How I honor my Japanese culture as a vegan
I’ve been stealing cold, plain tofu cubes off my mom’s cutting board since I can reach the counter. Soy and I have a little love affair. So when I decided to go vegan two years ago, I thought it would be as easy as replacing meat with tofu in all of my mom’s traditional Japanese dishes. Food has always connected me to my culture, and I wanted to preserve this part of my heritage, even though I avoided animal products. It turned out to be more difficult than I imagined.
The most common vegan recipes on Google are, for lack of a better word, a little whitewashed. Avocado toast, black bean burgers, pasta with cashew cheese sauce are just a few examples. Don’t get me wrong, I eat avocado toast at least once a week and love a quick and easy vegan pasta recipe. But vegan versions of traditional Japanese recipes aren’t as easy to find online. A search will uncover many recipes for vegan ramen and other Americanized Japanese dishes, but these are not the meals I grew up eating.
So, in an effort to maintain this part of my identity, I decided to be vegan every day of the year except January 1 for Oshōgatsu, also known as Japanese New Year. Meanwhile, my whole family gets together and cooks for two days to prepare osechi, a feast of traditional dishes. Normally I would enjoy my family’s cultural foods for one day and then settle for vaguely Japanese meals the rest of the year. But as I became more and more vegan, I knew that even this non-vegan day was not an option. I also knew that one meal a year was not enough to stay connected to my culture. I had to find a way to incorporate more vegan versions of my childhood dishes into my daily diet.
Fortunately, not all Japanese dishes are hard to make vegan. Japanese curry, one of my mom’s specialties, is vegan if I just leave out the meat. For sukiyaki, it’s easy to replace the fish-based dashi with water without the flavor changing. To recreate the “chicken” katsu, I make my own seitan which is quite perfect.
However, some recipes cannot be duplicated. I couldn’t find a substitute for kamaboko (a white fish cake with a pink swirl), pickled ramen eggs, or sashimi. I won’t be able to eat most osechi with my family next year. These are things that I will have to accept.
I am continually finding new ways to connect with my culture through vegan food. But if I’m being honest with myself, traditional vegan Japanese food makes it seem like it’s not traditional. However, my attempts to remake the meals of my childhood taught me that it is not the food itself that embodies my culture, but rather the memories and lessons that remind me as I prepare it. It is my grandmother who teaches me to always serve two scoops of rice because “one is for the dead.” It’s calling my mom from college to ask which brand of teriyaki sauce is best (that’s Yoshida, if you were wondering). It’s my great aunt who spoils us with way too much sushi at every meeting, even when we’re told she doesn’t have to bring any. Using seitan to make chicken katsu doesn’t erase that.