A ramen aficionado might scoff at the idea of a meatless broth. That pork or chicken essence, I’m told, is what gives ramen its characteristic hearty kick. There are, however, a handful of brave shops around Tokyo that can hold their own against those meaty bowls any day.
While vegetarian ramen shops are vastly outnumbered, these little strongholds are worth their repeated mentions not only for the vegetarians in town, but for the omnivores as well, as these are much more than just bowls of ramen sans meat.
T’s TanTan is a vegan ramen restaurant located inside Tokyo Station (1-9-1 Marunouchi, Keiyo Street, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 03-3218-8040; www.ts-restaurant.jp/tantan) Here you’ll find an assortment of ramen dishes and even a curry plate and rice bowls, none of which contain meat, fish, egg or dairy. Many of them do contain a textured topping made from soy protein, and though this use of beans clearly stems from a mock-meat mindset, the main focus of T’s TanTan doesn’t seem to be imitating the flavor of meat but rather offering a colorful palette of vegetable-based dishes for health and wellbeing. The walls in T’s TanTan are peppered with posters of vegetables and a stylized mural of humans and animals proclaiming their love of all things veg.
Whether you dig the earth-friendly vibe or not, the ramen is to die for. The “plain” tantan ramen is anything but plain. The broth is made from peanuts and sesame and has a uniquely delicious nutty flavor as a result.
However, while I appreciate the concept and heart behind all-vegan places such as T’s TanTan (“healthy,” “eco-friendly” and “macrobiotic” being frequent key terms), sometimes you just want to blend in with the crowd.
Chabuton is a chain ramen shop with three locations in Tokyo: Shimokitazawa, Akihabara and Kitasuna. I felt right at home in the quick-and-dirty-style establishment in Akihabara (1-1 Hanaokacho, Kanda, Chiyoda- ku, Tokyo; 03-5289-8336; www.chabuton.com). With its vending-machine ordering system, no special interaction with the staff is required to get a meat-free bowl of ramen.
The Vege-ramen is a colorful bowl of vegetable-based delight. The broth is clear but chock-full of bits of onion, carrot and other savory vegetables. I took one sip and was immediately comforted: Chabuton doesn’t seem to be trying to imitate a meat-based broth at all, as I’d half expected, since this is a meat-centric restaurant. Instead, it has created an honest, decent vegetable soup as a base, almost like a minestrone. The noodles are green — yes, green! — and made with the “superfood” spirulina. Also on the menu is vegetarian gyōza dumplings.
There are other places, too: Both Chabuzen and Nomin Cafe in Shimokitazawa serve vegetarian or vegan ramen.
Whether the place is all vegan or it blends in with the meat-dominated casual ramen-bar style, vegetarian ramen restaurants do exist — and I’ll certainly be popping in next time I’m hankering for a bowl.
Ananda Jacobs is a composer, recording artist and actress in Tokyo, and has been ovo-lacto vegetarian for over 20 years. She is currently producing music for her band Jacobs. www.anandajacobs.com