Every holiday has its meal, and in Japan at Christmas it’s takeaway crispy chicken that rules the roost. For faithful, joyful and triumphant vegetarians in Japan, however, the roasted holiday bird is as appealing as the piece of coal left at the bottom of a stocking.
Vegetarians are already on the naughty list when it comes to Japanese cuisine, and gifts are denied them at every turn. No, the recipe cannot be made without fish. No, this tempura isn’t available without shrimp. Bacon is a meat? Really? Life for vegetarians is hard here, unless you’re satisfied with tofu and salt-water ramen.
But the holidays — and the traditions that come with them — are often about nostalgia. Sure, Christmas dinner in Japan is celebrated at the tail end of just another workday, and it’s hard enough to find time to celebrate, much less in a vegetarian fashion. But while some might be resigned to shrug it all off as humbug, mixing up a turkey substitute could not only make your apartment smell like the faraway hearth of your youth, but it would also probably be more delicious than everyone else’s takeaway bucket of deep-fried chicken.
With some flexibility, the essential vegetables that complement many a Western holiday feast are readily available in Japan: pumpkin, Brussels sprouts, squash, potatoes, carrots. We also live in the land of many mushroom varieties. Anyone who’s lived overseas and had vegetarian leanings is well familiar with the benefits of tofu and miso.
Recipes that are easily cooked in an oven abound online. With some creativity and a portion of tofu, some onions, celery, mushrooms, garlic, sage, thyme and pepper, you can easily bake your own kind of “tofurkey” with stuffing.
Vegetarians without an oven may think they face a more difficult task: How can we make a faux turkey dinner in a frying pan? The secret is that adding rosemary and thyme to almost anything can create a turkey replacement. Slice up some shiitake mushrooms, thick enough to serve as the “meat” rather than just another aspect of the stuffing. Soak them overnight in some miso, garlic and oil (and the requisite rosemary and thyme) and then toss them into a pan. Serve with mashed potato and some boiled carrots, and you have a vegetarian holiday dinner.
A turkey replacement makes a tricky dinner-table centerpiece, but the sides are easy. Many a horrified omnivore gasps at the idea of a vegetarian holiday meal, unaware of how much of the traditional stuff is vegetarian anyway: carrots, corn, potatoes, yams, pumpkin soup, potato pancakes, spinach and cheese pies, and scalloped potatoes.
The most elusive veg-friendly side is gravy. You can find recipes for vegan and vegetarian gravy substitutes online, including many that make use of miso and mushrooms. Vegetable bouillon, a common base for vegetarian gravy, can be tough to find in Japan, but it’s easy to make your own with local ingredients. Boil some kabocha pumpkin, carrots, onion and garlic in water for 45 minutes to an hour, then strain out the vegetables from the liquid and salt it to taste. Use the liquid to replace vegetable soup stock in any vegetarian gravy recipe.
For the final course there’s a breezy tide of vegetarian-friendly puddings: tapioca, apple pie with ice cream, tiramisu, cheesecake, gingerbread and blintzes. Not to mention Japan’s abundant availability of stollen.
But one simple, fattening, thick beverage can make up for the absence of any other holiday goodies: Light some candles and sip on a thick glass of eggnog. Traditional eggnog requires fresh, raw egg whites and yolks (stirred separately), fluffed and mixed with milk and a pint of rum or brandy, topped with nutmeg and cinnamon.
Ovo-lacto vegetarians may find this is enough to get them into the holiday spirit, or at least quite drunk. But let’s not forget the vegans. Silky tofu and soy milk can be whipped into an equally satisfying dessert drink. Just remember to let the cinnamon and nutmeg take over and skimp a bit on the alcohol to make up for the thinner flavor of soy. If it smells right, you’ll know it, so follow your nose.
Traditions, of course, run the gamut. My Italian-American family lived on the American seacoast, so my “traditional” meal was lobster served with a side of lasagna. The challenge of whipping up veggie alternatives to unique family traditions can make for some interesting work-arounds. Katie Strong, a Texan now living in Okinawa, says she finds her family’s tradition of eating Mexican food for the holidays particularly challenging as a vegetarian in Japan.
“I plan to make tortilla soup, stuffed peppers and enchiladas,” Strong says. “Finding the ingredients is a little difficult, especially the cheese; however, there are many stores that will allow you to order and ship (to your address).”
Strong’s advice for fellow vegetarians: Plan ahead and prioritize.
“As a vegetarian in Japan, you should just expect the whole process to take more time,” she says. “Finding ingredients, making things you could normally buy (back home), substituting things: It means that you have to really want something to set aside that much time for it.”
There’s always merit in making new traditions in a new place. After all, the Christmas chicken is itself an immigrant to Japan, where it was adapted from the American Christmas turkey, which was itself adapted in America from the Victorian English Christmas goose. So when all else fails, a vegetarian nabe (hot pot) next to holiday lights and a small stack of presents might be just the right start to a new cross-pollinated holiday food tradition, mixing elements of our homes old and new.