Many people, when asked if they like Japanese food, would say “sushi? yes, I like sushi”. Or worse – “no, I don’t like sushi“. Some may know ramen, gyoza and maybe heard of matcha but it’s sushi that first comes to mind.
Before I went to Japan for the first time, I didn’t know much myself. What I learned after 4 visits is that Japanese food is so much more than just sushi. It’s diverse and can often be surprising. Sometimes, it looks more like a work of art. But it’s always a pleasure to eat.
Japanese food is regional (different regions can have different styles of cooking the same dish and they’re usually based on local produce) and seasonal. It’s shaped by history, influenced by other countries (China – ramen & rice, India via Britain – curry, Portugal – bread) and religion. It can be served in a variety of restaurants – from street stands, specialising in one type of dish through fine dining, izakayas, home-style cooking to unique ones like robot & ninja restaurants or maid cafes.
If you’re going to Japan give all dishes a chance. Here’s a list of some things, in my opinion, worth trying.
I came a long way from “meh, I don’t care, it’s just rice” to being a rice snob who buys rice imported from Japan “because it’s the only one I can eat now”. Japanese rice is simply the best thing in the world. It can be eaten on its own, be a part of a meal or a base to one. One of my favourite forms (other than sushi) is onigiri – a triangle-shaped rice ball with a filling of fish, chicken, seaweed or many more. Rice is an absolute staple.
If you’re in Japan on a 2-week trip you may eat rice prepared in a different way every day and there is a big chance you won’t have the same thing twice.
Donburi or Don
It’s a dish consisting of vegetables, meat, eggs, fish or other ingredients, fried or stewed in a sauce and served over rice. Very popular, satisfying and usually quite cheap.
I would divide the fried food into 2 categories – tempura being one of them. Lightly battered and deep-fried morsels, like wild mushrooms, eggplant, sweet potato, pumpkin, seafood – it can be really almost anything. Served with everything from rice, through udon to soba noodles. Some restaurants specialise in tempura and make it so good they serve it on its own.
The second part of “fried” is deep fried. Beautifully crunchy tonkatsu (panko-crumbed pork cutlet) and various croquettes are very popular and very delicious. I can’t walk past a shop selling fresh croquettes without buying anything. And I can’t go longer than 2 weeks without making tonkatsu at home.
Udon, soba, ramen. In a hot or cold soup, with broth on the side for dipping, as a part of okonomiyaki or fried. With toppings like meat, vegetables, wild vegetables, seafood, raw eggs, boiled eggs – you name it, they have it. Noodles are almost as universal as rice.
Food on a stick
From yakitori (charcoal grilled various parts of chicken) or sashimi, through mochi-like steamed balls served with sweet sticky sauce and deep fried morsels that are very tasty but you have no idea what they are, to unusual things like a baby octopus filled with an egg and cucumbers designed to be eaten on hot days as a cooling snack. Food on a stick is a thing in Japan.
While tofu needs no introduction, a Japanese tofu shop can be a place of wonderful discoveries. As part of our Food & Culture walk in Takayama, we visited a tofu shop and it’s been very educational. I think it was also the moment when not only I but also my meat-loving husband started to appreciate tofu.
There are many kinds of tofu that differ in textures, serving method and very much in flavour. It’s a beautiful, versatile thing.
It’s a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner, usually served at ryokans (inns), featuring fresh ingredients current to the season. If you can splurge and stay even for one night at a ryokan (one that serves kaiseki dinner & breakfast in your room) I highly encourage you to do so. Kaiseki dinners are probably the most meticulously arranged, the most elaborate meals you will ever experience in your life. They seem to be never-ending and can be too beautiful to eat.
The featured photo at the top of this article and 2 photos below here are all from our anniversary stay at the Isaribi ryokan. ¥55000/night gave us a lovely room with a view, private onsen bath and some of the best food we’ve tasted in Japan.
Convenient lunch in a box. We usually grab those for longer train rides – either at the station or on board of shinkansen trains. They typically consist of rice, meat or fish and vegetables.
Fresh, raw, grilled, fried – the options and combinations are pretty much countless. Nothing beats a bowl of rice topped with the freshest raw tuna for breakfast at the Tsukiji Market. Japan is a paradise for seafood lovers.
Cakes, doughnuts, ice creams, chocolates, cheesecakes. It’s easy to get high on sugar in Japan. But how can you pace yourself when you walk on a street and that freshly baked cheesecake smells so inviting and those doughnuts are so kawaii and you have to try that unusual flavour of ice cream and you’ve never seen this kind of KitKats before and this is a seasonal limited edition flavour – you can’t walk past it without a taste test.
In saying that, matcha wouldn’t be so good without those small sweets accompanying it, there’s nothing better than warm freshly baked melon pan and some summer afternoons can be saved only with a soft serve ice cream.
Have you been to Japan? What’s your favourite dish?