San Diego Chefs Connect Cuisines to Vegan Trend, Developing New Options

"Meat doesn’t have to be the centerpiece of every meal," said Junya Watanabe, owner of Rakiraki & Co. Inc., a ramen restaurant with locations in Kearny Mesa, Liberty Public Market, and Little Italy

While vegetables have traditionally been a predominant staple of Asian cuisine, along with rice and meat, it is only as of recent that they have become the chief ingredient in some Chinese, Japanese and Korean focused and inspired establishments around town.

Junya Watanabe, owner of Rakiraki & Co. Inc., a ramen restaurant founded in 2012 and with locations in Kearny Mesa, Liberty Public Market and Little Italy, recently launched his first vegan Japanese concept, The Yasai by Rakiraki.

Opened earlier this year on Convoy St., The Yasai focuses on dishes based on plants but set within traditional Japanese cooking, said Watanabe. With 120 employees companywide, he said The Yasai by Rakiraki — the first fully vegan Japanese restaurant in town, according to the company — is expected to make $2.4 million in gross sales annually.

“The Yasai was inspired by a meeting with (chef) Bertrand Grebaut, chef-owner of Septime (restaurant) in Paris,” said Watanabe. “When I go to Paris or London, I look up ‘toughest reservation now’ online and this was on top of it. I called my hotel three months ahead and said, ‘please book it.’ The food was incredibly thoughtful and delicious. The way Bertrand (Grebaut) is preparing plants is out of this world.”

Fermenting and Marinating

Encouraged by this exclusive plant-based meal, Watanabe said his vision for The Yasai is to experiment with fermenting and marinating with the use of conventional Japanese ingredients in hopes of bringing out the foods’ natural flavors. This includes the use of mirin, sake, soy sauce, soybeans, miso, vinegar and yuzu, he said.

Watanabe said he is most motivated and challenged by the process of translating fish and other proteins into vegetables.

“I’m inspired by how vast the plant kingdom is and how much opportunity there is to create gorgeous, delicious recipes from it,” he said. “Meat doesn’t have to be the centerpiece of every meal.”

One of The Yasai’s most popular offerings is its brussels sprouts in a sweet wasabi aoli sauce dish, said Watanabe, adding that he sources from Chino Farm in Rancho Santa Fe, Specialty Produce, a San Diego-based wholesale distributor, and US Foods, a food distributor with a location in Vista. He also said all fermenting takes place in-house, at The Yasai Kearny Mesa location.

‘Untapped Opportunity’

“Being a Japanese chef, it’s important to me to maintain the legitimacy of the food, inspiring both plant-based eaters and omnivores to explore this fascinating cuisine,” he said. “Very few people are doing vegan Japanese food, so, it’s an untapped opportunity.”

Erlinde Cornelis, assistant professor of marketing at the Fowler College of Business at San Diego State University, said several factors are driving the vegan or vegan-inspired Asian food trend.

Multicultural Options Abound

“First, as cities become more multicultural, the supply and demand of ethnic cuisines is growing,” she said. “This contributes to a rise in Asian food altogether. Second, there is a steady trend toward more plant-based (vegan) food, both eaten at home as well as offered in restaurants and retailers because consumers are becoming more aware of the health benefits of eating more plant-based (diets); the health risks associated with a diet heavy in meat and dairy; the environmental benefits of a vegan diet; and so on.”

The coexistence of the two trends — more demand for Asian food and more demand for vegan food — inevitably creates a crossover where Asian restaurants offer more vegan options and some that exclusively serve vegan food, said Cornelis.

Lan Thai, chef and owner of Enclave Adventurous Superfood LLC, which opened late summer in Scripps Ranch, offers a number of traditional Asian dishes with a vegan approach at her brick and mortar, including a vegan pho dip sandwich, loaded with various medicinal mushrooms such as maitake.

“It’s incredible because you get a lot of umami flavor from the shiitake mushrooms and fermented hoisin and Thai chili sauces,” Thai said, adding that most of the Asian dessert specials offered at Enclave are also naturally vegan, mostly because culturally, Asians don’t tend to use much dairy.

Authenticity Isn’t Lost

She adds that, from her professional perspective, the authenticity of traditional Asian dishes isn’t lost when plants and vegetables become the key ingredient.

“There are a great number of traditional Japanese dishes that are naturally vegan and I think most Western vegan borrows ingredients from Japanese cuisine like tofu, soy and seaweed,” she said. “I think people are always in search of something new and trendy. Plant-based lifestyle is a growing trend and being able to offer different types of cuisines is just a part of its movement.”

SDSU’s Cornelis concurs, clarifying that while plants are recently taking center stage in Asian food places locally, traditionally, Asian food has always been a relatively healthy, vegetable-heavy option, rooted in healing and known for its medicinal properties.

“Japanese cuisine is a particular, unique case, though, in that traditional Japanese diets are praised for their health benefits,” she said.

In other words, “veganizing” the already healthy Japanese cuisine would, at first sight, offer little added value.

“However, looking more closely at Japanese diets and longevity/health, it must be noted that traditionally, no copious amounts of meat and fish, and almost no dairy at all, are consumed. The emphasis is on rice, steamed and fermented vegetables, and fermented low-fat condiments such as traditional soy sauce,” she added.

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