Trip report: Vegetarian Tokyo September 2011

November 27, 2011 at 10:33 pm (Japanese, Trip report)

I’ve waited so long to write about my Tokyo trip that my recollection of the details has mostly faded.  The main thing that I remember is that food in Tokyo is extremely expensive.  Everything is about twice as much as you would pay in Europe or the U.S., and some things (like fruit and nuts) are even more expensive.   Ignoring the prices, though, I had a lot of very tasty food.  Here are the food memories have persisted:

  • At a random “conveyor belt” sushi place in Shinjuku (called Himawari Sushi) I had some kind of tofu custard for dessert.  The custard had only a very mild tofu flavor, but was a little sweet and had a nice consistency. What I really liked was the “black sesame” topping that was served on top of the custard.  The topping was essentially tahini paste made out of black sesame seeds.  But it was extremely flavorful.  And the striking contrast of the jet black tahini with the white pudding made quite an impression.
  • I tried Japanese mountain yam twice.  The first time was at a neighborhood Udon restaurant.  They gave me a bowl of grated mountain yam that had been turned into an extremely gelatinous pudding of sorts.  It didn’t have any discernable taste, just the texture of okra goo.  Now, I don’t mind gooey okra, but I didn’t really enjoy *just* eating the goo without the tasty bits.  But our Japanese waiter was watching me expectantly, so I dutifully polished off the bowl.  When he asked me if it was good, I said yes, and he was so excited that he disappeared into the kitchen only to reappear a few minutes later bearing an 18 inch long yam.   It was skinnier than I expected, and kind of brown and hairy looking.  Despite my not-so-positive first experience with the yam, a few days later I saw grilled mountain yam on the menu at an Izakaya (Seigetsu).  I decided to try it again, thinking it would be less gooey than the grated stuff.  But oddly enough, even though it was firmer and the slices were crisper on the outside, it was vastly overwhelmed by the gooey inner texture.  At least the wasabi and seaweed it was served with gave it a bit of flavor.
  • We tried a bunch of small dishes at Izakaya Seigetsu, but the one I liked the best was the boiled rice served with green tea and ume plums.  I don’t know how they made it but it was extremely satisfying and comforting.
  • I had yaki gome (sesame tofu) at two different restaurants.  I was told that it doesn’t actually contain any soy.   It’s just ground up sesame seeds that are chilled, and somehow end up with a jiggly, gelatinous, creamy texture.  I can’t say I was that excited about the yaki gome, but the first time I ordered it (at Maru Mayfront in Omotesando) I loved the tahini it was topped with.  It tasted way better than any tahini I’ve ever had before.  I asked the waitress and she said that every day the chef toasts the seeds and then grinds the sesame seeds by hand in a huge Japanese mortar.  The second time I tried it was at Tofuyu-Ukai.  I had read a rave review of their sesame tofu, but it didn’t come with any tahini, and it didn’t excite me.  Derek loved it, however.
  • I had a really savory, comforting soup of rice, eggs, and mushrooms at Cafe eF.
  • The vegan ramen at T’s Tan Tan was shockingly artificial tasting.  It tasted of salt and/or MSG, and cheap vegetable oils.    And there were almost no vegetables.  Even if you’re vegan and want to try ramen—stay away!
  • The food at Derek’s conference dinner was excellent.  The meat eaters didn’t seem to excited by it, but as a vegetarian it was probably the best conference dinner that I’ve ever had.  There were many small courses, and I couldn’t tell what was in most of them.  I remember one wonderful bite of okra, that was gone before I even knew it was there.  There was some very tasty, savory custardy dish. I even happily ate an entire baby Japanese eggplant, that had been roasted and that slathered with miso.  The dessert was just a few pieces of some fruit (persimmon?  I don’t remember) tossed with lime juice, but it was so good I tried to steal another piece from my neighbor when he wasn’t looking!
  • The most elaborate (yet still rather austere) meal I had on the whole trip was at Tofuya-Ukai.  Derek and I had lunch there with a friend of mine from my University days, his Japanese wife, his son, and his father (who was visiting from Texas).  The restaurant is composed of a large number of traditional Edo-style wooden and glass buildings, each forming a serene little island in the middle of a lush 71,000 square foot Japanese garden.  The menu is set, and isn’t normally vegetarian, but they made me special versions of all the courses that normally contain meat or fish.  One of the standout courses was a fat piece of tofu that had been deep fried (I think) and then slowly roasted over an outdoor grill, until its outside was crunchy and almost dried out.  It was slathered in a sweet miso sauce.  Very tasty.  However, my favorite dish by far was the fresh tofu in soymilk broth.  The block of tofu was unflavored–just an extremely fresh block of perfectly silky tofu.  The broth, however, was out of this world.  I have no idea what was in it.  It was sweet and nutty and rich and full of umame.  Derek, oddly enough, didn’t like this dish very much.  I looked up what other bloggers have to say and the opinions seem mix.  Some say that it’s totally bland and the portion is way too huge.  Others loved it as much as I did.

A few notes about food-related shopping:

  • I wasn’t that impressed with any of the department store food levels—they were too upscale and not diverse enough.  But in the Matsuzakaya department basement I quite liked the Muji store.
  • Tokyo Hands was pretty cool, kind of a cross between the container store, hobby lobby, and a hardware store.
  • I really enjoyed strolling down Kappabashi Dogugai street and checking out all the restaurant supplies.  You can get everything there–pots, pans, plates, chopsticks, menus, marble stands to display your menu outside your store, electric signs for your storefront…
  • Despite all the fish I was glad I visited the Tsukiji fish market.  I got a big box of Ume plums and some freeze-dried yuzu at a stand that seemed to be catering to the molecular gastronomy crowd.


  1. Chung-chieh Shan said,

    Ochazuke and dengaku are really easy to make!

    • captious said,

      Thanks for the Japanese names and the links. I’ll have to try making them myself!

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