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Tokyo without the Fish?

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Hi Chowhounders-

I'm hoping some of the Tokyo experts can help me out -- my wife and I will be in Tokyo in a couple of weeks, and are really looking forward to all the great eating. We've been separately to Japan before, but it was as poor students (= lots and lots of ramen).

Here's my challenge -- I'm looking to expand my Japanes food experience, but I don't eat seafood at all, and in some cases have terrible allergies. I'm excited to try all the great ramen, tonkatsu, and (non seafood) izakaya places, but that's something I can get at home. I'm interested in other recs -- what should I look out for, especially in terms of seasonal / regional foods I can't get in Seattle, but that aren't from the sea?

For what it's worth, I will happily devour pretty much any part of any land-based animal, and am ready for (food) adventure. And don't speak Japanese, if it matters.

Thanks!

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  1. With the possible exception of certain Buddhist temple cuisine, there is no Japanese food that contains no fish. Quite a large amount of Japanese food is made from raw fish, you exclude these, then you end with things like soups, tonkatsu, curry etc. All these products contain dried seafood flakes (see here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katsuobushi , that wooden looking thing is actually a whole dried fish, that will be cut into very very thing slices).

    More specifically, Katsuobushi (that's what it's called) is the main ingredient of the Japanese soup stock dashi, which is used in every food i can think of, including ramen (in the soup base, also when it's not a "fishy" ramen) and tonkatsu (definitely in the tonkatsu sauce, maybe even in the coating.

    1. Scharn, sorry to disagree a bit with you, but lots of traditional Japanese food has no fish or seafood. Yes, lots and lots of Japanese food is based around seafood; and fish based dashi is very common. p-man, you're going to have to learn how to ask for non-fish/seafood dishes. It should be easy. Maybe study some cookbooks that offer traditional recipes. You might be surprised.

      Of course, part of the problem is that people in the US have gotten enamored with sushi and not with traditional Japanese food.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Sam Fujisaka

        Sorry, but that's false. You may want to look into said cookbooks to discover that fish product such as dashi forms the base of basically every imaginable Japanese food that is not sashimi/sushi. As dashi does not necessarily taste "fishy" when used in small quantities, you may not have noticed it.

        Edit: Maybe the other way around works better: Which are the food products that do contain absolutely no fish? Could you list them?

        1. re: Scharn

          I'm 60 and obviously have eaten Japanese food all my life - in Japan over the past 55 years, but also traditional food with relatives in Peru and Brasil. We don't use dashi as the base for everything. Cooking okasu in a solution of water, shoyu, a bit of sugar, and possibly a dash of mirin has always been more common for my tradtiional Japanese peasant food upbringing. Lots of vegetables and a bit of pork, beef, or chicken was more common than the sometimes more special or for o-kaksan seafood and fish.

          Again, pusherman, you won't have trouble finding what you're looking for, albeit Scharn says, "Sorry, but that's false".

          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            So which are the foods that are definitely cooked without any fish product, and which would be easily accessible by a visitor of Tokyo, not speaking Japanese?

      2. Off the top of my head you can eat tonkatsu (no miso soup), tempura (no sauce), some ramen, sukiyaki, yakitori, and shabu shabu (ponzu sauce has a little katsuobushi in it though). As Scharn said, if you can't eat any broth made with dried fish (dashi) you are very limited passed the foods that I just mentioned. Soba and udon soup and dipping sauces are made with dashi. In higher end traditional washoku (traditional Japanese cooking) virtually everything is made with dashi, so upscale Japanese would be a problem for you. Most izakayas have some dishes that aren't cooked with dashi - the majority of those being grilled or fried.

        1 Reply
        1. re: la2tokyo

          Tempura isn't that helpful a recommendation for a meat-eater - it's usually just seafood and vegetables.

        2. How about yakitori, yakiniku, shabu shabu, sukiyaki, oden (avoid the fishcake but not sure if the stock maybe seafood-based), sumiyaki, motsunabe, Japanese curry, Japanese steak?

          5 Replies
          1. re: FourSeasons

            Unfortuntately oden broth is fish based, and although it's not the norm, it's not unheard of to make motsunabe with some fish stock. Japanese steak at a teppan restaurant is a great idea. Sumiyaki made me think of robatayaki which would be fun - is that the same thing with two different names? Kind of, but pusherman I guess you you can write down robata too.

            1. re: la2tokyo

              Shabu-Shabu broth is often made with dashi, as is ponzu. Also I wouldn't be too surprised if some form of dashi went into nabe. As for karee (japanese curry) I don't even want to know what stuff goes into it, and I -again- wouldn't be surprised if some dashi was used by some of the shops. As la2tokyo said, dipping sauces should be avoided if someone is allergic to fish. For me, that would render tempura and tonkatsu uninteresting.

              I am not sure if tare has dashi in it? Most probably not. Anyways, I would suggest to the OP to only order salted yakitori, to be completely on the safe side. Yakiniku is awesome and I like it a lot. Again, I would not want to miss out on the dipping sauces.

              1. re: Scharn

                Shabu-shabu broth is usually made from konbu (seaweed) dashi, not katsuo-bushi or any other sea creature.

                1. re: Silverjay

                  you're right.

                2. re: Scharn

                  Talking about Yakiniku places, it is good to note that Kimchi is not fish-free either. Typical varieties are made with either dried shrimp or anchovy.

            2. Most ramen broths will be made with seafood dashi. Things like dried shrimp and scallops are of used in various preparations. It would be very difficult to select shops based on their broth ingredients.

              If you have serious allergy concerns, you should be consulting a professional and have some kind of translated materials that you can convey your allergies to restaurant staff. Even then, it might be difficult with regard to soups, stocks, broths, sauces, etc. as seafood dashi is SO ubiquitous, that off the top of their heads many Japanese may not think to consider it as an actual seafood ingredient. If you simply do not like seafood, than you are best being experimental and trying dishes. The use of dashi is meant to provide foods with umami, subtle smokey flavoring, sometimes sweetness, backbone, etc. It's usually not used to convey actual fish or seafood flavoring.

              I've had to entertain non-seafood (out of preference) guests for extended periods of time and it was pretty much shabu-yaki places and tonkatsu for two weeks. There ARE plenty of non-seafood dishes in Japanese cuisine, but not reading or speaking Japanese will make it difficult to navigate an izakaya menu, for example.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Silverjay

                This has been quite an informative thread for me, as I am extremely, extremely deathly alelrgic to shellfish. Dashi I think I am ok (I have avoided all actual seafood dishes in restaurants due to cross-contamination). I am going to Japan later this summer and eating has been a concern. My shellfish allergy is extremely sensitive and eating cross-contaminated food is a major concern. I'm researching vegetarian restaurants as I don't want to be limited to eating rice and bread. I do eat meat, and would love to be able to consume beef/chicken/pork without worrying that it got cooked on the same grill. I know this will be extremely tough. We plan to do vacation rentals so I can prepare some of my own food, but I'd still like any tips. Thanks!

              2. If you survived your poor student ramen diet, perhaps the amounts of dashi in the foods described above aren't high enough to set your allergies off.......

                5 Replies
                1. re: OGguy

                  This is a great point OGguy.

                  pusherman, as you said, if you've been to Japan before but survived by eating "lots and lots of ramen" on previous trips, then you should be able to handle dashi which is found in many dishes, which means it just opened up a lot more dining options for you for this next trip. :)

                  1. re: exilekiss

                    well, theoretically allergies can change. so the OP could drop dead if he eats fish now, even though it was ok some 20 years ago.

                    Then again, this whole topic makes me wonder: What would be the unique substance found only in fish that one could be allergic too?

                    1. re: Scharn

                      A friend of a friend is allergic to fish, so one time I read a bit about the topic.
                      A protein called Parvalbumin has linked to most fish allergies. Not to all, and also, this is not unique to fish as people with such allergy can apparently react to frog parvalbumin as well. If my memory serves me right, this protein has something to do with fast contracting muscles.
                      For more trivia, tuna is actually low in this protein (compared to some other fish).

                      1. re: ttj

                        Hey- Thanks everyone, this is an awesome discussion! I do have a shellfish allergy -- in small quantities won't kill me, but would make me sick. w/regard to other seafood, I just don't care for the "fishy" flavor; thus items with very small quantities or where it is diluted by other ingredients, I'm OK. I didn't even know most ramen had dashi in it!

                        So, for example, on my previous visit I ate a lot of okonomiyaki (the non-seafood varieties), but usually had to scrape the bonito flakes off the top. And I occasionally got a ramen that was too fishy and had to give it away when I wasn't sure what I was ordering. But no, a tiny amount won't hurt me.

                        1. re: pusherman

                          For the food adventure, you can always consider horse meat or chicken sashimi, and Japanese offal cuisine ('horumonyaki") is certainly wort of taking a look.

                2. Curry is about as Japanese as ramen and sushi, and you can enjoy those.
                  You can try a yakiniku place.
                  You mentioned above that you had okonomiyaki. You can always ask for no katsuobushi, just like I always ask for no mayo. Go to Tsukishima, Tokyo's okonomiyaki & monja capital, and you can create your own okonomiyaki at your own table.
                  Things like napolitan spaghetti, doria, guratan (gratin) may seem Italian but they're actually all purely Japanese creations. There may be variations of them that may contain seafood (eg, shrimp doria) but a lot of them don't.
                  Bakeries in Japan are great... the quality of cakes and croissants, as well as the variety and creativitity of the offerings, will blow you away. My favorite chain bakeries are Pompador and Vie de France.
                  There are many restaurants that specialize in fried teishoku (teishoku is combination meals... usually fried items, shredded cabbage, miso soup, rice, etc... skip the miso soup in your case). Fried items can include tonkatsu, cream croquette (another purely Japanese creation), menchi (yet another item you only find in Japan).
                  Also, if you head down to the basement deli section of a large department store, I guarantee you'll find some non-seafood item that will be palatable to you.