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. 

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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. 

My friends were embracing a different diet while still pursuing their regular life and careers. At first, I had this image of vegetarianism and macrobiotic diets being very healthy, but I was most intrigued. I wondered about what kind of lifestyle there is in the world. 

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. 

Even if I tried to cook something myself, I was amazed to realize that animal ingredients were in everything —sauces, dressing, condiments. That’s when I understood how difficult it was to follow a vegetarian diet in Japan. I would ask myself, “Is this something I can eat?” I noticed vegetarian ingredients contained emulsifiers, but some are animal-based, and some are plant-based. So, I contacted the manufacturers, but they often replied that they didn’t know much about it. I started to wonder how I could lead such a diet. I wasn’t a regular vegetarian, but I lived a few years wanting to try vegetarianism while unable quite to do so. 

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. 

When I thought about what kind of diet I wanted my children to have, I made an effort to get certified as a natural food coordinator. In the process, I began to understand how to make my own food. For example, I became able to make alternatives to ham, soy ham, vegan ham, and sauces.

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?

My work leads me to focus on vegetarian food and vegan restaurants, so my perception is that things are accelerating. Yet, if I talk with my friends or neighbors, many of them are not aware of this trend. I feel it’s a combination of reasons. Some restaurants are challenging to enter, for starters, either because they’re too expensive or too trendy—they’re intimidating or don’t allow children. Also, people wouldn’t know how to cook plant-based because they don’t know where to buy the ingredients in the first place. Finally, I tried some recipes that I couldn’t make well, and I eventually gave up because they did not taste good. So I think there’s still a long way to go.

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.

I think the world is changing and among many things, we pay more attention to agriculture. I see this desire to reconnect with the old-fashioned ways of taking care of what matters—how we grow food, life in the countryside, that is taking root along with health. So I feel things move in that direction.

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. 

If people know that they have alternatives that are good and satisfying, they will be motivated to try something new. As a mother, I particularly understand mothers’ desire to give their children proper nutrition. They often think of meat and dairy products as necessities. But they’re surprised when I teach them about growth hormones and nutrient enhancers and that actually, they can get proteins and some nutrients from vegetables. So many people do not know that. 

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. 

I have heard that many products are full of additives, so I would like to know more. I need to figure out if there’s anything I can or would want to use for cooking. Some are also very processed, so in the end, it’s the same as buying a bento or side dish, so I’d rather avoid such products. 

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.

While cheese is something processes, it’s a necessary ingredient for many recipes. For example, without cheese, gratin or pasta would be lacking something. 

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. 

Many people never tried soy meat before, so it can be tricky the first time knowing how to cook it. They may also be surprised or not like the taste too. I mainly use tofu, oatmeal, and soy milk to prepare my meat substitutes in my kitchen. 

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.

Recommending a plant-based diet isn’t easy. I would like to say to people how good it is, but at the same time, I don’t want to denigrate the work of people who produce meat and fish. I’m sure they’d tell you they do everything right! Also, I think telling people that a plant-based diet is sufficient in nutrition isn’t easy either. I’m aware I don’t know as much as a nutritionist would. If you listen to doctors, you’ll hear some recommending meat, some recommending a vegetarian diet. There are many opinions on Internet, on TV… I think it’s hard to give people a clear-cut recommendation. 

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. 

People inevitably ask me where I get my protein from. But in a well-balanced Japanese diet, you can get it from miso or tofu. However, they’re used to eating meat and can’t help but think they’re not getting enough without animal proteins.

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. 

I’m very grateful to the members of Ryozan Park, especially the members of the preschool there. That’s how I was able to start this on my own. I organized classes for parents and children and realized children enjoy cooking and eating delicious food. Some mothers shared with me how their kids now eat more vegetables. I also work on snacks for children with allergies who can’t eat wheat or milk, for example. 

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. 

Recently, I’ve got people in their 20s and 30s, as well as high school and college students. They’ve studied abroad where there is a thriving vegetarian culture around health, so they’re encouraged to change their diet. Perhaps young people offer a better strategy for vegetarian cooking classes. They’re of a generation that isn’t afraid to get involved in such things. 

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. 

Some people care about social and food issues that think about adopting a plant-based diet as an opportunity to do something positive. But you also have people who try plant-based food and make the link between food and environmental issues later on. So if you can make them understand that link, I think it’s okay that they don’t become vegetarian. 

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. 

I think veganism goes beyond a healthy diet and has more to do with spirituality. Vegans are stricter and do not eat animal ingredients at all. They go even further by refusing to use leather products, for example. Vegetarianism is also about avoiding animal ingredients, but dairy products, eggs, honey are secondary. Vegetarians do not eat animals themselves but eat byproducts from them. It sounds all the same for people coming to my classes, however! 

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). 

I mainly use the term "plant-based" and explain that I make plant-based meals. It’s a new term that has come up recently. I think it's a way of eating based on spiritual, healthy, and physical aspects. Although, in a way, it’s probably close to veganism, “the plant-based” approach is a bit looser and more gentle for people. You eat every day, but you are still living your life.

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. 

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