpea aquafaba (egg white consistency)
- 125 millilitres (½ cup) water or dashi
- 70 grams (½ packed cup) potato flour
- 50 grams (⅓ cup) all purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- Couple pinches of salt
- 100 grams cabbage, finely chopped or shredded (that's about 1 ¼ cups finely sliced)
- 100 grams (½ packed cup) okara
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
- Simple otafuku sauce (below)
- Vegan mayonnaise
- Aonori or shredded toasted nori
- Chopped spring onion
- ¼ cup ketchup
- 4 teaspoons vegan worcestershire sauce
- 4 teaspoons soy sauce
- Add the aquafaba to a medium bowl and whisk for 1 minute until foamy and increased in volume. Add water and whisk for another minute. Sift the potato starch, flour, baking powder, and salt into the bowl and whisk just to combine – a few light stirs should do.
- Add the cabbage and crumble in the okara and fold to combine.
- Add 1 tablespoon of the oil to a frying pan and bring the heat to medium. Add half of the okonomiyaki mix and use a spoon or spatula to spread a circle approximately 6 inches in diameter.
- Cook for 3-5 minutes until browning lightly at the edges. Flip and cook for a similar time. To cook the second okonomiyaki, add the other tablespoon of oil and repeat.
- Make the simple otafuku sauce by mixing the ketchup, worcestershire, and soy sauce.
- Serve okonomiyaki immediately topped with generous lashings of otafuku sauce, mayo, aonori, and chopped spring onion.
- Author: Kip Dorrell
- Serves: 2
- Cuisine: Japanese