Japanese Food Goes Vegan in Ramen, Sushi and Omakase

If your pal says, “let’s get Japanese,” you probably picture an evening ahead filled with buttery salmon draped over gleaming mounds of rice, or you think of sticky, salty skewers of yakitori chicken. Vegetables, other than in their typical roles as enhancers and accessories, probably don’t spring to mind. But they should. Across the country we encountered vegan sushi, vegan ramen and even a nine-course vegan omakase tasting menu enticing enough for meat eaters.

Vegan Ramen: Ramen Hood, Los Angeles
If certain foods can be addictive, ramen is one of them. Try navigating an alley of ramen stalls in Japan without stopping for a bowl of springy noodles bathing in a rich umami broth topped with glistening rounds of pork and a succulent egg. Like magic, Chef Ilan Hall and his partner, Chef Rahul Khopkar, achieve the same depth of flavor and the same umami blast in vegan form at Ramen Hood in Grand Central Market in Los Angeles. The stand-and-slurp stall serves regular and spicy vegan ramen with a sunflower broth base. “We start off with shiitake dashi made with kombu,” Hall explains. “Then, we roast white miso with sunflower seeds and put the mixture in a pressure cooker, which forces out fat and starch from sunflower seeds, making it milky like tonkotsu broth.” They’ve even fabricated an egg (using local soymilk, nutritional yeast and beta carotene for color) whose yolk bursts when pierced with chopsticks. King oyster mushrooms take pork’s place. Hall, of the shuttered Gorbals and the winner of Top Chef, Season 2, didn’t open Ramen Hood because he’s vegan. “I wanted to do something vegan because I’ve been the opposite my whole life,” he says. “I know that putting vegetables in forefront is feasible because get so much more variety in the plant world, while meat can be limited.”

Vegan Sushi: Beyond Sushi, New York
By now, modern sushi eaters are accustomed to fruit and pads of cream cheese sneaking into their otherwise textbook sushi rolls. But what about spaghetti squash, sunchokes and chayote? At Beyond Sushi, there are no boundaries, other than being strictly vegan. “[Vegans] are a very persuasive community; it was the best decision I ever made,” says Chef Guy Vaknin, who adds that yasai, or vegetarian sushi, is also popular in Japan. That being said, a 2013 survey Vaknin conducted showed 80 percent of Beyond Sushi customers weren’t vegan or vegetarian. “Businessmen in suits, big guys who look like they usually go for a burger for lunch come in — it’s one of the most-rewarding things,” Vaknin says. Beyond Sushi’s popularity has dictated three locations, all serving a combination of rolls, nigiri of fruits and vegetables strapped to rice with seaweed belts, and hand rolls in a casual setting where takeout is popular. The Spicy Mang is the best-selling roll, but opt for the Roll of the Month; Vaknin draws inspiration from his trips to Union Square Market.

Vegan Omakase: Sushiko, Chevy Chase, Md.
So much about omakase is about looks. Course after course in a traditional Japanese tasting menu meal should arrive appealing to the eyes as edible art. While the vegan omakase menu at Sushiko stops short of traditional because it skirts meat and fish, chefs Handry and Piter Tjan still pull off a spectacle. The brothers, who grew up eating vegetarian, open the meal with a delicate combination of bamboo shoots and wakame seaweed called ohitashi, which diners find presented in an orb playfully resembling a terrarium. The nine-course meal crescendos with a take on sunomono made colorful by watermelon radishes and other sliced vegetables followed by a comforting congee with burgundy truffles — one of the best ways to deliver decadence to vegans. Another highlight is the housemade tofu, impressively adorned with faux caviar made from seaweed. The vegan tasting menu is available on Sundays and Mondays with 48 hours’ notice, and it costs $80.

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