Nikujaga , stewed potatoes with meat, is a staple of Japanese home cooking. It’s filling and comforting, and appears quite frequently for dinner at our house. Recently though I’ve been making this vegan version more frequently, which is just as tasty as the meaty version. Thick fried tofu (atsuage) is the protein replacement, but it’s not just there for it’s nutritional benefits - I love the texture in a lot of dishes.
The recipe, plus some ideas on how to reform Japanese non-vegan recipes to make them vegan, after the jump.
Makes 4 servings as part of a Japanese meal
Peel and cut up the potatoes into small pieces. If using fresh green beans, cut off the tops and cut into pieces. Slice the onion.
Cover the fried tofu in boiling water, and drain. This gets rid of much of the surface oil.
Heat up a heavy-bottomed pan with the sesame oil. Add the onions and cook until translucent. Add the potato and tofu pieces, and sauté intil the oil coats the pieces well. Add the green beans and toss around some more.
Add just enough water to cover. Add the sake, soy sauce and maple syrup. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to about medium-low, put on a lid and let simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10-15 minutes. To concentrate the flavors even more, take the lid off and simmer for an additional 10-15 minutes until the liquid is almost evaporated - this step is optional.
Serve hot or cold. The flavors mellow if you let it rest, which makes it very good for bento.
If you want bright green green beans, just add them in the last few minutes of cooking. I just add it with everything else because they taste better that way. (Sort of like the way green beans are cooked until they are almost falling apart in the South.)
This is even better if you use new potatoes.
If you compare this recipe to the classic nikujaga , the first thing you may notice is that there’s no meat. There is also no dashi stock used. Traditional dashi stock, which forms the basis of the majority of savory Japanese cooking, is not vegan, since one of the key ingredients is dried bonito (fish) flakes  or niboshi (dried little sardines). Using a vegan dashi  which uses just kombu seaweed and/or dried shiitake is an option. But it’s also possible in some cases to omit the dashi entirely, as in this recipe.
When you omit meat and dashi (or any soup stock), what you lose is a lot of umami. To make up for this, add ingredients that are inherently rich in umami or other flavoring ingredients. In the recipe above for example, the onion, sake, sesame oil, soy sauce and maple syrup add plenty of flavor to the dish - and without dashi the flavor of the potatoes comes through better too.
And about that maple syrup: Since Japanese recipes often call for sugar, using a flavorful sweetener instead of plain white sugar is a way to add some extra oomph. Raw cane sugar, brown sugar, palm sugar, maple syrup and honey are some options. Dark maple syrup goes very well with Japanese flavors.
(Incidentally, if you’re a North American visiting friends elsewhere, maple syrup makes a great gift because it’s really expensive over the pond!)