Japan Eats

Healthy eating in Tokyo

Christopher Pellegrini reports on the capital’s healthy food options.

Foodie’s paradise, Tokyo, is claimed by many to have the most eateries per capita of all the cities in the world. True or not, finding something that is both healthy and easily accessible can pose a dilemma, especially if you’re not comfortable with the all-Japanese intricacies of information gatekeepers such as the excellent restaurant ranking website, Tabelog. Far too many people find themselves restricted to an onigiri, a jelly squeeze-bag, and a plastic bottle of green tea when they’re looking for a low-cal meal.

In order to provide you with some of Tokyo’s more heart and waist-friendly dining options, we talked with Justin Berti, a yoga instructor, fitness trainer and health nut who for years has scoured this fair city for dining options that jive with his strict diet and that he can recommend to his clients.

Soba

Soba: a standby for vegetarian visitors.

Supermarkets

Sometimes it can be a real bear to find healthy food options at the supermarket nearest your train station. Everything seems to be over processed and packaged. The following supermarkets are chains but carry a decent selection of imported items and health-conscious options.

Natural House has 25 locations in and around Tokyo.

F&F has 11 shops in Tokyo with another five in Kanagawa.

Seijo Ishii doesn’t have an English website, but they do have dozens of locations around Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures.

Berti recommends the bentos at Natural House and F&F, and he mentions Seijo Ishii because it has plenty of “fresh salads and healthy options.”

Restaurants/Cafés

Restaurants often have menu items that look like they might be vegetarian friendly, but don’t think that you can always get an informed answer from your server. There’s fish and beef in almost everything (including potato chips!), and you’d be foolish to assume that the folks preparing your dinner accept the same definition of vegetarianism that you do (vegetarians don’t eat fish?!).

The following are some healthy dining options that have at least a little something that’s safe for vegetarians.

Nouka no Daidokoro is a good option for vegetarians as they offer some 100% vegetable course meal options. This chain of earthy restaurants added two new Tokyo locations within the past 12 months and has a salad bar that is not to be missed.

Nataraj is a small vegetarian Indian restaurant chain that has a few options in Tokyo and they occasionally have evening entertainment options such as belly dance shows.

Little Heaven near Otsuka station is a full-fledged vegan restaurant with somewhat limited hours. Dinner is served 6-9PM every day, and lunch is available Tues to Fri from 11:30AM-2PM.

Shamaim is an Israeli restaurant between Ekoda station (Seibu-Ikebukuro line) and Shin-Ekoda station (Oedo line) and is a good source for hummus and falafel west of the Yamanote loop.

Eat More Greens in Azabu Juban bills itself as a vegetable café and bakery modeled after those found in downtown New York City.

Earth Café Ohana in Sangenjaya caters to vegans and vegetarians and tries to use organic ingredients whenever possible.

Crayon House is a vegetarian-friendly restaurant across from Brown Rice Café (scroll down) that also has a veggie shop in the basement. Be sure to specify that you want food with no meat or fish if that’s your prerogative, they’ll understand.

Bio Café in Shibuya claims a menu with organic options.

Loving Hut recently started selling vegan bentos in the basement of Matsuzaka Department Store in Ginza.

Soup Stock Tokyo has more than 30 locations in Tokyo that feature a revolving menu of low-cal soups and a curry or two. They usually have a vegetarian-looking option on the menu, and you can generally get straight answers about the actual ingredients (hint: ask about lard) which is great for people with allergy concerns as well. Soup Stock Tokyo is essentially a fast food chain, perfect for those times when you only have 20-30 minutes to get a meal in, but it should never be grouped with the ubiquitous burger joints and beef bowl shops of this city.

Saishoku Kenbi Okubo is on a back street between JR Okubo and Shin-Okubo stations and features a vegetarian-friendly and affordable lunch buffet. Closed Tuesdays.

Tenya has shops all across downtown Tokyo and specializes in tempura. This chain can be very helpful for vegetarians who need a quick and cheap bite to eat. The yasai-don is always on the menu, and there are occasionally seasonal variants that get featured as well.

Chaya Macrobiotic has three upscale Tokyo locations and features a menu flush with organic produce and other vegetarian-friendly fare.

Brown Rice Café/Deli in Omotesando adheres to a Whole Foods prep style and specializes in soy, veggies, and of course brown rice. They have a couple of 1,700 yen set meals and a detox juice for 800 yen that purportedly is good for liver overuse control.

Convenience Stores

Konbini are generally not known for selling products that are waist-friendly. However, Berti feels that one chain stands above the rest:

Natural Lawson opened its first shop just over ten years ago, and now there are more than 70 in downtown Tokyo.

“They usually have nuts and dried fruit without added salt. The quality is much better. They also have sweet potato snacks, better fruit cup selections, and a healthier selection of teas–stuff you can’t find in regular convenience stores.”

One of Berti’s biggest pet peeves is the price tags on everything. Even though organic is popular in Tokyo, it can be incredibly hard to find. And when you do find it, you’ll notice that much of it is imported, so “you spend half your rent on an 80% cocoa chocolate bar and almond butter.”

He saves money by ordering from iherb.com, and invites people to freely use his discount code, JUS847, to save five dollars on their first purchase. He also recommends checking out the “Vegan in Tokyo” Facebook group for those that seek strategy tips on finding true vegan fare.

Those who avoid animal products in their food will also be interested in this Google map that details many of the vegetarian and vegan dining establishments available across Japan. The Japan Veg Guide is another resource worth checking out.

So as you can see, there are several health-conscious options available for the vegetarians, flexitarians, weight watchers and pavement pounders among us. Hopefully this short guide has given you a few new ideas for when you’re tracking down your next meal in Tokyo.

Justin Berti is a yoga and fitness instructor at FAB ACADEMY.

An earlier version of this article was originally published by Tokyo Weekender. Special thanks to Adam Gyenes, Mayu Imada and Neill Harper for their valuable input.

Recipe: Wafu pasta with yuzukosho sauce

A delicious meat-free pasta 

This dish is easy to prepare and is vegetarian-friendly.

The key to success is making sure that the eggplant is washed in salt water prior to cooking, so as to prevent it from absorbing all of the oil. Be sure to squeeze the salt water out, though.

As yuzukosho has a strong flavor, start by adding only a teaspoon – you can always add more later.

For more about yuzukosho, listen to Episode 8 of the Japan Eats Podcast, where the Japanese condiment is discussed in detail.

Wafu pasta with yuzukosho sauce

Wafu pasta with yuzukosho sauce

Ingredients (serves 2 people)

  • 160 g of bavette (or spaghetti)
  • 200 g of eggplant
  • 100 g of shimeji mushrooms
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 4 tablespoons of sake
  • 4 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of yuzukosho
  • 10 g butter
  • 5 – 6 sheets of shiso to garnish

Method

Pour 200 ml of cold water into a bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon of salt. Remove the top of the eggplant and then cut it in half lengthwise. Cut each half into six more pieces. Put the slices into a bowl of saltwater for 5 minutes to remove any bitterness.

Pour two liters of cold water into a large saucepan and place it on the gas table. Once it has come to the boil, add 20 g of salt and the pasta.

Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil into the frying pan and add finely chopped garlic. Place the pan on a low heat and sauté slowly until they’re lightly browned.

Remove the salt water from the eggplant by squeezing each slice softly. Add to the pan and sauté until they too become brown. Again, use a low heat.

Once the eggplant is ready, add the shimeji mushrooms. Cook for another minute.

Pour 4 tablespoons of sake into the pan, then cook on a low heat to burn off the alcohol.

Add 2 tablespoons of boiling water from the pot in which you’re cooking the pasta. In addition, add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce to the inner surface of the pan, and add 1 teaspoon of yuzukosho and turn off the heat. Mix thoroughly.

Drain the pasta and then add to the pan. Combine with the sauce.

Add 10 g of butter, and again mix well.

Finally, wash the shiso and remove the water with a paper towel. Roll the leaves together and slice thinly. Serve with the shiso as garnish.

2010: Year in Review

Marcus Lovitt looks at the culinary trends of 2010.

2010 was all about cheap eats. So called ‘B-class gourmet’ dishes became a fixture on Japanese TV screens, McDonalds Japan enjoyed record profits and shoppers bought their food in bulk from such places as Costco and Niku no Hanamasa. The reason? Japan’s ongoing economic woes. A torrent of bad news on the economic front (falling prices, massive government debt, a rapidly aging population) put The Fear into consumers. Put simply, nobody was willing to spend more than necessary eating out or at the supermarket.

Lawson's Premium Roll Cake

Lawson's Premium Roll Cake

Perhaps its to be expected that amidst all of this doom and gloom, the fantasy of eating at a Michelin-starred restaurant had enormous popular appeal. Japanese variety shows boasted that Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred, together with the most three-star-rated restaurants in the world. Needless to say, few of those watching at home could actually afford to patronize them, but their very existence was a point of pride.

What Japanese could afford were little luxuries such as Lawson’s Premium Roll Cake. Convenience store patisserie items were big news this year – the three big chains (Lawsons, FamilyMart and Seven Eleven) figuring that there was still money to be made in pre-packaged sweets.

Conversely, another bright spot for manufacturers were healthy and/or low-calorie products. This was particularly evident in the drinks market where products like black tea and non-alcoholic beer increased their share of the market.

Here’s our take on 2010, and our forecast for the coming year:

Momoya's 'edible raayu'

Momoya's 'edible raayu'

Our Top Japanese culinary trends for 2010

  • Raayu, that spicy red oil you drizzle over ramen and gyoza, hit the big time in 2010, but this time filled out with such ingredients as fried garlic, fried onion, and ground sesame seeds. First developed by Momoya, ‘edible raayu‘ was popularized by appearances on television as a way to flavor rice bowls. Like any true Japanese culinary trend, demand quickly outstripped supply and Momoya was temporarily forced to stop advertising. Other companies such as S&B Foods Inc. have since entered the market and are now making competing products.
  • B Class Gourmet: True, this one has been around a long time. However, the Fifth B-1 Grand Prix held in Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture this year really captured the public’s imagination. What is B Class Gourmet? The name refers to tasty dishes which are also inexpensive, such as Miso katsu from Nagoya, Yokote yakisoba and Atsugi Shirokoro Horumon. There’s little doubt this trend will continue in 2011.
  • The rise and rise of all things organic. Supermarkets continue to devote more and more shelf space to organic produce – particularly products grown without pesticides, aren’t genetically modified and are wheat/gluten free. Meanwhile, in wine bars (themselves something of a trend this year) so-called organic wines began to appear on the menu.
  • Roll Cakes: The popularity of the convenience store patisserie section came as a surprise to many people. However even in bad economic times, people still want a taste of luxury, even if it is from the local combini.
  • Komeko (rice flour) has traditionally been used to prepare Japanese sweets. This year it began to be used to prepare western-style bread and cakes. It is hoped that Komeko might raise the degree of Japanese self-sufficiency; the government is now promoting the use of locally produced rice flour. Many companies (Seven Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson, even Starbucks) have begun to sell komeko, marketing it as a healthy alternative to wheat flour.
  • White taiyaki: It seemed at one point this year a taiyaki shop was going to open at every train station in metropolitan Tokyo. What appears to have set off this real estate bubble was the popularity of ‘white’ taiyaki – fish shaped pastries filled with custard. The fad wasn’t to last, however, and by the end of 2010 many of these new taiyaki-ya had already closed their doors.

Honorable mentions: The increasing popularity of tagines in Japanese homes, tomato vinegar, gourmet gelato, wine bars and cooking magazines aimed at men.

What we’d like to see in 2011

  • Vegetarian dishes: Being vegetarian in Japan (and  Tokyo in particular) is never easy. We want to see more vegan and vegetarian options on izakaya menus.
  • Cafes for breakfast: Most Japanese eat breakfast at home or skip it altogether. We’re hoping 2011 will be the year Japanese discover the independently run cafe. A decent cooked breakfast before 10 in the morning please!
  • Creative sushi: Tired of the same-old sushi at your local kaiten place? We’re hoping for more of the playful innovation that makes a visit to Nakameguro’s Koi-sushi such a lot of fun.
  • Middle Eastern food: If Japan can get over its fear of coriander, then surely chick peas and garlic shouldn’t present too much of a problem? Kebab stands notwithstanding, Japan is yet to truly embrace Middle Eastern cuisine. At the very least we want to see containers of hummus appear on supermarket shelves!

Our predictions for what will be big in 2011

  • Toronama donuts: Japan seems to have an affinity for donuts. For the first year or so of Krispy Kreme’s Japanese venture, customers braved long lines to buy a box to take home to their families. Neither baked nor fried, Toronama donuts are a combination of mousse and sponge which are served cold. The company responsible for this latest donut fad – Nagoya’s Love Sweets Antique – has now opened up shops across the country, and toronama donuts are set to take off nationwide.
  • Bread cookers, specifically machines designed to cook with Japanese rice flour (such as the Sanyo ‘Gopan’) are going to be big in 2011. ‘Go’ stands for gohan (cooked rice) and ‘pan’ for pan as in bread. Expect to see your favorite talento filling the airwaves with demonstrations of how to cook with these machines during the first half of 2011.
  • Pretzels: Anyone who has wandered past Ikebukuro station in recent weeks will have noticed the long lines outside Auntie Anne’s, the American pretzel retailer. Is this the start of something big? We think so.
  • Makgeolli, that milky looking Korean beverage, is becoming increasingly popular with young Japanese. While its unlikely to equal the recent highball craze, we think makgeolli‘s stock is rising.
  • Asian spicy nabe: Every year sees a different nabe (Japanese hotpot) craze. For the past year curry nabe and tomato nabe have led the field. We’re going to go out on a limb and predict south-east Asian flavors are going to be big in 2011.

What did you think were the biggest culinary trends of 2010? What will be big in 2011? And what would you like to see? Leave your comments below.

Recipe: Goma-ae (green vegetables with sesame dressing)

Full of beans: A side salad to serve alongside any meat dish

Essentially green vegetables in a sesame dressing, Goma-ae makes an excellent appetizer or side dish served with fish or meat, rice and miso soup. You can use green beans (also known as French beans or string beans), snap beans, runner beans, spinach or shungiku (in English, garland chrysanthemum). Whichever peas or beans you choose, use those still in their pods.

Goma-ae

The sesame dressing suits many kinds of green vegetables.

Ingredients (serves 3 – 4 people)

  • 130 -150 g komatsuna (Japanese spinach)
  • 60 g string beans
  • 80 g English peas
  • 4 tablespoons of white sesame seeds
  • 1.5 tablespoons of sugar
  • 1.5 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of water

Method

Begin by stringing the beans and the English peas. Next, place a pot with 1 liter of water on the gas and bring it to the boil. Add a pinch of salt.

Place the string into the the pot and boil them for 1 minute. Now toss in the English peas and boil for a further 1 minute. Remove both from the water and soak in cold water for roughly 10 seconds so that they do not change color. Drain.

Place the well washed komatsuna into the hot water and boil for two minutes. Remove and soak in the cold water for 10 seconds, then drain by squeezing your hand down the length of the leaves. Cut into 3 cm lengths.

Toast the sesame seeds, and grind them with a mortar and pestle. When the seeds are completely ground, the add sugar, soy sauce and the tablespoon of water. Mix well.

Finally, place all of the vegetables in a bowl and mix well with the sesame dressing.

Recipe: Hiyashi soumen

With the arrival of summer, Japanese are increasingly looking towards light meals at lunchtime. A bowl of soumen (cold noodles) is one of the most popular ways to relieve the summer heat.

Soumen is traditionally served with a large variety of yakumi, or condiments. While it may be tempting to cut back on the number of different garnishes, it’s worth trying all of the yakumi listed below at least once so that you can better judge which you prefer.

Serve the noodles on ice in a wooden bowl.  Pour a little soup into each guest’s bowl and allow them to choose their own condiments, which they mix into the soup.  Finally, guests add noodles which they should mix together with the yakumi.

Itadakimasu!!

Soumen

Soumen

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 3 bunches of dried soumen
  • 1-1.5l water

Yakumi (condiments)

  • 1-2 mioga (mioga ginger)
  • 10 asatsuki chives
  • 4-5 green shiso (green perilla) leaves
  • 1 package of kaiware daikon (radish sprouts)
  • 1 deep-fried tofu pouch
  • 1 tablespoon of soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of sake
  • 1 teaspoon of shichimi togarashi (a mixture of red pepper and six other spices)
  • 1 clove of ginger

Tsuyu soup

  • 2 cups of dashi soup
  • 1/2 a cup of soy sauce
  • 1/2 a cup of mirin

Method

First prepare the tsuyu soup. Pour the mirin into a pan, place it onto the gas table and bring it to the boil. Add the dashi soup together with the soy sauce and bring it to the boil again. Once boiling, turn off the heat and allow it to cool.

Now for the yakumi (garnishes). Cut the mioga in half lengthwise and then again into thin strips. Rise  in a bowl of cold water for a minute then drain.

Cut the asatsuki chives into thin round slices.

Slice the green shiso leaves into julienne strips, rinse them in a bowl of cold water and drain.

Peel the skin of the ginger grate it.

Cut off the root of the kaiware daikon, then cut into halves.

Toast one deep-fried tofu pouch for about one minute. Mix a tablespoon of soy sauce, a tablespoon of sake and a teaspoon of shichimi togarashi and spread onto one side of the tofu pouch. Toast it again for about one minute until it becomes crispy. Finally, cut the pouch into bite-sized rectangles (12-16).

Bring a bowl of water to the boil and cook the soumen noodles for roughly two minutes (refer to the cooking instructions on the package). If the water rolls up to the edge of the pot, add a half cup of cold water. Once the noodles are ready, rinse them in running fresh water.

Place water and ice in a wooden bowl and arrange the noodles so that they don’t stick together.

Serve the noodles with the tsuyu (soup) and condiments in individual plates or bowls.

Restaurant Review: Nouka no Daidokoro (Ebisu)

Nouka no Daidokoro grows its own vegetables in the shop and is an excellent, if a bit pricey, place to have a meal for vegetarians.

Featuring a comfy, farmer’s market interior, Nouka no Daidokoro (translation: farmer’s kitchen) is highly advised for those in search of some creative and healthy food in Tokyo.

The first choice one needs to make after sitting down is which course to choose. The three dinner courses are listed as 4:3:3, 6:2:2, and 10:0:0. These number describe the ratio of vegetables, meat, and fish in each. By that logic, the third option is a one hundred percent vegetarian option while the first and second mix in varying degrees of carnivorous fare.

From there customers are asked to further refine their selection. The two courses involving meat and fish have three variations–courses priced at 3,800 yen, 4,800 yen, and 5,800 yen. The vegetarian course has two options (no 5,800 yen version).

One thing that is common to all three of the courses is access to the salad bar which is perhaps the most uplifting part of the experience. It is so easy to enjoy food that is both organic and grown by the passionate people serving it.

Many of the vegetables on display are literally grown in-house, and a quick glance at the greenhouse to the right of the salad bar will show you what will be served in the near future. Because the salad bar tends to go light on leafy greens, the result is a delightful glass of vegetable sticks, halved cherry tomatoes, and delicious mushrooms.

The main course involves a flurry of vegetable dishes with the occasional slice of fish or meat. The creativity in the kitchen involves everything from a vegetarian and riceless risotto (above left)  to a clam ravioli dish covered in a froth of cappuccino cream.

Naturally, fresh fruit and vegetable juices are available, and don’t forget to check out the kitchen’s selection of flora-inspired cocktails. Juices and cocktails start in the 400-500 yen range. Premium Malt’s is the beer on tap (680 yen), and a decent selection of umeshu, wine, and traditional cocktails  are also available (generally 600-1,000 yen). A few bottles of shochu and nihonshu are stocked as well.

On your way out you can pick up some fresh vegetables to take home with you as the entrance doubles as a produce section.

After 9:00 pm it is possible to order dishes a la carte. If you’re dining before that time, it might be wise to make a reservation because the restaurant fills up quickly at dinnertime.

At dinnertime, expect to pay at least five thousand yen per person for a meal and two drinks. The lunch menu has a la carte dishes for less than 1,000 yen.

Directions: Take the west exit of JR Ebisu station or exit 1 if you arrived on the Hibiya subway line. Look for the Doutour (coffee shop) and Kinokuniya (liquor shop) diagonally across the rotary. Keeping those shops on your right, walk up the street that passes in front of them. You will soon see a Lawson convenience store on your left. On the first floor of the next building on the left, you will find Nouka no Daidokoro. If you reach Family Mart convenience store, then you have walked too far.

Address: 150-0022 Tokyo-to Shibuya-ku Ebisu Minami 1-7-8 Ebisu South One 1F

Telephone: 03-3719-4831

Hours: Lunch 11-15:30 (last order 14:30); Dinner 17:30-23:00 (doors close 21:45; food last order 22:00; drinks last order 22:30)

Guru Navi (Japanese): http://r.gnavi.co.jp/p963301/

Japanese style spaghetti with spinach and mushrooms

This simple dish makes an excellent appetiser but it can just as well be served as a main course.

Naturally, other types of pasta can be used instead of spaghetti, however those cooking the dish in Japan will find it difficult to get their hands on much else (despite an awareness of Italian cuisine, the average Japanese supermarket still only stocks thin spaghetti and macaroni).

Spaghetti with mushrooms and spinach

Spaghetti with spinach and mushrooms

Ingredients (serves 2)

  • 160g spaghetti
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 100 – 150g spinach
  • 100-150g mushrooms (use shiitake mushrooms, shimeji mushrooms or eringi mushrooms – 2 kinds would be best)
  • 20g butter
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce

Boil 1.5l water. Once it’s bubbling add a pinch of salt and then cook the spaghetti according to the instructions on the package. Pour the 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a frying pan and add the minced garlic. Cook it on a low heat.

Wash the spinach and then drain away any excess water. Cut away the roots then slice the remaining leaves into large pieces. Now cut away the stems of the shiitake and cut the remaining mushrooms into slices around 2 to 3 mm thick.

Put the them into the frying pan and sauté them for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the spinach and mix this together with the mushrooms. Next, season the sauce with a pinch of salt and pepper.

Drain the spaghetti, saving 2 to 3 tablespoons of the water. Pour this liquid into the frying pan and mix with the other ingredients.

Now pour the spaghetti into the frying pan and fold the sauce into the pasta. Pour 2 tablespoons of soy sauce into the inner surface of the frying pan and mix into the spaghetti.

Finally, turn off the heat and add the 20g of butter. Allow the butter to melt using the remaining heat and mix the dish together quickly. Test the sauce, and if necessary add a touch more salt. The dish is now ready to serve.