After a few weeks of traveling in and around Kyoto and Osaka, I was itching to chat with some locals about the vegan and vegetarian food scene in Japan. I noticed right away that even though traditional Japanese food tends to be nutrient-rich, relatively healthy, and not overly processed, the vegan and vegetarian scene isn’t exactly booming in Japan. However, like most major cities around the world, there is a smattering of vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Osaka.
We ventured to Le Coccole for a late lunch on a Sunday afternoon. Le Coccole is advertised as a vegetarian café; however, most menu offerings are in fact vegan. They source their produce from local farms in Nara and everything on the menu is GMO-free.
With my husband patiently translating for us, Le Coccole’s owner, Tomomi-san, kindly chatted with us for a while, sharing her thoughts on the vegetarian and vegan food scene in Japan as well as her vision for Le Coccole. She explained to us that many Japanese people who self-identify as vegan aren’t actually entirely vegan. More than likely, they incorporate some fish into their diet. Many of the vegan and vegetarian restaurants throughout Japan attract meat-eaters and non-meat eaters alike. Le Coccole’s customer base is comprised of people who are looking to supplement their diet with a healthy meal, as Tomomi-san explained it.
Japanese people aren’t driven to choose a plant-based, vegan diet for preventive health reasons.
In Japan, there isn’t a great deal of motivation to choose the vegan or vegetarian route for preventive health reasons. Chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity are less prevalent, at least compared to the U.S. Most Japanese people eat small portions of meat, fish and eggs on a regular basis, and since they continue to be in decent relative health and aren’t overweight, they don’t see any need to modify their diets. Japan is consistently ranked as #1 for highest overall life expectancy, with women living until 89 on average and men until 85 based on the World Health Organization’s 2013 rankings.
However, the “Standard American Diet” is slowly infiltrating the Japanese food scene.
Due to the more recent introduction of heavily processed consumer packaged goods and popular American fast food chains, these same chronic diseases are starting to present a public health concern in Japan, especially for children and teens. In comparing the time periods of 1976-1980 and 1996-2000, obesity among Japanese boys and girls has increased from 6.1% and 7.1% to 11.1% and 10.2%, respectively.
While these numbers are relatively low compared to childhood obesity rates in the U.S., and even though Japan might be ranked #1 on the life expectancy charts, the Japanese government was still very concerned about the direction of this obesity curve. In 2008, the government took swift action and instituted a national law, or “metabo tax” as it is called in Japan. This law mandates that companies measure the waistlines of 40-74 year olds as part of annual employee physical exams. If the employees’ waistlines do not fall under the required thresholds after follow up counseling, the government imposes a tax on the employer as well as on the local government.
Tomomi-san is committed to showing Japanese people that you can achieve “umami” without animal products.
Tomomi-san is not only incredibly passionate about nourishing the body with nutrient-rich, whole foods, but she is also dedicated to sharing her knowledge and passion with others. She told us that a lot of Japanese people think you can’t have a delicious meal or achieve “umami” without incorporating meat, fish or eggs into the meal. Tomomi-san is determined to show them that healthy, plant-based food can be just as, if not more, delicious.
In fact, the name, “Le Coccole” in Italian translates to “pampering” in English.
The café is set back from the street with a small, welcoming garden sandwiched between the two neighboring concrete buildings. In the garden, you’ll find not only some outdoor seating but also a ping-pong table and a mini herb garden.
From the outside:
From the inside, looking out:
Taking a seat by the window, my husband and I both ordered the lunch set, one set with a vegan lotus root and soy bean pâté topped with tomato relish and the other set with a vegan “quiche” made from shiitake mushrooms, broccoli and tofu.
To start, we both enjoyed a simple, vegan soup made from a kombu-based broth and fresh greens.
Here is the vegan lotus root and soy bean pâté up close.
Both lunch sets included a small dish of roasted Jerusalem artichokes (below), okra and cabbage in a tomato-based curry sauce along with brown rice, fresh greens and blanched greens in a miso-citrus dressing.
We especially enjoyed the quiche. Even in the absence of butter and eggs, the quiche nonetheless had a delicate texture with a flaky, non-greasy crust. The tofu and vegetable filling was light, fluffy and full of flavor. We were thoroughly impressed!
Here are the details for Le Coccole:
Hours: Wednesday – Saturday 11:30-22:30 (21:30 L.O.) and Sunday – Monday 11:30-18:00 (17:30 L.O.)