Did someone say, “Thanksgiving?” Time for autumn leaves, family and friends, sweaters and wine, green bean casserole, and…no turkey. Sorry traditional Thanksgiving, but move over. It’s time to make way for vegan Thanksgiving.
Tokyo Survival Channel challenged me to do just that — make a full vegan Thanksgiving meal in a tiny Japanese kitchen with nothing but a microwave, a toaster oven, and a single stove burner. So, I did what any vegan foodie would do: I planned out the most extravagant menu I could think of and invited over two of my loved ones to smother them with vegan goodness. Keep reading to find out what I was able to scrounge up!
Being Vegan in Japan
Being vegan in Japan is known to be quite a challenge. Plant-based meats and vegan cheese are still hard to find unlike in the United States, the U.K., and Australia, but there is something thrilling in attempting to veganize a classic meal from scratch instead of just buying animal-friendly substitutes from the store.
It can be an emotional journey from overcoming frustration and tears when the gravy goes lumpy to celebrating with the ultimate happy dance upon conquering the perfect bechamel.
Not only does cooking a completely vegan Thanksgiving meal pose a challenge, but so does the ability to do so in a Japanese kitchen. My apartment in Tokyo is a grand total of 32-square meters, and about 10 square meters of that makes up my tiny kitchen. And when I say tiny, I mean it. I have one burner, a small toaster oven, and, I kid you not, one fork. So yeah, you could say logistically taking on this challenge could potentially be a nightmare.
A Note on Thanksgiving
Unlike Halloween or Christmas, Thanksgiving is not a holiday that is often talked about in Japan. And while the holiday itself is mired in a dark past of North American colonialism, many Americans use the opportunity to reflect and show gratitude for the blessings they have around them, as well as honor and support the indigenous Native American people.
One of the key facets of this holiday is to surround yourself with friends and family around a heaping dinner table. Personally, I cherish any time I can gather with loved ones and share a huge meal. I am also a big fan of trying to create tasty vegan dishes that rival their meat and dairy counterparts.
While I sourced the recipes below from several vegan-friendly websites, I also recommend checking out this vegan Thanksgiving cookbook that lets you donate to indigenous communities.
Prepping My Thanksgiving Dinner Ingredients
Butternut Squash Soup
- Coconut milk
- Yellow onion
- Vegetable stock
Recipe: Roasted Butternut Squash Soup
This soup is quite easy to make ingredients-wise, but cutting the butternut squash is another story. You first have to peel the squash, and then wrestle with the solid end to cut it into cubes.
Overall, quite a challenge with my dinky little knife, but I am very proud to say I can now take care of any gourd that comes my way. Coconut milk is also available in almost every supermarket, and is an essential part of making the soup creamy. I am partial to loading up the soup with savory seasonings, and I add quite a bit of vegetable stock as well.
Sweet Potato Mash
- Japanese sweet potato
- Oat milk
- Maple syrup
Recipe: Sweet Potato Mash
Sweet potato mash is my spin on regular mashed potatoes. Don’t get me wrong, potatoes are basically perfection in any form, but sweet potatoes definitely are key to embracing the Thanksgiving spirit. They are simple to make and they also come with the added bonus of getting to smash something with a fork!
Green Bean Casserole
- Green beans
- Vegan butter
- Vegan milk
- Corn starch
- Yellow onion
- Panko bread crumbs
Recipe: Green Bean Casserole
Green bean casserole is another one of those dishes that is not hard to whip up, but getting all the ingredients in Japan is a real challenge. Creamed, condensed mushroom soup is essential for the creamy and savory flavor, but none of the options I could find were vegan-friendly. So, I decided to make my own!
- Canned cranberry sauce
- Orange juice
Recipe: Cranberry Sauce
Cranberry sauce is essential. It’s simple to make, but very difficult to find in Japan. I scoured the import stores for canned cranberries, because I knew it would be near impossible to find fresh ones. I lucked out when I was able to find some at Kaldi.
- Oat milk
- Apple cider vinegar
- Panko bread crumbs
Recipe: Cauliflower Steak
Cauliflower steak may sound like an oxymoron, but a huge slab of cauliflower actually cooks up quite nicely with a similar “meaty” texture on the inside. To get the crispy outer texture, I dip the cauliflower in a wet batter followed with a coating of panko bread crumbs.
The tricky part of this recipe is keeping the stem intact while cutting the cauliflower wedges. If you cut off the stem, the florets will fall apart, leaving you with equally delicious cauliflower pieces, but not so much a “steak” resemblance.
- Green onions
- Vegetable broth
- Red wine
Recipe: Vegan Gravy
Gravy is one of those side dishes that is a necessity for drenching your entire plate in; a sauce that can easily be bought premade in the United States but must be made from scratch in Japan. I love a rich, thick mushroom gravy that is bursting with flavor. For this particular gravy, my secret ingredient is red wine! This gives the sauce added depth.
Kabocha Pumpkin Pie
- Kabocha pumpkin
- Pumpkin pie spice
- Biscoff cookies
- Vegan butter
Recipe: Vegan Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin pie is the dessert that brings the whole Thanksgiving feast together. Canned pumpkin puree is hard to find in Japan, but it’s possible to make your own. Simply blend together roasted kabocha and water, add in some blended cashews and pumpkin pie spices (nutmeg, clove, etc.), and voila! To make a vegan-friendly pie crust, you can use Biscoff cookies combined with vegan butter.
Cooking My Vegan Thanksgiving Meal
The first course has to be dedicated to my love of autumn, and what better way to do this than to serve a savory, creamy bowl of butternut squash soup? I know how to entice the guests, and this is a sure-fire way.
The trick is to roast the butternut squash in the toaster oven in batches until they’re perfectly caramelized (I literally use a toaster oven for all my needs, because Japan does not do ovens well). Then I toss the roasted squash into a pan with onions, garlic, and veggie stock. I transfer everything to my true love, the Vitamix. This pulses the ingredients into smooth perfection, which I then combine with coconut milk for the creamiest bowl of hot soup.
When I think of Thanksgiving, I think of sweet potatoes. Not just any ol’ sweet potato though, mashed sweet potatoes. Add in a little sweetness like maple syrup and some zestiness like nutmeg, and you should have the perfect combination of flavors.
As for the green bean casserole, it’s the holy grail of Thanksgiving. An integral part of this recipe is the condensed mushroom soup that gives it a savory flavor. The real challenge is making the soup from scratch. Being vegan in Japan, you quickly learn that the local supermarkets aren’t going to offer all those vegan staples you’re used to back in the States. But that shouldn’t stop you. I am a firm believer that you can really make any ingredient for a recipe.
I first cook the garlic and onions until tender, then add in the oat milk and flour in order to make a thicker consistency. After that, I put the soup in the fridge to cool and condense more. The casserole is simple to make after that step, with just basically adding the condensed soup and more oat milk to the green beans and covering with fried onions and panko bread crumbs.
Be careful if you’re using a toaster oven to bake this dish as it may burn the panko a bit, but what can ya do when you live in Japan!
The cranberry sauce is the perfect, beautiful addition to the table — it’s bright, colorful, and zesty. It’s also perfectly tart, so it complements pretty much every other umami-rich dish on the plate. I simply heat up the canned cranberries on the stove along with some orange juice, water, and sugar. Easy peasy and the loveliest sauce.
The Main Course
As for the star of the show, some gorgeous cauliflower steaks with thick mushroom gravy are sure to wow my dinner guests. The trick to substituting veggies for the Thanksgiving main course is to season and crisp them so deliciously that the guests will forget they ever wanted to eat turkey.
To do this, you need to thoroughly coat the thick wedges of cauliflower in a wet batter, followed with a coating of panko bread crumbs. After that, toss the cauliflower in a hot pan with some oil to nicely crisp up the outside, and finish the vegetables in the toaster oven to ensure the cauliflower is cooked through.
Lastly, the beloved vegan gravy. This dish is the easiest to mess up if you’re not on top of your timing. In my tiny kitchen, I always make sure to cut everything and prepare all my ingredients ahead of time, since there is so little space when I am in a hurry.
Start by sauteing the mushrooms, onions, and garlic in vegan butter. Then, add the flour, cornstarch, vegetable stock, and wine! This will make the gravy thicken and allow all the flavor of the mushrooms to come through.
This dessert is a twist on the traditional pumpkin pie, using kabocha pumpkin instead of pumpkin puree, which is pretty much impossible to find in Japan. The first step is to cube and roast the pretty pumpkin (again in batches because, ya know, small toaster oven). Then, puree in a blender with water until it has a slightly saucey consistency, but not too runny! I add in cashews, pumpkin pie spices, and blend until it’s smooth. I mean really smooth.
In the meantime, I make my crust, which is just blended Biscoff cookies and melted vegan butter. After I combine the cookies and butter, I press the mixture into the bottom of a disposable aluminum dish (courtesy of Daiso) and bake it in the toaster oven for a few minutes. Then, I pour in the creamy pumpkin pie filling, and bake for about 20 minutes.
Now here comes the problem: since it’s just a toaster oven, the exposed top always bakes much faster. So my pumpkin pie tends to get a little extra toasty. But I just scrape off the top layer and it’s A-okay! Then, I let the pie sit in the fridge for four hours and perfecto, the filling is set.
Serving Up My Vegan Thanksgiving Meal
The connoisseurs of my veganized fine dining Thanksgiving were two of the toughest food critics out there, Likido and Sam. I was on a mission to prove to them that a full vegan Thanksgiving spread could blow their minds, let’s see if I succeeded!
The butternut squash was a… thumbs up according to Likido. He enjoyed how creamy and heartwarming it was. This is high praise coming from him. Sam also seemed to enjoy it, though she wanted the flavor of the butternut squash to be a bit stronger. Sam thought it was impressive to have that savoriness from roasting it in the toaster oven alone!
As for the sweet potato mash, both Sam and Likido seemed pleasantly surprised to have such a different flavor than normal mashed potatoes. They both said how nice it was that it was thicker than usual, and the sweetness really mixed well with the saltiness of the mushroom gravy. The gravy was thick and had a wide depth of flavor, rivaling that of regular, meat-based gravy.
As for the cranberry sauce, Sam noted it was extremely tart, but she said this was actually one of her preferences when eating cranberry sauce. She also explained how it was quite different from the normal canned cranberry experience, but it was one of the reasons she liked it so much. Likido was along similar lines, thinking that the cranberry sauce’s tartness balanced the sweetness of the potatoes well.
On to the green bean casserole. Both Sam and Likido had a lot to say. Sam enjoyed the fact that the green bean casserole felt much healthier than the normal, fattier version that includes a lot of cream. She loved the condensed mushroom sauce, and really thought it brought the whole dish together.
Sam also added that the green beans were still crispy and had some snap to them, which she preferred to the sogginess of the typical green bean casserole. Likido liked the added panko bread crumbs and crispy fried onion on top, which added some texture that paired well with the creaminess. He also said it was the right amount of creaminess for the dish.
As for the main course, I think we have some rave reviews on our hands! Sam states, and I quote, “A crispy, savory heaven. The perfect indulgent Thanksgiving main course.” I was incredibly happy that my cauliflower steak could stand up against the normal turkey main course dinner. Likido said that the cauliflower steak and gravy combination was his favorite dish of the night. He liked the crispness of the steak and thought that the cauliflower was a good substitute for any typical meat dish.
The pumpkin pie was my own favorite part of the dinner course. I really couldn’t believe I pulled off a vegan pumpkin pie… in Japan… in my teeny tiny toaster oven. Likido thinks that the creaminess of the filling worked perfectly with the amount of spice that was added to it.
Sam had a glowing review for my little pie, stating that it actually blew her mind! I’ll take that compliment. She said the taste and texture of the pie was spot on for a typical pumpkin pie, and that the Biscoff cookie crust was very different from a normal crust but still really good.
All in all, we are going to count this as a mission accomplished, with both Likido, Sam, and myself enjoying a Thanksgiving meal together that far exceeded our expectations. It just goes to show, with a little creativity, hard work, and amazing recipes, you don’t have to miss out on an incredible Thanksgiving meal as a vegan in Japan.
Overall, I would say this was an extremely challenging dinner to produce. It took quite a while to decide on the recipes, then find equivalent ingredients at the Japanese market, manage the timing of only having one burner and a small toaster oven, and having to modify as I go when I was not able to find all the items necessary. While it was challenging, it was extremely satisfying and I would do this again in a heartbeat. It’s immensely gratifying to create a meal from scratch for those I love, and that’s basically all I could ask for. Thank you TSC!