As TokyoPony, Justine Sherratt writes about Japan and Japanese culture, all the while creating delicious and authentic vegan Japanese recipes.
The dishes she makes are presented as gorgeous teishoku, a meal on a tray with many small accompaniments and often a dessert too, which she photographs and shares with her followers on Instagram (@tokyopony).
She also writes a blog all about the Japanese dishes she prepares, sharing the recipes and cooking tips along with lots of information about Japanese culture and seasonal food culture in particular.
I wanted to ask Justine about what inspires her and how she creates her lovely 'flat lay' images.
I know that you love Japan. When did you first go and why?
I have always wanted to visit Japan but didn’t finally get to go until my 40th birthday. I always said if I hadn’t gone by then I would go.
What were your first impressions and how did you fall in love with the place?
The first time I visited I wasn’t really prepared I didn’t do much research didn’t speak or read any Japanese and at the time was not prepared for the lack of “vegetarian“ as I was back then food. Myself and my husband booked into a hotel for the whole two weeks and booked ourselves onto a couple of guided tours to the usual places you visit on your first trip. I can’t believe how unprepared I actually was! So yes my first trip was great but it wasn’t until two years later I decided to visit again for cherry blossom season and that’s when Japan won my heart!
This time I’d decided to study Japanese did so much research even down to following Google maps. Finding out interesting places to stay and visit and cafes and restaurants that cater for a vegan diet. This was my first time in Kyoto and I just fell so in love with Japan that when I came back I literally fell in to a slump because I missed it so much. I had to do something to feel connected! But what?
It seems to me that vegetarianism and veganism aren’t very common in Japan, although that may be changing. When you travel there, is it hard to find restaurants serving vegan food? Do you ever have to compromise?
I think if you're vegetarian you can get by pretty easy nowadays and a vegan diet has got more and more popular over the last few years everywhere including the U.K.
It’s pretty easy now if you do your research to be in most cities and find a multitude of places to eat that are solely vegan. If you are vegan I would recommend sticking to these places so you don’t get caught out but many restaurants are catching on and obviously they were preparing for the Olympics and many foreign visitors at that time. When you're not in a city it could be a little harder but you may be able to find a temple selling Shojin Ryori or a cafe selling macrobiotic meals which are pretty much vegan just check first. If all else fails there are always convenience stores and you should be able to find a snack.
You use a lot of typical Japanese ingredients in your cooking such as anko, shiso and fresh wasabi. How easy is it to find these things in the UK?
You mention fresh wasabi, that and many more interesting ingredients can be found at the Wasabi company. I also shop at the Japan Centre and Sous Chef which are both great for online products. Before the pandemic I tried to get to London for fresh ingredients at Natural Natural which sell imported Japanese ingredients and vegetables. There are a few items I find hard to get and I have a wonderful friend from Instagram who does vegan food swaps with me and for that I’m very grateful!
When I last managed to visit Japan I always bring lots of ingredients back. My last trip was booked for May 2020 and we all know what happened. This year I’ve even started growing my own Japanese vegetables I have daikon, kabu, mizuna, mibuna, tatsoi, ishikura onion and kabocha. I also plan to plant shungiku.
Your teishoku presentation is so authentic! And it’s clear that a lot of work goes into it. Did you do a lot of research to get the presentation right or is it just experience?
My background is art so I guess this is my new way of using my creativity. I never really did any research just went with the flow. I guess over the years it’s now become my signature thing.
You are very good at providing vegan swaps for the meat or dairy ingredients in traditional recipes (I was particularly impressed with your ramen egg!). Is there anything you have not been able to swap out or been disappointed with the results?
I think the hardest thing is fish. Meat is pretty easy to replicate either using soy protein or even mushrooms. Fish is a little more tricky.
I’ve done a few fish recipes but they are more looks than taste but that doesn’t really bother me too much.
What are your favourite Japanese vegan ingredients, both to cook with and to eat?
Arh so many! I think one of my favourite ingredients is daikon radish just because it’s so versatile you can do so much with it. I also like the staple ingredients tamari and brown rice vinegar I couldn’t live without them!
The recipes on your website are organized by season. Which is your favourite Japanese ‘food season’?
Every season in Japan brings something beautiful and something to celebrate it also brings the most amazing ingredients. It’s pretty hard to choose but I think Autumn brings some pretty yummy Japanese ingredients like pumpkin and chestnuts.
A lot of people think that making Japanese food is quite difficult and just for the experts. What’s your take on that?
Well I’m no chef I have no training and learned everything I know by trail and error. If I can do it anyone can. As long as you have an interest and passion about food and what you're creating that’s the best start you can have and everything else will go on from there. I think that’s why a lot of my recipes have a no recipe format.
And finally… Currently, of course, it’s impossible to travel to Japan. What are you missing most?
OK well as I mention further up in this interview on returning from my second trip to Japan I started to miss Japan very much and actually that’s when making the whole vegan Japanese food thing started. It was my way of feeling closer to Japan when I couldn’t be there in person. I used preparing my food as a type of therapy almost. Using Japanese ingredients gave me a connection. Missing my last planned trip which would of been my 6th time visiting was pretty upsetting like a lot of people who had to cancel it was something I had been looking forward to and preparing for. It’s very hard to pinpoint one thing I’m missing the most because for me when I’m in Japan it’s just how it makes me feel it’s not any one thing.
I do hope that you will take a look at my blog / Instagram and recipe posts and maybe make some Japanese style vegan food for yourself. And follow along with the Japanese seasons and celebrations like I do (if you're missing Japan it might just give you some comfort).
It's been lovely to get to know Justine. It's clear that she really loves Japan and, as well as being knowledgeable about Japanese food, she has some great travel tips. I really enjoy following her posts and trying out her recipes; even if you're not vegan there are some delicious dishes to make.
Please check out her blog and social media as they contain loads of interesting insights into Japanese food and Japanese culture:
Buy her a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/tokyopony