Japanese Foods to Try
SushiPut simply, sushi is raw fish served on rice seasoned lightly with vinegar. It’s in the variety of flavours and textures – like tangy, creamy uni (sea urchin roe) and plump, juicy, ama-ebi (sweet shrimp) – that things get interesting. Despite sushi’s lofty image, it has a humble origin: street food.
RamenRamen, egg noodles in a salty broth, is Japan’s favourite late night meal. It’s also the perfect example of an imported dish – in this case from China – that the Japanese have made completely and deliciously their own. There are four major soup styles: tonkotsu (pork bone), miso, soy sauce and salt. Fukuoka is particularly famous for its rich tonkotsu ramen; pungent miso ramen is a specialty of Hokkaido.
UnagiUnagi is river eel grilled over charcoal and lacquered with a sweet barbecue sauce. According to folklore, unagi is the ideal antidote to the heat and humidity of Japan’s stultifying summers. It’s a delicacy evocative of old Japan and most restaurants that specialize in eel have a wonderfully traditional feel. Fresh, wild-caught unagi is available May through October.
Light and fluffy tempura is Japan’s contribution to the world of deep-fried foods (though it likely originated with Portuguese traders). The batter-coated seafood and vegetables are traditionally fried in sesame oil and served with either a tiny pool of salt or a dish of soy sauce-flavoured broth spiked with grated radish for dipping. Do not miss out on ebi-ten (tempura prawns).
Part dinner, part work of art, kaiseki is Japan’s haute cuisine. It originated centuries ago alongside the tea ceremony in Kyoto (and Kyoto remains the capital of kaiseki). There’s no menu, just a procession of small courses meticulously arranged on exquisite crockery. Only fresh ingredients are used and each dish is designed to evoke the current season.
SobaSoba – long, thin buckwheat noodles – has long been a staple of Japanese cuisine, particularly in the mountainous regions where hardy buckwheat fares better than rice. The noodles are served in either a hot, soy sauce-flavoured broth or at room temperature on a bamboo mat with broth on the side for dipping. Purists, who bemoan soup-logged noodles, prefer the latter.
Shabu-ShabuShabu-shabu is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of thin slices of beef or pork being swished around with chopsticks in bubbling broth. It’s a decadent dish, with platters of marbled meat brought to the table for diners to cook themselves – it takes only a moment – one mouthful at a time.
OkonomiyakiLiterally “grilled as you like,” Okonomiyaki is Japanese comfort food at its best, and a clear violation of the typical refined image of Japanese food. It’s a savoury pancake filled with any number of things (but usually cabbage and pork) and topped with fish flakes, dried seaweed, mayonnaise and a Worcester-style sauce. It’s also a lot of fun: At most restaurants, diners grill the dish themselves at a hotplate built into the table.
Tonkatsu Tonkatsu, breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet, dates to the late 19th Century when Japan threw open its doors to Western influence. But never mind the European origin: the ingredients and attention to detail are thoroughly Japanese. Tonkatsu – especially when it’skuro-buta (Berkshire pork) from Kagoshima – is melt-in-your-mouth tender, served with a side of miso soup and a mountain of shredded cabbage.
Sukiyaki A dish in which meat and vegetables are stewed in an iron pot. The sauce, known as warishita, is made from soy sauce and sugar. There is a lot of variation in the ingredients and way of eating the dish depending on the region, with some areas mixing beaten egg into the sauce to create a milder flavor. If you are looking to enjoy a lot of great beef, this is the dish for you!
While curry has its origins in India, the curry eaten in Japan is a unique, localized dish based on the curry brought over to Japan from the UK. Made with meat and vegetables (carrots, potatoes, onions, etc.) flavored with curry powder, stewed, and served with rice. Sometimes fried foods, such as pork cutlets, are placed on top of the dish. While there are some specialist curry restaurants, you typically won’t have any problems with the curry at a regular restaurant or chain restaurant.
Gyudondish in which a bowl of rice is topped with beef. Gyudon, or beef bowl, has already become a popular dish around the world, but the gyudon you have in Japan may be slightly different to what you find elsewhere. For a start, the quality of the rice is different. While in Japanese gyudon restaurants, the rice they are using is probably not that expensive, but the beef really goes well with Japanese rice. We also recommend pouring beaten egg on top of the beef!
TakoyakiA mixture of wheat flour, water and stock are poured into a special hotplate with small half-circle molds in it. Cut squid, cabbage, dried shrimp and crunchy deep fried batter are then sprinkled into the mix, which is then fried. Part way through the cooking, the half-circle dumplings are turned over and become full spherical dumplings in the end. Takoyaki have a similar flavor to okonomiyaki, and are sprinkled with sauce and eaten. You can find takoyaki stands all over Japan, but we recommend visiting a takoyaki restaurant where you can enjoy various different types of flavoring. A plate of takoyaki will cost about 500 yen.