Many of the world’s cuisines are available in Japan. Even so, some people have difficulty finding food that suits their traditions and lifestyles. "Tokyo Vegan Guide" author Chiara Terzuolo shares some tips for dining within limitations and still enjoying culinary life.
Chiara also talks about her experience as the MC of NHK WORLD-JAPAN‘s "Learn Japanese from the News" and tells how she acquired fluency.
Living in Japan. Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning into our show. I'm Stuart. I'm Ruth.
Living in Japan is a program for international residents in Japan, whether you're here now or expect to be here in the future.
We're the place to turn to for tips about making the most of your life in Japan.
Ruth, I'm sure you have, but have you heard the expression "shokuyoku-no-aki"?
It means that autumn is a nice season to enjoy food and drinks. When the hot summer is over, one's appetite is rejuvenated and just in time for tasty treats such as yakiimo, kinoko, kuri and the rest.
I actually like spicy curry in the summer, isn't that weird?
Spicy curry in the summer.
I love it.
But what about autumn?
Autumn? Curry again.
All year 'round.
Now, especially Sanma or Pacific saury is wonderful in autumn.
It is. I love fish too, though not everyone does. For example, my daughter is a vegan, so she doesn't eat Sanma. And you know, that's just something that she doesn't eat. And she's not alone in having a reason to avoid certain foods.
Yeah, you're right. As you said, vegans, of course, but also people who refrain for religious and cultural reasons also find it, they face difficulties in finding food that's appropriate for them. That's what today's program is all about. Culinary diversity.
We've invited Chiara Terzuolo to join us today. She's the author of "Tokyo Vegan Guide."
Wonderful! She's actually been with us before.
Yes, I heard that episode. That was before I joined the show.
Now this time, she'll tell us about the struggles that people with different food traditions face in Japan, including her own. And she'll offer some great tips on enjoying food in this country.
HINTS FROM SENPAI
Time for Hints from Senpai. Senpai is a Japanese word meaning someone with more knowledge or experience than you and I have. Each month, we ask a senpai to enlighten us about what he or she already has been through.
And today's senpai is Chiara Terzuolo. She writes books, appears on TV, and even sings opera! I love Chiara's voice. Today, though, it's her status as someone outside Japan's mainstream food culture that we want to talk about. Welcome back, Chiara.
Thanks so much for having me again. Well, as you both stated earlier, it can be difficult for people with different cultures and customs to find food that they can eat. In my case, that involves searching for a plant-based diet. But of course, there's people who keep halal and kosher and people who have allergies. So, all of us have to devote a lot of time and energy to dealing with food cultural differences here in Japan.
So just how hard is it for you and other folks to find the right kind of food?
Well, the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup definitely opened the eyes of many restaurateurs in different ways people around the world eat. So there has been a huge increase in the numbers of restaurants that are more open to food diversity. There's more, especially vegan restaurants in Tokyo. But it is still kind of an exception. So, a lot of places are still not quite there yet, I must say.
Only around 2% of Japan's population is from somewhere else. Tokyo and other big cities have shops catering to international residents and visitors. Rural areas are another story, though.
Definitely, if you go to Australia or Canada and lots of places in Europe, almost every restaurant will have at least one plant-based item on menu. But that's not true in Japan. Definitely try to go to a yakiniku place here and find something veggie. Right? But instead of saying what you do want, I've often found it easier to explain what you don't want.
Good point. Oh, that's a good idea.
Yes. So, one really useful expression that I include in my guide is "Nantoka-nuki de onegaishimasu."
"So, can you please do this dish without… whatever it is?"
Oh, okay. "Nantoka-nuki de onegaishimasu."
Like chikin-nuki or something like that?
"Chikin-nuki [or] katsuobushi-nuki de onegaishimasu."
And then another one is actually kind of the reverse. Well, which would be "... ha haitte imasuka," or does this contain… blank? So "miruku ha haitte imasuka," does this contain milk?
Ah, "chikin ha haitte imasuka."
So, what ingredients do you watch out for?
Well, if you avoid animal-based foods, as I do, in Japan, your number-one nemesis is going to be Katsuo-dashi, which is bonito stock or katsuobushi, which are bonito flakes.
They are in everything, it sometimes seems in Japan… in broth for noodles, and even in common items like mitarashi-dango, which are rice dumplings with a sort of sweet soy sauce glaze, which you would think as a dessert. Yeah.
And even in really simple rice bowls, which are kombu rice bowls, it's. So, you think it's just seaweed. Nope! There is some Katsuo-dashi hiding in there. Yes.
Well, I mean, I guess it's because it sort of adds the umami, you know, so it's hard to take out.
So, if you're completely on a plant-based diet, even if you don't see fish in the soup, it may be necessary to ask "Katsuo-dashi ha haitte imasuka." That means does this contain Katsuo-dashi?
Yep, definitely. Fish really is everywhere in Japanese cuisine. No surprise: we're surrounded by ocean. But, you know, other than fish, traditionally, the Japanese diet is actually pretty heavily plant based. And it was so until about the late 19th century. So even if you don't eat fish and fish-derived soups, you can enjoy traditional Japanese cuisine.
And yeah, there are certain restaurants around Tokyo and Japan that have fantastic plant-based Japanese menus.
I know. You probably know this, Chiara, that one of the Tokyo restaurants, the vegan restaurant was rated top in 2019 for international vegan cuisine.
Oh, yes, yes. It's quite famous, and it is delicious.
Yeah, it's really good.
You can find lots of delicious edible wild plants, sansai and tofu-based dishes. Now, my favorite is agedashi-dofu, it's deep-fried tofu with soup stock. But, uh oh, then I guess you have to pay attention to whether the soup contains Katsuo-dashi!
Yes, then in packaged products, I also always look out for nyu-seihin, which is basically milk products.
Oh, dairy products.
Yes, you have to watch out for those. They show up in the randomest things.
So, keep an eye out for those. And then for our friends out there who keep strictly halal. You should also know that sometimes soy sauce contains alcohol. So even if it seems like it might be okay on the surface, it is worth checking.
And also in the supermarket, I discovered that even some yogurt contains animal gelatin. And for people with certain, you know, backgrounds, cultural backgrounds, religions who don't eat pork, a lot of these products can really be off limits.
I have some great recommendations for that, actually. There is a nonprofit website called "Is It Vegan?," which is run by, currently run by a person from the U.S., and they have a huge amount of translations for processed food product labels. It is so helpful.
A lot of people don't know the Japanese words for all of the ingredients, and sometimes there can be different ways of writing them, like we talked about nyu-seihin earlier, which is dairy products, which sometimes can be written out as miruku, milk. So, you know, it's super helpful. And this is not just a help for people who are vegan, but people who perhaps have allergies or, you know, are trying to avoid certain things.
Trying to lose weight. Yeah, dietary conditions, and so on.
I don't know If it would help you lose weight! But then if you are looking out for certain products, like if you want to avoid pork or if you want to avoid alcohol, all of these kind of things, that it is a fantastic site.
Yeah. In Japan, you really have to look carefully at the labels, right? A lot of these labels, a lot of these food items, don't specify if they're vegan or halal or kosher, correct?
But I did find the other day at my neighborhood supermarket that there was a vegan area. That was the first time I saw that. So, I have a feeling these kind of things will increase.
Yes, definitely. I've seen the same. And there has definitely been an increase in plant-based products available on the market, which is fantastic.
So, another tip is to go to farmers' markets if you can find one. Now, if you live near or around Tokyo, one of my recommendations is the market at the U.N. University in Aoyama. So, it usually happens on the weekends quite regularly. But do check the website because, you know, due to the state of things right at the moment, things can change.
But it's great. It's run by an NPO and it's one of the most famous farmers' markets in central Tokyo. So, they often have lots of different vegan options for sale and of course, tons of organic products, which are sold directly by the people who grew them, which just makes my little heart so happy.
And if you're in the regional areas, there are these places called michi-no-eki, which are like little stores. And you can go there and get locally produced veggies just right there, totally fresh. So, I think people living in the region might actually be luckier than those of us living in Tokyo in some, in some cases.
For produce, definitely, yes.
Now, Chiara, do you have any suggestions for people with different culinary customs on how to live in Japan more comfortably?
Well, one thing I think that is important is that as somebody who is vegan, I don't want to be pitied for my food choices. I get this quite a lot in Japan, like "kawaiso" you can't eat meat, but it's not that I can't eat meat. I decided not to do so. So, this is my choice. I'm very happy with it.
I totally I get it. My dad is a heavy meat eater, and he actually thinks that it's not very fun to have a life without meat. I think in America that can be true. Meat is pretty much everywhere there.
Yeah. One thing I also really want, particularly restaurateurs, I think, to understand is that our food customs, whether they are vegan or halal or whatever they may be, they are not designed to annoy them.
You know, this is something we believe in. And outside of Japan, it's really normal to have sort of options for this. So, my advice is to let them know it's not a negative thing.
So, I like to go to restaurants that often have several different kinds of options, both vegan and non. So, we call them omni places. So, you can bring people who are vegan and are not vegan and all eat together in a way that is in line with food diversity. And there's lots of places that serve all sorts of wonderful stuff that can satisfy anybody.
I'm sure as Japan continues to internationalize, we'll see more and more in this. We are. I'm really excited.
And one more tip I have is in Japan, it always is best to be positive. Being obnoxious or loud or aggressive really never gets you anywhere. So, if you come across restaurants or staff members or friends who are open to your food requests, praise them to the skies. Be super nice about it and thankful and grateful and show off that, you know, this is a good thing to add to their menus and that it will bring, hopefully, more customers to them as well.
We've been talking about culinary diversity with our senpai Chiara Terzuolo. I suppose it's important to ask what you want, but also to do it really respectfully.
Definitely. So, you may be vegan, or you may keep halal or kosher, or you may have serious food allergies. So, you know, you really have to be an ambassador to your own food culture and food preferences. So, go out to eat and make requests and explain what you want. This will be a little bit difficult for you at the moment, obviously, but it may help open the door to others and help Japan become more and more open to different ways of eating.
Wow. Thanks, Chiara, for those wonderful insights into food diversity in Japan.
Thank you, guys.
GOOD TO KNOW
All right. Now, something else to look into. NHK WORLD-JAPAN has an array of TV programs about Japanese culture. Chiara is still with us because she's going to tell us about a program that she MCs.
[excerpt: Learn Japanese from the News]
So, as you heard, it's Learn Japanese from the News, and the program is, well, just what the title says. So, you can learn Japanese from recent news stories on NHK's "Web News Easy."
Every time we pick some words and sentences that we then translate so we can understand the news and discuss the stories. We also share lots of tips and phrases related to the topic in Japanese. So, it's an opportunity to learn words and phrases that are just a little more difficult than what you would use in regular day-to-day conversation.
I've actually seen the show, and it's absolutely fantastic.
Yes, it's great. Oh, Thank you!
It's so hard to keep up with the news in Japanese, and the news in Japanese is often different than the news we read in English about Japan. Definitely. So, it's a great way to keep up with current events.
Yeah, and one of the best features of the program, I think, is that you can listen to the incredibly beautiful pronunciation of Yamaguchi-san, who is an announcer with NHK's news service. He reads the news both at a normal speed and then at a slower speed with English subtitles so you can really follow along.
When I first started watching the program, the part where he reads it really slowly was really, really, really beneficial for me. I really, really got so much out of that particular part of the program.
At first, understanding TV news in Japanese was not easy for me, and it's not easy for most people, of course.
Chiara, you've been here for 11 years, and I know that you're a professional, a consummate professional. How did you improve your Japanese after learning the basics?
Well, one of my favorite ways is also a very lazy way of doing it, which is I just watched endless amounts of Japanese movies and drama with English subtitles, because that way I could listen to the Japanese and immediately have a translation English. And it allowed me to understand how words and phrases are used in a more natural situation, so not just textbook Japanese.
That's not lazy. That's quite an intelligent way of tackling the problem.
It's very, very efficient indeed. My recommendation is to talk about everything you see and hear in the news, like write it down, learn the vocabulary, and then go out drinking. And almost force the conversation with those around you. 'Cause you've got alcohol in you, you make friends easily, you can go on to sensitive topics--news topics and so on--and people who join you in that conversation are really, really be... really be... what's the word I'm looking for... really energetic!
Yes, that's the famous "nomunication," right? So, drinking communication.
Well, my tip is kind of interesting, too--it really works for me--is to use something in my mother tongue, which in my case is English, and then something that would be written exactly the same way in Japanese. So, what I happen to use is the Bible.
It has to be perfectly translated. So, when I read a part of the English Bible, and then read it in Japanese, it's exactly the same thing. So, I learn a whole bunch of actually quite conservative, traditional Japanese words.
And it actually helps me understand the Japanese news better. Like there's a word like indignation called "ikidori," you know? And that's how I learned it, from the Bible. And when I heard it on the on the news I was like, "I know that word!" So that really helped me.
That's superb. There are many, many ways to learn Japanese through all sorts of different, different means. You can watch the program on NHK WORLD-JAPAN website. Go to the site, click "On Demand," and search for "Learn Japanese from the News."
Today's guest was Chiara Terzuolo. Thank you so much for joining us.
Thank you so much for having me.
We were talking about culinary diversity. And I've got a kind of diversity, too. I can't eat natto, no matter how hard I try.
You know what? I actually eat natto every day.
Last year I became a natto fan, and you should try kimchi-natto, cucumber-natto, tomato-natto, natto-omelet. It's so good.
Oh, good for you. I tried everything I really have every year. I've been here 35 years. I'm still trying. Okay, let's go out to eat something completely different instead of natto then.
We're looking forward to a diversity of listeners listening to us. If you want to hear the program again or introduce someone else to it, just head to our website.
Indeed, go to NHK WORLD-JAPAN website, click on "On Demand," choose "Audio," and select "Living in Japan."
If you have any comments or requests, you can send us a message through the site. We are waiting to hear from you and see you next month.
Okay, then. Bye!