Focus On: Interview With Plant-Based Cooking Class IRODORI TABLE
Discover Kana Okajima's experience as a plant-based chef based in Tokyo.
Hello, Market Shakers!
To close our series on the plant-based revolution, we have a special guest. Kana Okajima is the chef behind IRODORI TABLE, a cooking class specialized in plant-based meals. She kindly offered her insights on her journey toward vegetarianism in Japan and her activities promoting a green diet to people coming to her classes.
Before we jump into today’s issue…
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Ten years ago, Kana Okajima was not a plant-based focused chef but a regular office employee enjoying eating out for lunch and dinner. At that time, vegetarianism and macrobiotic, among other diets, gained popularity. Around her, friends started picking interest in cooking plant-based and attending cooking classes. Kana Okajima didn’t have any particular prejudices against plant-based diets—often perceived as too strict, only curiosity.
The trend sparked Kana Okajima’s curiosity. But she quickly realized that finding vegetarian or macrobiotic meals at a convenience store or restaurant was hard. It wasn’t that popular for the foodservice industry to cater to dietary restrictions just yet. Thinking she could perhaps prepare her food, she then found out that many ingredients and sauces would inevitably contain animal ingredients.
When Kana Okajima got married and had a baby, she felt strongly that she wanted her loved ones to have a healthy diet. Looking to learn more about natural food, she obtained a Natural Food Coordinator certificate. But “natural” doesn’t equate to vegetarian or vegan. The certification targets primarily people looking to learn how to make their food. However, because the lectures are about eating mainly from raw and natural ingredients, Kana Okajima thought that she wouldn’t have any trouble with her diet by learning how to make food from scratch.
Illustration - Courtesy of IRODORI TABLE
The plant-based trend is picking up some speed in Japan but isn’t on the radar of most consumers.
When Kana Okajima started her journey toward vegetarianism, plant-based products were nowhere to be found, and restaurants were relatively rare. In recent years, however, the Japanese market experienced explosive growth in innovation and product launches. Major food manufacturers are picking up an interest in plant-based research and development. The foodservice industry is also getting more diverse, with restaurants and hotels looking to meet dietary restrictions’ needs tourists. But will this growth sustain in the future, or could it be a temporary fad surfing on the latest trends and the health concerns from the pandemic?
The market is undoubtedly moving, but as we felt in our consumers’ sound bites, most consumers are not entirely on board with a plant-based diet. While it isn’t a fad, changing one’s diet involves embracing a new way of life.
A lot of the customers of IRODORI TABLE have never eaten plant-based before. When Kana Okajima tells that their meal actually consists of soy meat or doesn’t contain animal products at all, they’re often amazed. They realize that they can be satisfied with a plant-based menu and that it tastes good.
In other words, consumers need access to better nutritional education. For example, many people believe that fish and meat are necessary for a balanced diet, but a plant-based diet can bring all the nutrients they need. Another factor that could influence people toward eating more green than redon board is the growing distrust for industrial food. When people learn more about what processed food products contain, they often seek alternatives, and plant-based products come into play.
What ingredients does Kana Okajima use in her classes?
Kana Okajima focuses on replacing meat with soy and oatmeal, two ingredients that are accessible and easy to use. She’s interested in the innovations happening overseas, but getting new products on the Japanese market isn’t easy.
She focuses on ingredients that are easy to find. While they’re sometimes expensive, like soy meat, she goes to regular stores or online stores. The quantity required for her classes isn’t enough to consider food wholesales. Plus, that makes it easier for people coming to her classes to get their hands on these products. On top of soy-based meat, Kana Okajima also uses plant-based cheese and soy yogurt, two categories that are recently expanding.
IRODORI TABLE offers consumers a variety of substitutes while keeping the peace with meat-eaters.
Most of Kana Okajima’s customers like her oatmeal meatballs and react positively to their experience trying plant-based meat. Soy is a star in Japan, starting with tofu, a staple in Japanese cuisine, and fried tofu. Soy meat products are also becoming more visible in supermarkets, offering various options from dried sliced or mashed meat to meatballs and Salisbury steak. But cooking soy meat isn’t necessarily easy for first-timers. So IRODORI TABLE steps in to expand their options gently.
A significant driver to convince consumers of the benefit of plant-based products, especially with meat substitutes, is satiety. People, men, in particular, care about feeling satisfied, “full,” with their meals.
However, Kana Okajima finds it hard to navigate between advocating for a vegetarian lifestyle but not jeopardizing people whose livelihood is directly linked to the consumption of animal products.
Observing the daily nutritional recommendations is hard enough for most people, so throwing a plant-based diet in the mix makes things even more challenging. Kana Okajima seeks and adapts vegan recipes, but figuring out the flavors is always a difficult task. She works hard on coming up with recipes that meet both people’s nutritional needs and their demand for satiety and satisfaction.
Thanks to the Ryozan Park community, IRODORI TABLE found her public.
Kana Okajima holds her classes in the fully-equipped chef kitchen of Ryozan Park, a coworking space with two locations situated north of Tokyo. On top of providing intimate workspaces, private offices, and event spaces, Ryozan Park also takes pride in its English preschool—integrating childcare into its community. The good people behind Ryozan Park helped IRODORI TABLE gets its name out.
Reaching out to parents through events was a good strategy and help Kana Okajima get known. They come with the desire to get their children interested in what they are eating and nutrition. People also seek out how to prepare healthy lunch boxes for themselves and their loved ones, made from fresh ingredients. While a big chunk of her clients is mothers, she also sees many young people coming to her classes.
There are many cafes and organic cafes in Tokyo where young people go, notably in Shibuya and Ebisu, and they’re spreading to other urban areas. Perhaps it’s a fad that may fade out, but it’s important to emphasize that it starts with the curiosity to give new things a try for many people. Are environmental concerns at the heart of people’s change, or does it come later on? For Kana Okajima, it goes both ways.
Not all the people coming to her classes are vegetarian. But for most of them, health is an essential factor. Kana Okajima believes that the number of flexitarian people will increase in the future. However, the problem remains that many people don’t understand climate change and the consequences of our food industry. She feels that little is communicated on this, in Japan at least.
Vegan, vegetarian, plant-based. What do these terms mean for IRODORI TABLE?
Today, Kana Okajima is lacto-ovo-vegetarian. She does not eat meat, poultry or fish, but can eat egg and dairy products—though she barely uses eggs when she cooks and doesn’t drink milk at home. The question, however, is a tough one for her. This is because the terms vegan and vegetarian were imported to Japan and had a rather negative connotation for a long time.
The truth is, even if people adopt a vegetarian diet, they’re probably eating some kind of meat that has been heavily processed into ingredients for other industrial food. As for plant-based, manufacturers and brands use the Japanese word alternatively “from plants” (植物由来) and the adoption of the English word plant-based (プラントベース).
Not only does the term plant-based sounds more gentle, but it also makes a greener diet more approachable to consumers. While not precisely famous, the word is easy to understand right away.
See you next Tuesday!
Made with ❤️ by GourmetPro - Food & Beverage experts in Japan.
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