Food & Drink | THE PERSISTENT VEGETARIAN

Vegan ramen isn't just for women on a diet

by Ananda Jacobs

Special To The Japan Times

In the four years since it opened, ramen chain Soranoiro has garnered widespread praise — and for good reason. In addition to its standard shoyu and shiō-based ramen, it also offers more adventurous concoctions including ramen with sudachi (Japanese citrus), umi-budō (sea grapes) or, unbelievably, white chocolate.

But I’ve come to the Tokyo Station branch for another reason: vegan ramen. A bright poster on the restaurant’s wall touts the benefits of various vegetables used in the soup, and displays a mouthwatering image of the dish, the bowl stacked to the brim with renkon (lotus root), broccoli and cabbage in a bright orange carrot soup.

Owner Chihiro Miyazaki opened the first Soranoiro in Tokyo’s Kojimachi neighborhood in 2011. His original vegetable noodle dish was packed with fresh vegetables but also contained seafood, butter and a meat topping — the vegan version didn’t appear until March, 2014.

Even if vegan ramen doesn’t become mainstream, Miyazaki envisions more ramen shops offering vegetarian options. More choices, he says, are always a good thing.

He also hopes to share the virtues of eating healthier through his shops, such as explaining how a meat-centered diet impacts the environment and our bodies.

As I await my ramen, though, I notice a phrase on the poster advertising the vegan ramen: “Healthy! Great for women, and vegetarians!”

It’s healthy, of course, but why is vegetarian food in Japan so frequently targeted at women?

Miyazaki feels that women, non-Japanese and vegetarians don’t normally eat ramen. He considers it his mission to make ramen appealing to more demographics.

I wonder whether linking meat-free ramen and gender helps perpetuate the idea of vegetarianism as a passing diet trend, or at least one not meant for “average” diners.

While marketing vegetable-based food toward health-conscious women is nothing new — ramen chain Kagetsu used slim, smartly dressed women to promote its low-calorie seasonal veggie ramen — it seems like an alienating approach in the long run.

Miyazaki assures me, however, that plenty of men order his vegan dish. And, kudos to Soranoiro for keeping the main emphasis on quality ingredients and choosing to enlighten its clientele to the benefits of meat-free choices.

And the taste? You can’t go wrong with Soranoiro’s standard vegan bowl, but it’s even better with toppings such as extra vegetables or tofu. The noodles are springy and two pastes are dolloped on the side of the bowl — special blends of spices meant to be added to compliment the vegetables.

I have a feeling that with this kind of quality, shops like Soranoiro will do just fine keeping veggie options on their regular menu. Soranoiro’s creativity and talent alone will help sustain its reputation.