Travel brings out the best, worst, and undiscovered traits within ourselves. Reflecting back on my trip to Kyoto, I clearly had a case of food-based FOMO – the fear of missing out on trying as much vegan japanese food as possible. A heightened sense of adventure coupled with a sense of urgency knowing that my time in Kyoto was limited led me to drawing up a formidable apoca-list of cafes to visit. Call me crazy or simply curious, anyhow I survived the food coma to chronicle the best and worst vegan options around Nishiki Market, Kyoto.
Nishiki MarketNishiki Market is called the kitchen of Kyoto – an endless alley of food stands offering items from preserved vegetables and seafood to soy products (tofu doughnuts, fresh soymilk, yuba, dried koyadofu) to loose tea leaves and local spices (yuzu, sansho, shichimi). It is touristy, and expect to contend with a back-to-back jostling crowd. It is worth a walk-through for an experience, but there is not much in terms of vegan offerings. My best find was fresh ichigo, floral and succulent, not a hint of acidity. If you are a strawberry lover, go for a punnet of strawberries over a singular ichigo daifuku; it’s much more worth it! Skip the snow white strawberries because apart from their unique albino appearance, they are rather placid in flavour.
Ain Soph – western vegan food with a japanese influenceJust around the bend from the main market is Ain Soph Journey, an outlet of the Ain Soph chain across Japan serving vegan Western-Japanese fusion cuisine. I had my eyes set on the Heavenly Matcha Pancakes. It deserved every bit of its boastful claim. A generous gloop of unapologetically bitter matcha ganache draped over two gluten-free matcha pancakes, which had a dense, steamed pudding texture. Exquisitely presented with gold flakes, and adzuki beans, whipped soy cream and soy ice cream on the side. This is the kind of pancakes you could eat for your last meal and die happy. I was so enamoured by their pancakes that I decided a second visit was in order for their savoury items – Ripple Cheeseburger and Salad & Deli that came with soy karaage and tofu omelette. Unfortunately everything else not only fell short but was severely offensive. I should have seen it coming though; what do you expect from processed soy protein, deep-fried in vegetable oil, and starchy cheese? As much as I hate wasting food, I could not stomach more than two bites of the burger and karaage and felt very nauseous thereafter. The only saving grace was that the salad was very fresh. I learnt my lesson, stick to whole plant foods.
Mumokuteki Cafe – Casual WashoukuMumokuteki is a retail cum vegetarian cafe concept with a modern hippie vibe. Think Japanese equivalent of Anthropologie. I had waited not-so-patiently for a few weeks for their cafe re-opening and revamped menu. One of their new items is Doria (similar to a rice gratin) in two versions – cheesy white cashew béchamel or tomato-based okara and konjac ‘meat’ bolognese. I opted for the latter. The tomato sauce had a great depth of flavour that coalesced into creamy short-grain Japanese rice that had their starches lovingly coaxed out. I could not figure out the okara and konjac in the ‘meat’ sauce though. One thing I found out is that I can better tolerate Japanese rice than jasmine rice for unknown reason, which is great to expand my limited food options! I also had a seasonal Sweet Potato Tart that came with soy soft serve. The filling was mushy and the crust was rather thick; I have had better vegan tarts elsewhere. Thank you, next. A note about this place is that it is always crowded and you can expect to wait-in-line for 30 minutes or longer.
Engine Ramen – when you are desperate for ramen downtownPlease do not make the mistake of eating ramen with konjac noodles. It sounds like a blasphemy because it is a blasphemy! Konjac noodles, which are made from the elephant yam and consist almost entirely of glucomannan fibre and water, are rubbery and do not hold the ramen broth well at all. People rave about them because they are zero-carbs, not because they will ever replace regular ramen noodles. My poor choice of noodles aside, the broth of the Vegan Zesty Ramen was light yet lipsmackingly flavourful with the assortment of peppers – four types of peppers, three types of chilli peppers and two herbs. However the toppings were a disappointment, not much more than spring onions and chilli strands floating in the broth. Overall, it was a hit-and-miss. If you have already tried the famous Towzen Ramen, you can definitely skip Engine Ramen.
Miyako Yasai – great value Kyoto cuisine/Obanzai buffetFurther out from the main market area is Miyako Yasai, a restaurant specialising in Obanzai or Kyoto-style home-cooked meals. Obanzai is like a casual form of shojin ryori but with similar principles – a focus on seasonal, local ingredients, though not necessarily vegetarian or vegan. For a very affordable weekday lunch price of about ¥1000, you can enjoy a buffet spread of fresh salad, cooked vegetable dishes like hijiki kinpira and okara unohana, miso soup, udon, rice, and okayu. I was experiencing the consequences of too much cooked and dehydrating foods, and never was I so glad to load up on unlimited rounds of fresh greens. If you are vegetarian or vegan, your options will be more limited as some dishes are prepared with fish dashi. Nevertheless the food allergens and dietary contents are clearly labeled and easy to navigate. At this place, I discovered the unique properties of koyadofu (freeze-dried tofu) in miso soup and spongy fu (wheat gluten).
Gomacro salon – vegan macrobiotic cafe for the sesame loversGomacro is a play on the words goma (Japanese for sesame) and macro for macrobiotics. This vegan bistro weaves sesame in clever, creative ways into all their dishes; an open sesame (gateway) to try all things sesame! (Bud pun I know.) I came here on a day after I’d eaten somewhere else, so only had space for dessert. The Sesame Parfait satisfied the sesame soul in me. Toasty warm notes from sesame in various textures of cold ice cream, chewy dango, creamy tofu, crispy granola and cracker and unctuous pure black nerigoma (tahini). It is not too sweet and the side of anko complimented it well.
There is a small retail and takeaway section of the sesame products they use, such as tahini and sesame oil. I was very tempted to takeaway their gomadofu, which boasts a full-bodied flavour than others I had ever tried. Their white sesame curry sounds very intriguing as well, but I didn’t have the time or chance to try it.
Looking back, I am appalled at my borderline maniac cafe-hopping spree; I visited more cafes and tried more new foods in Kyoto in a few weeks than I ever would in a year in Singapore. And I have not even covered the other cities of Japan. I don’t know whether to be proud or ashamed of such wanton consumption. I did enjoy most of the experiences, solo travelling around, and I suppose that was more important. In the end, maybe the FOMO unintentionally brought JOMO – joy of missing out – as a wandered the streets of Kyoto fuelled by curiosity.