This article was written by Shahar Lilia Griffin, author of the Blue Vagabond blog.
As vegans, it’s no secret that we’re limited in our food choices when traveling, though some of these difficulties may be solved by going over our Vegan food Guide in Japan. What’s worse is being in a popular, must-see place where the main concept is non-vegan food. That’s the case with Nishiki Market, known as the kitchen of Kyoto and home to shops that are some hundreds of years old. Just imagine: it’s said that the first shop of this market was opened around 1310! When visiting or living in the city going there is unavoidable. But, is it really our destiny as vegans to watch our friends, family, and all the other visitors happily enjoy their food at the market while we wait for the next convenient store for that sad, dried-plum onigiri we always buy?! Most definitely not!
As a Ph.D. candidate studying in Kyoto University, I have learned a research technique or two in all my years of studying. However, I have to say, researching vegan options in Nishiki Market proved to be a challenge. The reasons why:
1. Unaware of actual ingredients: Some shops and sales people don’t really know the ingredients of the food they’re selling. For example, when I asked one lady if the dip for the dango she sells has dairy or eggs, she simply answered “maybe,” not showing any intention to actually check the ingredients.
2. Beginner mistakes: Even if the vendors do check for non-vegan ingredients in their goods, they might be mistaken or lack awareness about what non-vegan ingredients actually include (for example, they might not be aware that mayonnaise has eggs). I bet I was the first person to ask some of them these things, so they might make these so-called beginner mistakes. For that reason you are highly encouraged to try and ask them for yourself too (in English or Japanese). First, it could reassure you about what I’ve checked and, second, it will raise their awareness of our food preferences.
3. Don’t judge by the main ingredient: Soy ice cream? Soy donuts? Both contain milk 😒 The fact that something contains soymilk doesn’t mean that it’ll be dairy-free – “the more the merrier,” after all (well, depends on who you’re asking). One of the places, for example, sells fried gluten with miso, but the miso paste contains eggs. Conclusion: even if it looks innocent, you better double-check.
4. Seasonal food: Some of the vegan things they sell could be seasonal. You might visit the market in another season and not see what you’re looking for. I mention some seasonal foods in this article.
5. The hours may differ: I went to the market at certain days and certain hours. Some stores that were closed on those days might be missing from this article – and that’s where you come in! Please feel free to write to us any additions you may have.
Now after this exhausting, yet necessary, preparation, it’s time for vegan food in Nishiki Market!!!
This yuba store was founded in 1790. It has been operating for nine generations and is still producing Kyo-yuba (a Kyoto version of yuba) in the traditional way. Yuba is made from the crust of a soymilk that is prepared to a consistency specifically for making yuba. This soymilk is simmered until a thin layer of yuba (crust) forms on the surface; then, the yuba is scooped up and ready to be used as fresh yuba, which will be good for around three days. For dried yuba, the scooped up yuba is hung up and dried overnight, after which it will be good for around two months.
You might see yuba floating in your soup or placed on your sushi, which is how it’s often used. It’s rich in protein while being 100% vegan, and gluten, preservative, and additive-free. It doesn’t have a strong taste by itself and absorbs the tastes of other spices. You can boil it for 2-3 minutes and eat it with soy sauce and wasabi, add it to your miso soup, or deep-fry it. The store has many yuba products, but not all of them are vegan, so please ask.
One last thing worth mentioning is that the yuba in Kyoto is considered “the best yuba” in Japan (although it originates from Chiba prefecture). It’s said that where the water is good, the yuba is delicious.
These chestnuts are the best I’ve ever had! This shop bakes the chestnuts in a special pressure-method, which helps the chestnuts maintain their humidity and makes them so good. They also claim to select nuts with a high concentration of natural sugar, so it will be sweeter with no additives. If you’re not sure, you can try some of the samples and decide for yourself. I’m pretty sure you’ll like it.
Besides the chestnuts, they also sell black bean tea, dry fruits, and my favorite dried sweet potato. This shop is one of vegan highlights in Nishiki market, for vegans and non-vegans alike.
This sweet, little shop has a small stall to sell their traditional Japanese sweets. The carefully selected ingredients comprise a combination of seasonal ingredients, mochi rice, and sweet beans. This shop follows the old wagashi tradition of making Japanese sweets that have a very mild sweetness (which is lower compared to Western sweets). Those of you that like mild sweetness and are open to new flavors should definitely try it out. We bought the seasonal sakura mochi, which was really good and had an interesting taste.
The sakura leaf reminded us a little of stuffed vine leaves, while the mochi (Japanese rice cake) was sweet – a great party for the taste buds. We also got ourselves gojoki-boshi, a snack made from sweet beans in a crispy rice-cracker shell that was also great. What I loved about the place is that they have a list of all the ingredients for their goods, so if you see something you like, you can ask if it’s vegan or not.
These crackers are handmade and super delicious. You’ll even see the machine used to fry them. I couldn’t stop thinking how good they would be with a nice pint of beer. They have crackers made of pumpkin seeds, broad beans, green peas, and more. But, please pay attention: not all of these are vegan. The peanut crackers, for example, contain egg, while the others don’t.
I will mention again and again: never take the ingredients for granted; the vendor may have changed them, so please check again. My impression is that they have quite a high awareness for how some people can’t eat eggs, which would explain why they put a small little drawing of a chick on the sign for the peanut crackers. This store also sells various kinds of miso paste, so you can try them out too if you feel adventurous.
If you’re into mochi, this place has all kinds of them. Not all of them are vegan though, so pay attention. As for me, I especially like the warabi mochi (which reminds me a bit of the Turkish lokum and its texture) covered with sweet kinako powder that’s made from dried beans and sugar. Very powdery and very delicious. They sell all kinds of Japanese sweets, like dango, special seasonal mochi and more. In the summer, you can sit inside for a refreshing kakigori. Just go there and see for yourself!
This place is a bit misleading: they sell soymilk ice cream… that has dairy in it. The same is true for the donuts. Sorry, I thought you’d like to know.
However, they do sell two delicious vegan items: the chewy sesame tofu and the yuba sashimi – both of which are worth checking out! Another cool thing is the fresh soy milk they make straight from soybeans. If you’re into soymilk, this is the place for you.
I went into this shop with low expectations. After all, the sweet beans they sell all look really good but contain milk… I was surprised to find out that they sell two kinds of vegan ice cream: kinako (soybean sugar) and black sesame. I tried the kinako one, and it was great. This is the place for us who love vegan ice cream.
This is actually the last shop in the market, located on the southern side. It’s a cute little place that sells tofu and fried gluten. The lady was super nice and checked carefully for non-vegan ingredients in the items we asked about. Eventually, we bought the fried gluten with miso on top besides the kinu-atsuage (deep-fried tofu) we brought home. These three pieces of fried gluten were so nice thanks to the miso (which, the lady twice confirmed, had no eggs in it). This shop is also a nice place to buy ingredients for cooking if you’re staying in an Airbnb or have a place to cook. Try it out before you leave the market!
Well, I think I covered most of the vegan food in Nishiki Market stalls. From now on, I’m sure you’ll be able to enjoy this place with your friends a lot more, whether they’re vegan or not. If you want to know more about vegan food in Kyoto – check out my blog – Blue Vagabond. I’m sure you’ll find a lot of helpful information in there 🙂
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