Gluten-free & vegetarianism in Japanese cuisine | SUSHIYA sansaro

Gluten-free & vegetarianism in Japanese cuisine

Table of contents

Have you ever been to a Japanese restaurant and wondered what to eat if you are vegetarian or vegan?

Many menus in real Japanese restaurants don't seem to be vegetarian or vegan friendly...

Because alone Dashi, the all-encompassing soup stock of Japanese cuisineis usually a combination of konbu (seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). So even the typical Japanese miso soup has the life of a fish in its cradle...

Vegetarianism rarer in Japan than in Germany

According to a survey from January 2023  the proportion of vegetarians and vegans in Japan is 5.9 % of the population.

Germany, on the other hand, already ranks second internationally after India (28 %) and Taiwan (14 %). in third place, with around 10 % of the population being vegetarian.

In India there are many followers of Hinduism, in Taiwan many followers of Taiwanese Buddhism and Taoism, and in these two countries religion and vegetarianism are considered to be closely linked. In Germany, on the other hand, health awareness, animal welfare and awareness of greenhouse gas emissions from animal husbandry are influential factors.

Meat used to be banned in Japan for a long time - officially...

What is less well known is that  it was officially forbidden to eat meat in Japan for over 1,200 years.

The ancient Japanese knew the terms kagere/穢れ (impurity), kiyome /清め and misogi (禊, both words mean "purification"). It was believed that eating animals was unclean. Although they sometimes ate duck and other poultry meat as well as wild boar, they generally refrained from eating animal meat and continued to eat a vegetarian diet based on vegetables and cereals.

No livestock for consumption in ancient Japan

In a book from the 3rd century BC, the Japanese diet at that time was described as "warm weather, eating raw vegetables even in winter" and "diving into the water to catch clams and fish". 

There are no descriptions of animals such as cows, horses or sheep from this period. In other words, the ancient Japanese ate a diet of cereals and rice as staple foods, plus plenty of fresh vegetables and fish and seafood, but no meat, i.e. pesco-vegetarian, which falls under the category of vegetarian.

At the same time, there were many Asian countries that raised livestock and ate meat. In China, for example, pigs and sheep were bred and eaten for meat.

Buddhist-influenced appreciation of life

When Buddhism was introduced in Japan during the Asuka period (710-794), the  the idea that "eating meat is evil" became widespread due to Buddhist teachings prohibiting the killing of animals. In 675, Emperor Temmu /天武天皇 issued a decree banning meat and meat-eating. This decree prohibited the consumption of cows, horses, monkeys and chickens. The ban was only lifted after the Meiji Restoration, around 1,200 years later.

Many nobles took refuge in Buddhism and therefore refrained from eating meat. When the meat ban  This change was hardly known, as the monks were not allowed to preach in public. The diet of the common people continued to consist mainly of field vegetables, wild vegetables and brown rice.

Shōjin-ryōri, which came from China along with Zen Buddhism, brought not only vegetarian cuisine but also a variety of cooking methods to Japanese cuisine.

Vegetarian cuisine under the influence of Zen Buddhism

In the Kamakura period (1185-1333), when the samurai came to power instead of the nobles, the ban on eating meat was temporarily lifted.

On the other hand, Zen Buddhism, which originated in China, influenced the development of "vegetarian cuisine", in which no animal products were used. In the Edo period (1603-1867), "shojin ryori" (精進料理) was initially prepared and eaten in temples, but during the Edo period (1603-1867) it was often prepared in restaurants on behalf of the temples or for special guests - usually for artists or literati who were not  lived according to Buddhist teachings.

It was not until the middle of the Edo period that the ban on eating meat was strictly enforced again. His "Shōrui Awaremi no Rei" (生類憐みの令 Law for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) prohibited the slaughter and consumption of animals altogether.

Although this ban was lifted after Tsunayoshi's death, it had a major impact on the eating habits of the general public. Many Japanese were mainly vegetarian until the Meiji period (1868-1912), when the influence of Western civilization led to the emergence of a beef-eating culture.

"Hidden" meat consumption

However, this does not mean that people in the Edo period did not eat meat at all. In some restaurants, wild boar meat was called "Yama Kujira" (山鯨, mountain whale) or "Botan" (ぼたん, peony) and venison "Momiji" (もみじ, maple leaf) served in a "concealed language".

So although the consumption of meat was supposedly taboo in the Edo period, people simply used secret words to describe their favorite meat dishes.

Cattle and horses, which are an important source of meat today, were not consumed in Japan until the Meiji period, as they were essential for agriculture and warfare.

There is another interesting episode.

Omi beef - beef marinated in miso - from Shiga Prefecture is said to have the longest history in Japan.

Even during the Edo period (1603-1868), when meat was banned, Hikone clan sold beef called "Henpongan" (反本丸) as a medicine and donated it to the shogunate in Edo. It is also said to have been in constant demand by clans in various regions due to its delicious taste.

Another digression: pork in Japan

In Japan, wild boar have been bred since the Paleolithic hunted and eaten. The wild boar was bred and domesticated into a domestic animal, the pig. Pig bones have been found at sites dating back to the Yayoi period, and it is believed that the pigs imported from China were domesticated. In addition, there are descriptions of pigs bred in the homes of immigrants in old Japanese books.

However, due to the ban on eating meat, pig farming almost completely disappeared in Japan by the Heian period (794-).

After that, until the Meiji period (1868-), it seems that dishes containing pork were only eaten in what are now Okinawa and Kagoshima prefectures.

In 1872, after the end of the Edo Shogunate and the westernization of the country by the Meiji government, pig farming was fully introduced with the help of foreign experts.

Today, pork is an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine, including buta-jiru/豚汁 (miso soup with pork), buta-kakuni/豚角煮 and buta-shabu-shabu /豚しゃぶしゃぶ.

Wild boar meat, popularly known by the disguise name "botan". The people of Edo were known for cooking wild boar meat in hot pots.

Fish has always been more important than meat

After the Meiji Restoration, the 1,200-year-old ban on meat consumption was lifted in Japan. However, the general public did not start eating meat in large quantities until much later. Most people, especially those who lived in coastal areas, did not eat meat because they had fish as a source of protein.

It was not until around 1960 that meat consumption in Japan began to spread to the general population. At that time, the annual per capita consumption of meat was around 3.5 kg. In 2013, it was 30 kg. Over the last 50 years, meat has become an integral part of the Japanese diet.

This has led to a high intake of fat and energy and the disadvantage that people eat far fewer vegetables. At the same time, diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes have also increased in Japan and women are now concerned about the risk of breast cancer.

Gradually, we are hearing more and more advice that the Japanese should return to the grain-based vegetarian diet that has been practiced since ancient times for health reasons. 

The sansaro restaurant also offers several vegetarian-friendly menus, e.g. dishes prepared exclusively with kombu dashi (seaweed broth) or without meat products.

The Japanese diet is traditionally based on lots of fish and seafood

Japanese cuisine and gluten

On the other hand, what about Japanese foods for those who need to avoid gluten, such as those with wheat allergies or coeliac disease? Studies have shown that the number of people with gluten problems in Europe is between 1.3 and 15% of the total population. In the United States, the figure is 3.7-8%. (Source)

In Japan, the percentage of people with food allergies is 1-2% of the total population, of which 8% have a wheat allergy, although the survey results do not specifically refer to gluten. (Source)

Gluten in soy sauce & seasonings

The first big problem is soy sauce, an essential condiment for Japanese dishes. There are three main types of soy sauce: dark, light and tamari. Most of the first two types use barley for the fermentation process. Gluten-sensitive people have the option of using tamari soy sauce, while others use Japanese fish sauce (the three main Japanese fish sauces are shotsuru /しょっつる, ishiru /いしる and ikanago soy sauce /いかなご醤油).

Miso, called barley miso (mugi ~miso /麦味噌), and grain vinegar (kokumotsu-su /穀物酢) are also sometimes used in Japanese cuisine, so caution is advised here too. Kewpie mayonnaise, which has become popular overseas in recent years, is also not gluten-free because it uses malt-based grain vinegar as an ingredient.

Tomato ketchup, which is rarely used in traditional Japanese cuisine but is used in Western Japanese cuisine, is also made with grain vinegar, so caution is advised here too.

If you have a really severe gluten intolerance, you won't be happy with Japanese cuisine, because "normal" soy sauce contains gluten and is used everywhere in Japanese cuisine for marinating, preparing and cooking. A consistently gluten-free diet is therefore difficult.

Be careful with the typical soy sauces and miso pastes that are indispensable for Japanese cuisine, as they are sometimes fermented with grain and/or are of a very poor quality overall

Hardly any gluten-free restaurants in Japan

In response to the increase in food allergies in Japan in recent years, various products have been developed in Japan to avoid gluten intolerance.

The number of products specializing in gluten-free cooking is gradually increasing and the range available for cooking at home is gradually expanding.

On the other hand, the number of allergy-friendly restaurants in Japan is still very small and an absolute exception.

So there are around 190,000 restaurants in Tōkyōbut only about 180 of them are gluten-free, making it difficult for allergy sufferers to eat out casually.

Also for our Restaurant sansaro it is not easy to always offer a special selection of gluten-free dishes in the usual authentic high quality, as there is simply a lack of Japanese spices and tasty recipes.

Gluten-free dishes in the restaurant sansaro

The gluten-free dishes at Sansaro include edamame, tofu salad (as long as it is not eaten with dressing sauce!), Sushi and Sashimi without mayonnaise (unless they are served with Soy sauce use tamari instead!).

Unlike grain vinegar, the rice vinegar used in sushi does not contain gluten.

Ice cream and matcha pudding are also gluten-free.

Tempura and Crispy Ebi Tempura are easy to recognize as they have a flour-based fried batter, but note that Goma Ae and Tonteki each contain soy sauce in their sauces.

Even with sushi, ikura gunkan and ikura maki are not gluten-free, as ikura is marinated in soy sauce.

Appendix: Further sources

Obayashi Quarterly, 

History of Japanese people, food, and agriculture

Nutritional Knowledge of Meat: "The Buddhist Ban on Meat"


Edi guide

Association for Promoting the Production and Distribution of "Omi Beef"

 Komorebi Blog of Flour allergy


Sharing pleasure in Japanese

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