Japan was a whirlwind, a two week foray into a land where I learned to spill sake on myself and
could did purchase the most intense gumball machine tat known to all humanity (keychains of crisps, underpants for water bottles, mobile phone ornaments of a bird pooping radioactive waste, figurines of cats sleeping in curry).
Kyoto, Hiroshima, Osaka, Kyoto again, Takayama, and finally Tokyo, which is where I'm starting because I want to share a vegan Japanese curry recipe and Tokyo is the only place I had a curry. And so it seems fitting to begin where I finished, in Japan's capital city.
My first meal in Tokyo was always going to be at T's TanTan, an all vegan ramen joint in the bowels of Tokyo's main station. The convenience of the location saw me return for two further meals, which is unusual for me in a city with a billion other options. Always busy, always fast, and always reliably delicious.
Little beats a good bowl of steaming noodles and, while I can make a decent broth in my kitchen, hand made ramen are another demon altogether. Chefs train to make ramen for years and there is a precision in the simplicity of these bouncy, chewy noodles that isn't easily replicated at home. There are some foods and some ingredients better left to the professionals, the individuals who dedicate their entire career to the craft of perfecting one item, and ramen is one of them.
Vegan ramen isn't easy to come by, let alone good vegan ramen, which is why I decided to take every opportunity I could to eat at T's TanTan. The menu is simple, with just a handful of ramen dishes plus a couple of curries. Sides include fried soy meat, rice, and miniature curry bowls. The midori tantan set with soy meat is recommended, and not very spicy.
Tokyo is insane.
Takeshita street in Harajuku, the epicentre of Japan's teen culture scene, stole approximately 30 minutes of my life. Most of that time was spent buying £1 sunglasses like the ones I keep losing in rivers or breaking by accidentally introducing my face to walls. I have it on good word that it's one of the city's best people watching spots, but it felt more like 20,000 starlings diving at my eyes to steal my soul, so I moved on to Shibuya. That's where the massive crossing is that everyone tries to take a picture of, so it's actually just as crowded, but there was a place (sadly now closed) called Hang Out where I wanted to eat. It's also where I drank a bunch of sake (by "a bunch" I mean "any amount," because that's what it takes to get me drunk) and then engaged in a manic session of solo purikura.
One of my goals in visiting Japan was to explore this photobooth tradition where people take pictures to make their skin look like they are scary newborns in grown up bodies. After the photos are taken, participants move to a second booth where they use digital pens to decorate themselves with onscreen stickers and drawings that come printed on the photo. I realised after my first visit to a purikura arcade that my fear of teenagers (seriously, have you ever seen or been one? THEY ARE SCARY) that I might never pluck up the courage to complete my goal.
But alcohol. So anyway after visiting a toy store where someone had meticulously rearranged every Sylvanian Family toy character into sexual poses, I mustered the courage to part with some cash and enter one of the photobooths. Only I don't read or speak Japanese so after my big sexy photoshoot I couldn't work out where to decorate and print my photos, so I had to ask a guy to help me find the booth where onscreen were six massive photos of me with my finger up my nose.
It was so awkward that I only stayed for about 74 more goes (subsequent prints included one with eyelashes covering my face because I don't know the Japanese script for delete or erase). The hour was so enjoyable that I did the exact same thing the next night. I find it difficult to find the right words to express my excitement in decorating my body with cat faces and diamonds. Nobody had as much fun at purikura as I did those two nights, except maybe everyone who watched me do purikura. Outgoing group activities can be hysterically fun alone.
Tokyo has its own used book district. Okay, now imagine what you're thinking a used book district might be like and then multiply it times infinity magical vibes and you're in Jimbocho book town. Something like 175 curio shops and markets selling books line the streets, dotted up and down alleys, with so much to see that I spent half a day in a one block space. Everything from vintage wrapped Japanese texts to modern philosophy, technical manuals to children's stories. Many of the shops specialise in English books, and many others have at least a shelf or box of English titles.
Hey, if you're ever in Tokyo and find yourself in need of Sweet Valley High books or everything L. Ron Hubbard ever wrote, I know a place. I regret not purchasing the manual with instructions on how to carve bananas into people and toothbrushes (I also regret not buying the Sherlock Holmes cross stitch publication entitled "Benedict Cumberstitch"), but we all make mistakes.
I broke my book time in half by lunching at the nearby Loving Hut, a cosy upstairs restaurant selling a limited menu of Japanese and Chinese dishes. I chose the eel rice box set, which tasted of deep fry and oregano, the latter flavour a little surprising but pleasant nevertheless. Recommended.
When I visited the mirin factory in Hekinan, the person who conducted my tour recommended a restaurant in Tokyo called Komaki Shokudo (Kamakura Fushikian), a shojin ryori (vegan zen temple cuisine) inspired cafe. Tucked in the corner of a small food themed department store, this popular lunch spot in Akihabara offers a selection of dishes to put together into a set price meal. My plate consisted of sweet and sour okara, miso curry, tomato based salad of freeze dried tofu and vegetables, miso soup, and rice.
Komaki Shokudo also offers both Japanese tea and cooking classes.
Recipe for vegan Japanese curry
Remember when, like 7,817 words ago, I promised a Japanese curry recipe? Well, this one is nothing like the curry I enjoyed at Komaki, but it's still delicious. The sauce is extra thick, perfect with a generous portion of short grain rice alongside. Your kitchen will smell like heaven.
Winter Warmin' Potatoes and Carrots Vegan Japanese Curry
There are two noticeable differences between Japanese and Indian curries. Firstly, roux thickened Japanese curry is typically stodgier than many of its Indian counterparts. Second, sweetness plays a greater role, and can be imparted by caramelised onion, fruit, and sometimes other sweeteners.
- 60 millilitres (¼ cup) olive oil, divided
- 200 grams (about 2 heaped cups) thinly sliced sliced onion
- 1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
- 1 clove finely minced or grated garlic
- 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
- 30 grams (¼ cup) all purpose white flour
- 2 tablespoons curry powder
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon mirin
- 110 grams carrot, cut into 1 inch chunks (approximately 1 medium carrot)
- 285 grams waxy potatoes, cut into large chunks (about 2 cups, or one large potato)
- 1 peeled apple, grated (about 110 grams)
- 1 tablespoon garam masala
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 1 bay leaf
- ¾ cup peas
- 1 teaspoon cider vinegar (optional)
- Heat an enamelled or heavy bottomed pot to medium-low heat and add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Tip the onions into the pot and cook for about 30-45 minutes, stirring from time to time until they are evenly browned and caramelised. Add the ginger, garlic, and cumin seeds and cook a further two minutes.
- While the onions are caramelising, make the roux for the curry by heating the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil over medium low heat in a medium saucepan. Add the flour and stir regularly for about 20 minutes until it has a toasty smell and is medium brown in colour. Add curry powder and stir for 30 seconds. Turn off the head and add ketchup, soy sauce, and mirin. Stir to combine into a thick playdough-like clump of paste.
- Add the carrots to the pot with the onions and cook for 5 minutes. Add about 3 cups of water to the pot. Cover and allow to simmer for about 5 minutes before adding the potatoes, grated apple, garam masala, salt, and the bay leaf. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
- Add roux to curry, carefully mixing it through to avoid breaking up the carrots and potato. Add peas and cider vinegar and cook for another 5-10 minutes. Serve with short grain Japanese rice.
- Author: Kip Dorrell
- Serves: 3-4, with rice
- Cuisine: Japanese