Japan is a food lovers paradise. And it isn't all sushi and seafood.
Ramen, okonomiyaki, tempura, yakitori, or the world's finest beef are all delicious alternatives. If you are a food lover or a seafood enthusiast, then Japan is a paradise for you.
Besides feasting on fresh fish and seafood in myriad ways, you also get a taste of an array of unique umami flavours, so there’s something for everyone.
15 Must-Try Japanese Foods
by James of Easy Homemade Sushi
15 Must-Try Japanese Foods
The Japanese are passionate about their food, and their culinary prowess is highly revered and celebrated around the world. It’s no wonder that Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city on the globe.
Chefs train for years to achieve mastery over the art of meticulously preparing traditional cuisines known for their unique flavours and cooking techniques. Aside from the food itself, the Japanese are also very particular about the way meals are served to make them a feast for your eyes.
So, if you decide to visit, don’t forget to treat your tastebuds with some of the must-try foods in Japan. In this post, we have created a list so that you don’t have to get into the research work yourself.
1. Sushi: the food Japan gave to the world
Talk about Japanese cuisine, and the first images that come to mind are the colorful varieties of sushi rolls cut into 6-8 pieces and served with soy sauce and wasabi.
These rolls consist of vinegared rice seasoned with sugar and salt, raw fish of one or two varieties, veggies, and seaweed for the outer cover.
Presentation is what makes different types of sushi as attractive to behold as they are delightful to eat. The chefs use a special technique to cut thin slices of raw fish used as both fillings and toppings to adorn the bite-sized pieces.
Those who don’t like the taste of raw fish or seaweed also have a lot of cooked fish options, veggie options, and sushi without seaweed, too.
2. Sashimi: raw fish and seafood
Sushi and sashimi are often confused and used interchangeably, but they are different dishes altogether.
Unlike sushi, sashimi does not include seasoned rice. Sashimi comprises beautifully presented and delicately cut slices of raw fish and seafood. It is often served with soy sauce.
The most common types of fish used for sashimi are tuna and salmon. Only the master chefs that have practiced the art of slicing for years are capable of making ultra-thin cuts that appear like glistening jewels. Sometimes meat such as horsemeat, beef, and deer meat may also be served as sashimi.
3. Ramen: noodles from street food to Michelin stars
The Japanese love noodles, and ramen is like a staple for them.
So, if you want to eat like the locals, we would suggest that you taste a delicious and inexpensive bowl of ramen from any street-side shop in Japan. Sometimes they may be custom made with ingredients specific to the season.
Ramen is noodles made of wheat and often served in a fish- or meat-based broth flavored with miso or soy sauce. In a traditional bowl of ramen, you can expect to find noodles swimming in this rich broth, topped with sliced pork, veggies, tofu, spring onion, and eggs.
There is one restaurant that serves the most expensive ramen in Tokyo using luxury A5 rated wagyu beef.
4. Yakitori: grilled chicken - an izakaya classic
Not a fan of raw fish or noodles?
If you would prefer to take a break from fish, seaweed, and seafood, then we suggest you check out another traditional Japanese delight called Yakitori.
These are grilled chicken skewers made using bite-sized meat pieces from the different parts of a chicken such as thigh, skin, liver, and breast. This popular delicacy is an amazing treat worth savouring and is often made to order and cooked over charcoal to give it a unique flavor.
This is quite an inexpensive dish that is best enjoyed with a glass of beer at street food stands, izakaya (Japanese pubs), or speciality restaurants in Japan.
5. Soba: buckwheat noodles served hot or cold
As mentioned above, there are varieties of noodles served as a staple in Japan, and this one is made from buckwheat.
It can be served hot or cold, with seafood, meat, or vegetables. The dish is accompanied by soy sauce or any other dipping sauce. The chilled soba is called mori and is served with a dip made from mirin, soup stock, and water.
Although Soba is widely available in Japan as a staple, the best soba is said to be found in the Nagano prefecture. It is believed that the extreme difference in day and night temperatures in Nagano and the rich mountain soil mixed with volcanic ash provide the perfect environment for growing soba.
6. Udon: thick, cheewy noodles garnished with toppings
This is another variety of thick, chewy noodles that is made from wheat flour.
It may be served chilled or hot according to the weather and garnished with toppings like tempura, chopped spring onion, kamaboko (fish cake), and abura-age.
Similar to ramen, the udon broth and toppings may vary widely from region to region. For example, the variety found in eastern udon is darker brown in color, while the ones found in western udon are lighter. The broth colour may also vary depending on the type of soy sauce used while cooking.
7. Tofu: soybean milk curd goes with almost anything
Tofu is one popular ingredient that you will find in almost all types of dishes in Japan.
Interestingly, it also finds its place as one of the must-have foods. It is often served as an independent dish, deep-fried and served with many other delicious toppings.
8. Tempura: crispy, crunchy, deep-fried
Crunchy, crispy, and deep-fried - who doesn’t love tempura?
In Japan, seafood or vegetables are lighted coated in a batter made from soft cake flour and cold water and deep-fried, resulting in this delicious dish. The batter is mixed lightly and lumps are retained to add a fluffy and crispy texture to tempura.
Tempura also forms a popular filling for sushi and accompanies other dishes, too. They can also be found at speciality restaurants where the tempura is cooked just before serving. Dishes are served hot with a dipping sauce and grated daikon radish.
9. Donburi: grilled eel on rice, simple and delicious
If you want to eat like a local, another popular comfort meal is donburi, a staple in Japan.
The word ‘don’ means a big bowl filled with steamed white rice. It is often accompanied by fish or meat, soft omelet, and onions.
The meal is mostly served in large bowls with the other ingredients simmered and added over it. In restaurants, this dish is served with its lid on to prevent the steam from escaping, and also to ensure that the juices and sauces permeate well into the rice.
Besides being an extremely popular, hearty, and inexpensive dish, donburi also comes in different variations, distinguished by the type of ingredients used for toppings. For example, unadon is a bowl of rice with grilled eel, katsudon has breaded pork, gyudon has rice topped with beef and onions.
It's possible to make donburi for yourself with passionate home cooks in Shinjuku.
10. Natto: fermented soybeans - sticky superfood
Let me warn you that natto requires an acquired taste.
Not everyone will like this dish due to its super slimy texture, but it’s extremely nutritious. Made by fermenting soybeans with bacillus subtilis bacteria, it is known for its unique consistency and strange, pungent smell.
Natto is served with hot steaming rice and topped with chives, mustard, soy sauce, and other seasonings. It can be an important part of breakfast in Japanese ryokan and homes. The taste often varies depending on the fermentation process.
11. Oden: the perfect comfort food for winter
This is a popular comfort dish to enjoy in the winter months in Japan when the temperature drops.
This hearty one-pot dish comprises an assortment of fish balls, deep-fried tofu, fish cakes, konnyaku (a firm jelly made from sweet potato), hard-boiled eggs, and vegetables (daikon is common), simmered in soy sauce-dashi broth.
Unlike sushi and sashimi, this is not a visually appealing dish as the fish cakes are mostly brown. No matter how unappetizing it might look, you will be engulfed by its unique taste once you take a bite of this winter comfort food.
12. Tonkatsu: pork cutlet deep fried in panko breadcrumbs
If you are a fan of fried foods and haven’t had enough then do check out Tonkatsu – the classic pork cutlet.
This dish comprises pork filet breaded with panko breadcrumbs and deep-fried in oil. It is served with shredded green cabbage and the tasty, thick and sweet tonkatsu sauce.
You can find pork tonkatsu on the menu of many restaurants in Japan. It is also a common item found in bento lunch boxes. Crispy on the outside, with a soft and juicy interior, this is one of the foods that pork lovers will not want to miss.
13. Sukiyaki: the 'cook what you like' hotpot
If you are a fan of hot pots then this one is a must-try winter food for you.
The name is a Japanese word that means ‘cook what you like’ with fellow diners, and this is a characteristic of the dish. It comprises your favorite raw meats simmered in a large pot with seasonal vegetables in a broth and dipped in a sauce of your choice.
A typical hot pot will comprise seared beef slices in a hot pot added with vegetables, noodles, and proteins. You can find different versions of sukiyaki in different regions, based on the various ingredients and cooking processes.
14. Miso Soup: a traditional Japanese staple
You can’t talk about a traditional staple diet in Japan without mentioning miso soup.
You can find this thin and healthy soup on the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Made from miso and dashi stock, it comprises a salty paste that is made from rice koji and fermented soybeans.
There are mainly four different types of miso: red, white, blended, and barley.
There are also several other regional varieties, each with their own distinct taste. The chef may add different ingredients such as wakame seaweed, tofu, cabbage, spinach, green onions, clams, potatoes, and more.
15. Okonomiyaki: Osaka's streetfood favourite savory pancake
If you visit Osaka, you must try okonomiyaki, a signature dish of the city.
You can grab this savory delight from the vendors thronging the city streets. You can also find it in tiny family-run shops and even restaurants where the chef may even allow you to cook a pancake yourself.
Initially tricky to pronounce, okonomiyaki should definitely be on your list of must-try foods in Japan.
These hearty griddle-cooked pancakes are stuffed with cabbage and a variety of other local ingredients. Once cooked, they are lightly brushed with a sweet and salty sauce for added flavor.
VIDEO: This is How You Make Okonomiyaki!
Hopefully, this short guide to some of the most iconic and popular Japanese dishes has whetted your appetite to try something new during your next visit.
Sampling as many local dishes as possible, of any nation, is a great way to get a closer feel for and a better insight into a culture. None more so than in Japan.
“Gochisosama deshita!” - ‘That was a feast!’ (said after a meal).
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About the Author
James has been a sushi enthusiast since his Japanese friend introduced him to this wonderful delicacy. He’s endlessly researched sushi and shares a wealth of information with others on his blog Easy Homemade Sushi.
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