A Vegetarian’s Guide to Dining in Little Tokyo: Going Vegan, Part 1

Tofu tacos topped with a vegan coleslaw, one of two bento options at Far Bar.
All photos by Sylvia Lopez.

Being vegetarian in Little Tokyo is getting easier than ever. Being vegan—which means eliminating all animal-related products from one’s diet and lifestyle—still offers a bit of challenge, especially when you have lunch meetings with coworkers and you don’t want to inconvenience them. While I will gladly take one for the team and just go with a salad on a lunch outing, I’m happy to report that there are some great vegan gems to be found in Little Tokyo—some recently added! In fact, I have so many tips to share that this blog post will have to be divided into two parts.

So if you’re thinking about taking more steps toward a plant-based lifestyle, or just want to try something different, read on for my suggestions, and don’t forget to check back next week for Part 2!

Sandwich Shop
123 Astronaut E S Onizuka Street, Suite 108

The vegan chicken banh mi from Sandwich Shop.

Located next to the Marukai Market in Weller Court is an inconspicuous little place: The Sandwich Shop. Their name says it all—they have sandwiches! I was excited to see that they actually have a vegan offering, and a hearty one at that. The vegan chicken banh mi includes pickled vegetables, jalapeño peppers, cilantro, and vegan mayo, all on a crisp baguette. The “chicken” is soy-based and marinated in a ginger sauce, giving it a delicious flavor that blends well with the other components.

This one made me nervous the first time I tried it because it was a little too much like the real thing. But if faux meat is your thing, or if you are an omnivore looking to add more plant-based meals to the mix, this is a great option that always hits the spot, especially when I’m on the verge of being “hangry.” They offer a variety of chips to choose from, so grab a bag along with your sandwich for the perfect lunchtime recharge.

Far Bar
347 East First Street

The Thai curry bento at Far Bar, my favorite of their two vegan bento offerings.

Just steps from JANM is Far Bar, a hip fusion restaurant specializing in craft beer, spirits, and enticing food. Its location in the historic Far East Building gives it a chic vintage vibe, making it a great spot to unwind after a long day. While their dinner menu includes a number of vegan specialties, I’m going to focus on their lunch offerings, which feature not one but two vegan bento plates: the Thai curry and the tofu tacos. Each bento comes with a vegan mushroom soup, edamame, a grain salad, rice, and fresh fruit, all for just $10.

My favorite, the Thai curry, has a variety of squash, carrots, and potatoes in a creamy broth with a hint of coconut and spice. The mushroom soup is light yet robust in flavor, and the grain salad is a nice, refreshing complement to the meal. The tofu tacos are tasty and a great example of Japanese-Mexican fusion, which this vegan Chicana working in Little Tokyo can really appreciate! Make sure you ask for hot sauce though as these tacos are very mild in flavor. I only wish you could order these bentos for dinner as well as lunch!

Next week: ramen and desserts!

Did you enjoy these tips? Come take a real-life vegetarian tour of Little Tokyo on Saturday, October 21, when our intrepid volunteer Roxane Lewis leads Edible Adventures: Vegetarian Little Tokyo. Purchase your tickets here.

The Return of Itadakimasu on Discover Nikkei

In 2012, JANM’s Discover Nikkei project launched Nikkei Chronicles, an annual open call for stories featuring a different theme every year. The project’s overall goal is to promote a more profound understanding of the complex histories and insights of multicultural, multiracial, and multinational people of Japanese descent around the world.

The first edition of Nikkei Chronicles was titled Itadakimasu! A Taste of Nikkei Culture, and it revolved around stories about food. It remains our most popular Nikkei Chronicles series to date, drawing dozens of articles and hundreds of enthusiastic responses. Now, for the sixth edition of Nikkei Chronicles, Discover Nikkei presents Itadakimasu 2! Another Taste of Nikkei Culture.

Roughly translated, Itadakimasu! means Bon appétit! or Mangia! And indeed, there seems to be no end to stories that revolve around the role of food in Nikkei culture—favorite childhood foods, enduring food traditions, new fusion cuisine. How does the food you eat express your identity? How does food help to connect your community and bring people together? What kinds of recipes have been passed down from generation to generation in your family?

If you have a story to tell that revolves around food and its role in Nikkei culture, we invite you to submit personal stories or essays, memoirs, academic papers, restaurant reviews, and other prose works that share your perspectives on and experiences with food. (Please note that for this series, poems are not accepted.) It is our hope that by sharing the multitudes of Nikkei stories, we enhance our ability to better understand who Nikkei are.

All stories submitted to Nikkei Chronicles 6: Itadakimasu 2! Another Taste of Nikkei Culture that meet the project guidelines and criteria will be published in the Discover Nikkei Journal on a rolling basis as part of the Itadakimasu 2 series. Authors may submit multiple entries. Submissions will be accepted until September 30, 2017, at 6 p.m. PDT. Click here for complete submission guidelines.

We have already published three submissions—one each in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. Click here to read them. You can also check out favorite stories and comments from the first Itadakimasu series for inspiration. Don’t delay, send in your stories today and join the discussion!

Roxana Lewis Has a Passion for Adventure

Roxana Lewis. All photos by Dr. T. Takasugi.
Roxana Lewis. All photos by Dr. T. Takasugi.

 

Since 2011, travel agent and food enthusiast Roxana Lewis has been leading Edible Adventures, food-themed walking tours of the Little Tokyo neighborhood, for JANM. Recent adventures have included Little Tokyo Sushi Graze; A Noodling Walk through Little Tokyo; and Little Tokyo Markets, Then and Now. Lewis’s tours are always packed, and participants always come away with a happy belly and increased knowledge of our neighborhood and our culture.

We recently sat down with Lewis to find out more about her background and what drives her to lead Edible Adventures.

JANM: Tell us about yourself and your professional background.

Roxana Lewis: I am a Sansei, born in Boyle Heights. My father was born in San Francisco, my mother in Salt Lake City. I am a travel industry veteran, having started as a ticket agent with Western Airlines in 1968. I worked in corporate travel for a Washington, D.C., think tank before starting my own travel agency, Chartwell Travel Services, in 1977. I named it after Winston Churchill’s home in Kent, England; I was in my Anglophile phase, and I also liked the play on words. In 2007, Chartwell merged with Protravel International, Beverly Hills.

At the sushi bar.
At the sushi bar.

 

My specialties are customized travel arrangements to the backroads of Italy, which I’ve done since 1985, and off-the-beaten-path tours of Japan, which I’ve organized since 1999. I travel annually to keep my knowledge current, exploring different villages and towns, new hotels, unique hiking routes, unusual Zen gardens, special crafts people. I also excel in adventure travel, both soft- and hardcore; I have led some serious mountaineering expeditions, including ascents of Mount Fuji, Mount Rainier, Denali, and Mont Blanc. And, I have a major marathon habit; I have run 244 to date, the last three on a round-the-world trip, from which I just returned last week.

JANM: You obviously have a serious, lifelong love of both travel and food. Can you say a little bit about where this passion comes from?

RL: As a veteran travel agent, I am professionally predisposed to “the road.” Food and culture are twins in any country; where there are people, there is food. To embrace the people, you must embrace their food.

A friendly sushi chef.
A friendly sushi chef.

 

JANM: How did you first come into contact with JANM?

RL: I met [former longtime JANM staff member] Nancy Araki at a National Geographic presentation of photographs by Hong Kong explorer and photojournalist How Man Wong. I told her I was looking for a volunteer project. In 1989, when the museum was still in its early formative stages, I began helping out by doing outreach from its warehouse on Fifth Street downtown.

When JANM opened its first public space in the Historic Building in 1992, I served on every committee invented. I spearheaded the first Volunteer Speakers Bureau, served on the President’s Council, and did a lot of work with Community Outreach.

Checking out the offerings at a local market.
Checking out the offerings at a local market.

 

JANM: What inspired you to launch Edible Adventures?

RL: I had been doing a “Graze Little Tokyo” walking tour for the Sierra Club since the 1990s. By the late 2000s, my JANM volunteer time had become occasional, and my guilt forced me to ask [Vice President of Programs] Koji Sakai if I could develop a food-centric series of tours. He said yes and Edible Adventures was born.

JANM: What are the goals you have in mind when you lead a tour?

RL: My primary goal is to introduce a new audience to the museum, using food as my carrot on a stick, so to speak. I also look for ways to create interest in the Little Tokyo community and then naturally, the Japanese American story.

Roxana Lewis gives the group the inside scoop on Little Tokyo.
Roxana Lewis gives her group the inside scoop on Little Tokyo.

 

JANM: What is your own favorite Asian food?

RL: I have a sweet tooth, so I love any dessert, from Japanese manjū (rice cake with bean paste or other filling) to Filipino halo-halo (shaved ice dessert with milk, jello, fruits, sweet beans, and other ingredients) to Chinese dàn tà (egg custard tart).

You’re in luck—this Saturday, February 20, Roxana Lewis will lead Sweets and Street Art of Little Tokyo. Sample Asian sweets such as dango (rice dumplings), mochi ice cream, imagawayaki (filled pastry), and yokan (jellied dessert) while exploring the street art of Little Tokyo. Tickets are still available!

Little Tokyo Markets Explored in Edible Adventures Tour This Saturday

The early Little Tokyo grocery store, Kii Shokai Foods, is commemorated with an engraving on the sidewalk in front of Daikokuya restaurant.
The early Little Tokyo grocery store, Kii Shokai Foods, is commemorated with an
engraving in front of present-day Daikokuya restaurant.

 

When the first Japanese immigrants began arriving in California in the late 19th century, they needed to establish certain infrastructures for themselves in order to facilitate their survival in a new, and often hostile, country. One such infrastructure was the self-sufficient community of Little Tokyo, where a variety of Japanese businesses catered to Japanese needs. Another was the pioneering development of wholesale produce and flower markets.

It is a little known fact that prior to World War II, Japanese immigrants grew and sold 75 percent of all fresh produce consumed in Los Angeles—produce that was sold at such outlets as the venerable Grand Central Market, opened in 1917. Japanese American growers also established the city’s first major flower market, the Southern California Flower Market (popularly known as “the Japanese market”), on Los Angeles Street in 1913. This initial effort eventually gave rise to the Los Angeles Flower District, the largest wholesale flower district in the nation.

Today, Nijiya Market anchors the bustling Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo.
Today, Nijiya Market anchors the bustling Japanese Village Plaza in Little Tokyo.

 

Downtown and Little Tokyo are filled with the ghosts of thriving immigrant businesses from the past. One such ghost can be found just a few steps from JANM. If you look at the sidewalk in front of the busy Daikokuya restaurant, you will see fading gold letters commemorating the establishment of Kii Shokai Foods in 1910. Today, the ethnic market tradition is carried on in Little Tokyo by popular chains like Nijiya and Marukai.

This Saturday, learn more about the fascinating history of downtown’s markets and the pivotal role that Japanese Americans have played in their development. Roxana Lewis, travel agent and history buff, will lead Edible Adventures: Little Tokyo Markets, Then and Now from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. $40 for members and $50 for non-members gets you an informative tour, lunch, and admission to our core exhibition, Common Ground: The Heart of Community. The tour is limited to 18 participants, but a few spaces are still available!

Lucky Foods for Japanese New Year Celebrations

Kids enjoy traditional new year foods at JANM's 2013 Oshogatsu Family Festival. Photo: Caroline Jung.
Kids enjoy traditional new year foods at JANM’s
2013 Oshogatsu Family Festival. Photo: Caroline Jung.


One of the most important holidays celebrated in Japan is Oshogatsu, meaning “new year” in Japanese. A number of festive customs characterize Oshogatsu celebrations, including the preparation and eating of traditional new year foods called osechi-ryori.

Osechi-ryori are typically presented in ornate boxes called jubako. Each osechi dish has a special celebratory meaning. For example, kamaboko, or fish cakes, are placed in alternating rows of white and red, resembling the rising sun. Ebi are prawns cooked in sake and soy sauce; with their long beards and bent waists, prawns symbolize a wish for a long life. Kuri kinton, or puréed sweet potatoes kneaded with sugar, is an auspicious dish believed to bring wealth because the sweet potatoes look gold in color.

JANM volunteers work hard to prepare the osechi-ryori tasting every year.
JANM volunteers work hard to prepare the osechi-ryori tasting every year.

Another food-oriented new year custom is the making of rice cakes, or mochi. Although mochi is now commonly sold and eaten year-round, it is traditionally a Japanese new year food, made in a ceremony called mochitsuki. Boiled sticky rice is put into a wooden, bucket-like container and patted with water by one person while another person hits it with a large wooden mallet. Pounding the rice eventually forms it into a rice cake.

The mochi is then made into a decorative item called kagami mochi (sometimes called okasane), formed from two round mochi cakes with a Japanese orange (daidai) placed on top. The name daidai is auspicious because it also sounds like the Japanese phrase meaning “generation to generation,” evoking long life and the continuity of the generations. The mochi itself symbolizes the past year and the year to come; thus, kagami mochi signifies the continuity of the family over the years.

Lucky new year foods await JANM members at Oshogatsu!
Lucky new year foods await JANM
members at Oshogatsu!

Similarly, soba (buckwheat) noodles, with their strands that seem to go on forever, are also eaten for good luck and longevity. One must finish one’s bowl before midnight however, or face a year of bad luck!

JANM’s Oshogatsu Family Festival, happening on Sunday, January 4, 2015, adapts many of the customs associated with Japanese new year festivals. Featured activities include a special osechi-ryori tasting for members only, a soba noodle sampling, and a mochitsuki ceremony by Kodama Taiko that’s open to all. Bring the whole family and ring in the Year of the Sheep, JANM style!

This little girl is going to have good luck in the coming year.
This little girl is going to have good luck in the coming year.

Candy Sculptures with Shan Ichiyanagi

Candy Sculpture by Shan Ichiyanagi - Horse

Candy Sculpting is an ancient Asian folk art that originated in China and has been known in Japan for over 1,000 years. As a dying art, only a few performers exist in the world today.

Utilizing old Japanese scissors, Shan Ichiyanagi, a world-renowned candy artist, can magically transform a block of molten corn syrup into a beautiful sculpture of almost any shape and size, in just 4-5 minutes!

Visit Oshogatsu Family Festival on Sunday, January 5th to watch Shan Ichiyanagi make his amazing candy sculptures from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Shan  Ichiyanagi making a candy sculpture at the Japanese American National Museum in January 2013

In celebration of the festival’s theme, “Year of the Horse”, Shan Ichiyanagi will make his special horse candy sculptures. The candies will be for children only and will be raffled off throughout the day.

The festival will be from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free and open to the public. The day will be filled with fun arts & crafts, food, exciting cultural activities, and more! For more information, please visit: janm.org/oshogatsufest2014

Be sure to check our blog for more posts on specific activities scheduled for Oshogatsu Family Festival!

Read our interview with Shan Ichiyanagi on our Discover Nikkei website:

Shinobu Ichiyanagi – Master of Candy Crafts “Amezaiku” Artist who Captured American Heart with Traditional Japanese Performing Art
By Keiko Fukuda (English & Japanese)

 

Photo Credits: Shan Ichiyanagi and Daryl Kobayashi.

Osechi-ryori Tasting at JANM’s Oshogatsu Festival!

3 girls enjoying zaru soba at the 2013 Oshogatsu Family Festival
Young guests trying zaru soba at the 2013 Oshogatsu Family Festival

Celebrate the New Year with special New Year’s foods at the 2014 Oshogatsu Family Festival on Sunday, January 5th. It’s FREE all day from 11AM to 5PM!

Guests can learn how to make onigiri and submit their creative rice balls in an Onigiri Design ContestKidding around the Kitchen will provide the ingredients to make some lucky zaru soba (buckwheat noodles); and there will a mochitsuki demonstration by Kodama Taiko, where free samples will be handed out after each performance.

Not only is food a major component of JANM’s Oshogatsu Family Festival, but it is also a major component of traditional Japanese New Year celebrations. That’s why JANM has organized an Osechi-ryori tasting for the festival! Osechi-ryori are traditional Japanese New Year foods. The dishes that make up osechi each have a special meaning celebrating the New Year. Learn more about these dishes, and try them out for yourself at the festival!

There will be a general Osechi-ryori tasting from 12PM – 1PM, followed by a Members Gourmet Osechi-ryori tasting from 1PM – 2PM, which will be for JANM members only. Remember to get in line early because the tasting will only last as long as supplies last!

Stay tuned for more blog posts covering the special activities planned for Oshogatsu Family Festival!

Visit the Oshogatsu Family Festival page for the full schedule >>

Not a current member? Join/renew now >>

Vote for your favorite Nikkei+ Articles by December 20th!

Tani Mitsui Brown talks about her mixed heritage as Japanese-American and African-American, in her article, "A Hapa Girl in Vietnam."
Tani Mitsui Brown talks about her mixed heritage as Japanese-American and African-American, in her article, “A Hapa Girl in Vietnam.”

Discover Nikkei explores the Nikkei experience theme by theme and story by story through the Nikkei Chronicle series.

For the second year of the Nikkei Chronicles: Nikkei+ ~Stories of Mixed Language, Traditions, Generations & Race~we solicited stories that explore how Nikkei around the world perceive and experience being multiracial, multinational, multilingual, and multigenerational.

People around the world were invited to submit personal stories and essays, memoirs, and academic papers, in hopes that by sharing the multitudes of experiences, we could enhance our ability to better understand who Nikkei are. There are stories about war brides, food, such as fusion restaurants, and Oshogatsu traditions, architecture, mixed family stories, and of course, Hapa identity related stories.

In Chanda Ishisaka's article, "Diary of a Mad Hapa Judo Girl", Ishisaka recounts her experiences as a girl in judo, and her mixed heritage.
In Chanda Ishisaka’s article, “Diary of a Mad Hapa Judo Girl”, Ishisaka recounts her experiences as a girl in judo, and her mixed heritage.

All of the submissions are now published on Discover Nikkei, and there are just 11 days left to vote for your favorite Nikkei+ stories!

It will be a great opportunity to learn more about being Nikkei, and to support authors and their articles with your votes. The stories with the most Discover Nikkei “stars” will be translated into our site languages, and may even be published in our partnering publications in the US, Canada, and Latin America!

Asami Goto talks about Japanese American food culture - namely, Japanese food 's influence on the healthy-eating movement.
Asami Goto talks about Japanese American food culture – namely, Japanese food ‘s influence on the healthy-eating movement.

All you have to do is log in to Discover Nikkei and click on the “star” icon if you like a story. Vote for as many stories as you like. If you don’t have a Discover Nikkei account, it’s free & easy to sign up!

Get your votes in by December 20th, and we will announce the “favorites” before the end of the year!

Remember, every vote counts!

To access all of the Nikkei+ stories, please visit the Nikkei+ page.

Photos: courtesy of the authors 

Mochitsuki: A New Year’s Tradition

Crafts with FamilyOn Sunday, January 5th, celebrate the New Year and the Year of the Horse at our Oshogatsu Family Festival from 11AM to 5PM.

Ring in the New Year with a fun-filled day of arts ‘n crafts, food, exciting cultural activities, and performances! FREE ALL DAY!

One of the traditional Japanese customs that JANM will be celebrating is mochitsuki—the pounding of mochi or rice cakes, which is essential to the “Oshogatsu” or New Year’s celebration.

Kodama Taiko Mochitsuki 4Mochitsuki is an annual custom kept by many Japanese American households and communities. It is traditionally an all-day event which requires many hands, long hours, and physical labor, but is also a time of fellowship and socializing with friends and family.

Mochitsuki usually begins the day before, with the washing of the mochigome (sweet glutinous rice) and is left to soak overnight in large kettles or tubs. Early the next morning the mochigome is ready to be steamed in the seiro—wooden steaming frames. Three or four seiro are stacked one on top of the other and placed over a kettle of boiling water.

Kodama Taiko Mochitsuki 2After the rice is cooked, it is dumped into the usu, or mortar, made from a wood stump, stone or concrete form. The hot cooked rice in the usu is pounded with a kine or wooden mallet. With enthusiasm and force, the mochi is pounded until the mass of rice is smooth and shiny, with no discernible individual grains of rice. An essential participant in the pounding is the person assisting who quickly darts his or her hand into the usu and turns the rice before the next rhythmic pound.

Mochi Samples

The smooth, consistent mass of mochi is turned onto a cloth or paper covered table, already spread with a thin layer of mochiko (sweet rice flour). This makes the sticky mass easier to handle. An adept person pinches off small portions of the steaming hot mochi for others, who quickly form them into flattened bun shapes with their hands. The formed mochi is then set aside to cool and is ready to eat.

Kodama Taiko Mochitsuki 5

 

Be sure to visit JANM on Sunday, January 5th 2014 to watch Kodama Taiko perform their unique Mochitsuki performance at 2:30PM or 4PM. Watch as Kodama Taiko combine the age-old tradition of pounding mochi (sweet rice) with the sounds of taiko. This energetic performance is customary during the Japanese New Year’s Oshogatsu. Then stick around to sample the delicious mochi afterwards!

 

For more information on JANM’s 2014 Oshogatsu Family Festival and the complete schedule, please visit: janm.org/oshogatsufest2014

We hope to see you there!

* * * * *

Check out these stories about mochitsuki on our Discover Nikkei site:

Mochitsuki Tradition: Mochi Making the Old School Way (San Francisco, CA)
By Soji Kashiwagi

Mochitsuki: Taking the (rice) cake (Michigan)
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Mochitsuki (Toronto, ON, Canada)
By April Sora

PHOTOS: Celebrating Mochi-Tsuki Mochi Day in Chicago (Chicago, IL)
Chicago Japanese American Historial Society

VIDEO: Mochitsuki at Heart Mountain (Wyoming)
B&W home movie footage of mochitsuki taken at the Heart Mountain concentration camp in Wyoming during WWII. From the Naokichi Hashizume Collection at JANM.

Photos by Daryl Kobayashi, Richard Murakami, Russell Kitagawa, Tsuneo Takasugi, and Caronline Jung.

Highlights from the Vegetarian “Edible Adventure” in Little Tokyo

JANM volunteer, Roxana enlightens the group with facts about various Japanese vegetables.
Roxana enlightens the group with facts about various Japanese vegetables.

On November 16th, JANM volunteer Roxana led a very special vegetarian edition of Edible Adventures in Little Tokyo.

From 10am to 2pm, a group of foodies followed Roxana through Little Tokyo. Roxana enlightened the group about Japanese vegetables while giving the group a chance to sample them along the way.

The group samples a cooked and seasoned batch of gobo from Nijiya.
The group sampled a cooked and seasoned batch of gobo from Nijiya.

 

This Edible Adventure was more than just learning about vegetables—the group also got to tour all three exhibitions at JANM, learn interesting facts about Japanese American history and Little Tokyo, and discover new foods and restaurants!

Cute bunches of radishes.
Cute bunches of radishes.

 

This is the first time Roxana led a vegetarian Edible Adventure, but it was still as enlightening and delicious as her other Edible Adventures! In the past Roxana has led a sushi graze, and organized an izakaya graze! Don’t miss the next Edible Adventure! Stay updated on all of JANM’s events by visiting: janm.org/events

 

 

Check out these photos from last Saturday!

Photo Credits: Tsuneo Takasugi and Esther Shin