I myself am not vegan, though I have considerably cut my intake of animal-products over the past few years, actively engaging in consumption of a more considered diet - both for the planet and my health. Apparently, I’m in good company. A report by GlobalData showed a jump of 600 percent in individuals identifying as vegan in the US alone between 2014-2017 and, whilst numbers in Japan are not as conclusive, a small study by Vegewel seems to suggest a doubling in the number of vegans from 1 percent in 2017 to 2.1 percent in 2019. Vegan eateries have, as of this year, also topped 1000 in the country.
I found Onwa by chance whilst scrolling through social media. A picture of a decadent chocolate cake popped up and I was taken in by its beauty. I clicked. Vegan. I was impressed already - no aspect of this cake looked remotely lacking in flavour or consistency. I knew I had to try it. I set out for Nara and made my way to Onwa, a modest space in a residential area close to the JR station. The decor is all natural; wooden walls and greenery. The sun’s rays beam in through the huge window at the entrance. I see the chocolate cake immediately, sitting on the counter under a cloche. It’s not alone, there’s a bright purple tart, something topped with what looks like apples, and a chestnut offering, adjacent. I see a plate of colourful vegetables appear from the open kitchen and it’s settled, I’m staying for lunch.
I opt for the Vegan Delight plate, a selection of entirely plant-based titbits, from homemade pickles to rice with fermented adzuki beans, lotus root, carrot rapée and marinated aubergine and green peppers. There’s something that looks like karaage (Japanese fried chicken), which I’m told is made using beans. It’s delicious. Everything is fresh and balanced, the pickles pair perfectly with the rice and the slightly sweet and soft aubergines complement the crunch of the lotus root. The bean-karaage doesn’t taste like chicken, but then again, I didn’t come here to have something that tastes like chicken.
The proof of veganism’s growing popularity in Nara, or perhaps just the popularity of Onwa - every seat is full and a steady stream of people enter after me, making their way to tables upstairs, is in the pudding. Not being able to decide between the offerings, which include purple sweet potato, Japanese pear, and chestnut tarts, and the famous chocolate cake, I opt for the latter two. The chocolate cake, made using tofu, is moist and rich, with a deep, dark chocolate flavour and crumbly base. It’s perfectly bittersweet and indulgent, so indulgent that I ask for the chestnut tart to-go.
Rachel E T Davies
Rachel E T Davies