Learning from a World-Beating Vegan Japanese Restaurant

Food and Drink

Veganism is popular in Europe and North America. But Japan is home to a vegan restaurant that was rated the world’s best in 2019, and veganism was even brought up in a recent animal welfare debate in Japan’s National Diet. We interviewed people at this restaurant, where Japan’s Minister of the Environment Koizumi Shinjirō recently dined.

Vegan Diet Discussed in the Diet

In a debate about animal cruelty at Japan’s National Diet on November 17, Japan’s minister of the environment, Koizumi Shinjirō, commented that he is refraining from eating foie gras these days and talked about his dining experience at a vegan restaurant.

“I recently dined at a vegan restaurant that was ranked best in the world, after it was recommended to me. I was pleasantly surprised. I thought that the vegan yakitori was meat. And the cheese in the salad had me fooled.”

A salad course at Saidō pleases both the eye and the palate.
A salad course at Saidō pleases both the eye and the palate.

Koizumi explained further: “I can’t promise perfection, but I will make changes to my lifestyle to contribute to achieving a sustainable society and decarbonization. I’m now thinking about food supply chains. And I’m considering what I can do, one thing at a time.”

Reservations are hard to come by at Saido, a vegan Japanese restaurant in Tokyo
Reservations are hard to come by at Saido, a vegan Japanese restaurant in Tokyo.

Saidō is a vegan restaurant in Tokyo. Opened in 2018 with just 18 seats, it’s a short walk from the station at Jiyūgaoka, an area popular with the young. In November 2019, it was ranked the world’s best vegan restaurant on HappyCow, a website used by vegans and vegetarians around the globe. Securing a reservation there can be tricky.

From IT to Vegan Restaurant Management

Yongdai Han is the director of Funfair, the company that manages Saidō. He switched to being a restaurant proprietor after working at Yahoo and eBay. Han explains what prompted the switch:

“A Muslim friend said that he wants to eat Japanese ramen but can’t because it contains pork. I wanted to make some ramen that my friend could eat, so I developed Samurai Ramen, a halal instant noodle brand.”

Proprietor Yongdai Han switched from working in IT to running a restaurant.
Proprietor Yongdai Han switched from working in IT to running a restaurant.

Samurai Ramen won attention from the Muslim World after launching in 2014. But Han had his eyes on Europe and North America.

“In those markets, I thought that the market for veganism and vegetarianism would grow even larger as interest in those diets was on the rise due to environmental problems. That increase in interest was why I started Saidō as a brand for vegans and vegetarians. My initial aim wasn’t to tackle environmental problems.”

What Japan Visitors Want to Eat

More than high-class cuisine, what travelers to Japan really want to eat is ramen and convenience-store oden.
More than high-class cuisine, what travelers to Japan really want to eat is ramen and convenience-store oden.

Saidō went on to become the world’s number one vegan restaurant, as rated by vegan and vegetarian HappyCow users in Japan and overseas. Han reveals that this acclaim was down to a pet theory of his.

“Some travelers visiting Japan want to eat fancy Japanese cuisine like kaiseki cuisine or shōjin ryōri, Zen Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. But some want to eat food on the “second tier,” like ramen or convenience-store oden. That was my theory. I aimed for a vegan menu that looked like one in a casual Japanese bar. By sticking to that path, we ended up being rated the world’s best.”

cap: Saidō’s chief chef, Kusumoto Katsumi, has cooked halal food since 2015.
Saidō’s chief chef, Kusumoto Katsumi, has cooked halal food since 2015.

Saidō’s chief chef, Kusumoto Katsumi, took up the challenge of cooking halal at a Japanese restaurant that he managed in Tokyo before joining the vegan outfit. He explains how he got into this new field:

“I ran a members-only Japanese restaurant in Tokyo’s Nishi Azabu from 2010. In around 2015, customers started asking me to learn about Muslim food taboos because opportunities to entertain and host Muslims were increasing for them. That’s when I started cooking halal food. As I could cook halal, I was asked whether I could also cater for vegans and vegetarians.”

A Modern Vegan Take on Shōjin Ryōri

Asked about whether vegan and Japanese cuisines are compatible, Kusumoto notes that shōjin ryōri, which is mostly vegan, is a classic Japanese cuisine.

“The tōfu fritter called ganmodoki, an everyday food in Japan, originally came from shōjin ryōri. The gan part of ganmodoki refers to chicken dumplings. Priests rolled tōfu into balls and fried them as a replacement for chicken dumplings. Saidō similarly serves an eel-imitation dish that’s popular with our foreign customers. What we do is take shōjin ryōri and give it a modern spin.”

A hit with foreign diners, this imitation eel dish puts a modern spin on shōjin ryōri.
A hit with foreign diners, this imitation eel dish puts a modern spin on shōjin ryōri.

Then again, foreign diners aren’t satisfied with already available cuisine that’s merely been given a twist, Kusumoto went on to say.

“The tastes of shōjin ryōri won’t satisfy people from Europe or North America. Shōjin ryōri soup stock is often made with dried foods, kelp, and dried shiitake mushrooms. But in Europe and North America, soup stock is made with raw vegetables. So we mix raw vegetables in the Japanese-style soup stock to deepen the taste.”

Everyone at the Same Table

The concept that drives Saidō is food diversity. The aim is to be a restaurant where everyone can dine at the same table. Kusumoto explains this as follows.

“If we were to cater for only vegans, then we might be serving food that nonvegans wouldn’t necessarily prefer, and we wouldn’t have food diversity in the real sense of those words. So we needed to make clever use of seasonings and other culinary tricks so that nonvegans could enjoy the cuisine just as much. That’s how we run Saidō.”

The concept behind Saidō is food diversity
The concept behind Saidō is food diversity.

So the focus is not on environmental problems. Han says: “This is a restaurant, after all, so customers might feel overwhelmed if environmental problems are given center stage. Above all, we serve tasty food. And that food just happens to be good for the environment. I think that serving environmentally friendly food that doesn’t taste good is more about the chef’s ego than anything else. That business wouldn’t be sustainable.”

World-Conquering Vegan Japanese Cuisine

 The ingredients used to make this yakitori are a trade secret.
The ingredients used to make this yakitori are a trade secret.

Saidō is planning to expand overseas and franchise. Possible cities for opening restaurants are Berlin, London, and Amsterdam. Of those, Berlin is the city that Han thinks has the most promise.

“Portland, Oregon, is known for being a vegan hotspot, but Berlin and Warsaw are where the vegan populations are really increasing of late. IT start-ups are appearing here and there in Berlin, and 15 percent of Berlin’s population is either vegan or vegetarian. It’s an interesting market right now.”

Will vegan Japanese cuisine really be accepted overseas? Kusumoto responds that it will win people over precisely because it is Japanese cuisine.

Shōjin ryōri is one of Japan’s traditional cuisines that employs various culinary techniques. Japanese cuisine, with umami at its core, is is high demand all around the world. It can’t lose, wherever in the world we take it.”

Commenting further on Japanese cuisine’s strong chances for world success, Kusumoto explains, paradoxically, that Japan’s most popular vegan food is the hamburger.

“The hamburger is a flavor available the world over. In America, a leader in food tech, immense sums have been invested in scientifically developing meat substitutes, such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat. We aren’t going to win by going head-to-head in that ring, so our path forward is clearly to go with our long-standing strengths instead.”

Sustainability Is Key

To tie up the interview, we asked Han whether he himself is vegan.

“I’m a flexitarian. I eat meat and fish, but I’ve reduced how often I eat them, and I proactively select plant-based meals. I tried to eat a pure vegan diet, but it was tricky in Japan, which frustrated me.”

It’s crucial to rethink our consumer behavior for the environment’s sake. But what this restaurant teaches us is that we must be able to keep up behavior that’s sustainable in every sense—both for the planet and in terms of our own preferences.

(Originally published in Japanese on FNN’s Prime Online on November 25, 2020. Written by Fuji TV news commentator Suzuki Makoto. Translated and edited by Nippon.com.)

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