Veggie-rich buffets

One of the most positive trends in Japan over the past decade has been the rise of the veggie-rich buffet restaurant. I first became aware of this category of establishment six or seven years ago when I had lunch at Keke, a buffet in the then brand-new Cocoon Shintoshin shopping mall in Saitama City. There were a few chicken or fish dishes, along with tons of vegetables, mostly fresh, steamed, stewed, pickled or sautéed. There was a salad bar as well, and several different kinds of rice: rice cooked with barley, rice cooked with black beans, multigrain rice, and even plain white rice. Much of this bounty was described as “organic.”

I used to take the organic label with a grain of salt. About a decade ago, when I was teaching English at the late, unlamented Nova chain of language schools, I had the following dialogue with an advanced student who identified himself as an organic spinach farmer.

Teacher: What does it mean to be an “organic” farmer?
Student: I grow my crops naturally, without fertilizers.
Teacher (helpfully): Or pesticides.
Student (chuckling at Teacher’s naivete): Of course I use pesticides.

However, that was then and this is now. I have since learned that even as my student and I were having that strange dialogue, Japan’s agriculture ministry was implementing Japan Agricultural Standards (JAS) rules for labeling organic foods. The section on “Controlling noxious animals and plants” (aka pests) does permit the use of some “agricultural chemicals,” but only as a last resort when the crop is in danger and nonchemical measures have failed.

So, at the very least, foods labeled as “organic” in Japan are less likely than other foods to have been produced with undesirable chemicals. But I am only a mildly ideological eater, and what really impressed me about the food at Keke was how good it all was.

There were only two Keke branches at that time, but now they are scattered across the Tokyo area, in locations including Ginza, Yokohama and even Haneda Airport . Moreover, Keke is not alone. At least two more organic buffet chains, Harvest and Nonobudo, have opened many new branches in recent years.

The past decade also saw a shopping mall construction boom in Japan (although the current recession seems to have put the brakes on that), thanks in part to a relaxation of the Large Retail Stores Law. Many new malls have opened in suburban areas, where families with kids are common, and many of those malls contain veggie-rich buffet restaurants (which may or may not make organic claims) where families like to go. If you want to get your kids to eat their vegetables, turning them loose on a buffet that has 20 choices is probably a good way to make sure they find something they like.

Not having any kids, I have to eat my own vegetables. Last weekend, I dropped in at one such restaurant in a chain I hadn’t tried before, called Hinano, in the Lalaport Shinmisato shopping mall in Saitama Prefecture. They didn’t make any prominent claims to organitude, but other than that the fare was typical of this type of restaurant. Here’s what I ate:

Round 1

The center square is occupied by boiled konnyaku with a miso-based sauce. Konnyaku is a rubbery, mostly flavorless substance sometimes described in English as devil’s tongue jelly after the plant from whose large, lumpy corm (or tuber) it is made. Because it is reputedly high in fiber and low in calories, it is popular among dieters in Japan. But its lack of taste means that it must be served with some kind of sauce or flavoring, and there, one suspects, an calorie or two might creep in. The rest of the plate is occupied by, clockwise from top left, mixed vegetable tempura sprinkled with curry-flavored salt, mapo tofu, a fresh cucumber with miso paste to dip it in, a fried noodle dish called katayakisoba, miso-glazed chicken with cabbage, hijiki seaweed with beans, and a grilled onion slice with meat sauce.

All of this was fairly tasty, but the katayakisoba suffered from being served on a buffet. Ideally, the gloppy, vegetable-laden sauce (with kikurage tree-ear mushrooms a star ingredient) should be ladled over the crisp, dry noodles just before they are served. When everything is left together on the buffet, the noodles get soggy.

The mapo tofu was a more pleasant surprise. This is usually a spicy dish, but at a shopping-mall buffet one might reasonably expect the spice to be dialed down to the mild end of the scale to appeal to the lowest common denominator among general public palates. But at Hinano, the flavor was unexpectedly (and laudably) fiery.

Round 2

With potato salad in the center, the other dishes clockwise from top left are: a fried sweet potato simmered in tomato and fish soup, crunchy sesame-flavored cabbage with strips of kombu, bean sprouts and other vegetables sautéed in “Mongolian salt,” stewed daikon radish and squid legs, baked sawara (Spanish mackerel) with tomato sauce, fried chicken, squid pilaf and baked tofu.

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