Your Guide to Japanese Food: 10 Must-Try Dishes!
Chances are when you think of Japanese food, you think of Sushi! And why wouldn’t you? Sushi is perhaps one of the most recognisable and popular dishes to come out of Japan, and it is so much more than just raw fish! Originating thousands of years ago, Sushi started out as a technique for preserving fish by using fermented rice. Sushi has since evolved to become the delicious treat we know and love today, and now comes in a range of varieties to suit all tastes and dietary needs! If you’re after an authentic Sushi experience, you can’t go to Japan without taking a Sushi cooking class, like the one we do on both our 10 and 14 day trips, where you get to learn all about the art of Sushi making, and of course, sample EVERYTHING you create!
Yakitori is a popular Japanese street-food dish, where chicken is skewered and grilled over charcoal. For some time, the consumption of meat was seen as distasteful under the Buddhist religion, so yakitori was introduced to Japanese cuisine relatively recently compared to other dishes on this list. Now, however, it’s a popular street dish, particularly around train stations where businessmen can have a cheeky snack before the ride home.
Next time you find yourself in Tokyo, you have to hit up the famous “piss alley”, otherwise known as Omoide Yokocho. This famous spot began its life as an illegal drinking district, where locals would head to find cheap alcohol and yakitori. It’s tiny, with most restaurants historically offering street food at most and no seating areas or toilets… you can guess how it got its name from there! These days, however, there’s some seating (and definitely restrooms!) so don’t be afraid to make a stop there when in Shinjuku to sample some of the yakitori and soak up a slice of Tokyo’s culture.
After something a little crispy? Tempura may be for you. Tempura is a dish where meat, fish, and vegetables are coated in a thin batter and fried to crispy perfection! The secret to the best tempura is in its preparation – the batter must be almost ice-cold, and the oil must be extremely hot! This technique was introduced to Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese people residing in the Nagasaki region, using a similar technique to cook fritters. Tempura is served with different condiments depending on the region; in Osaka and Kyoto, it’s served with flavoured salt, whereas around Tokyo, Tempura is usually served alongside a dipping sauce.
Any guide to Japanese food would not be worth its salt without mentioning Wagyu beef! Wagyu actually refers to any of the four breeds of Japanese beef. It directly translates to “Japanese cow”, just to keep things simple! It’s easy to distinguish Wagyu beef by the highly-marbled nature of the meat itself. As a result of the cattle’s genetic make-up, there’s much more intramuscular fat than in standard beef cattle – hence the marble effect! The high levels of marbling in the beef lends itself to a juicier and more flavourful steak, which is how it got the name it does today as some of the world’s best, and most expensive, beef. The four breeds include Japanese Black, Polled, Brown, and Shorthorn.
2 of the most popular varieties of Wagyu beef that you may be familiar with are Hida and Kobe beef. Hida beef is the specific name given to beef from the Japanese Black cattle breed raised in the Gifu Prefecture for at least 14 months. If you fancy trying it out, you can sample it in many forms in Takayama – we highly recommend trying it in a beef bun (we’d get on a flight right now to try this, if we could!). Similarly, Kobe beef is a particular variety of the Japanese Black cattle breed but raised to strict standards in the prefecture of Hyogo instead.
If you’re more into noodles – Japan has you covered! A popular type of noodle in Japan is the Soba noodle. Served either with a hot broth in a soup form, or chilled with dipping sauces, Soba refers to the buckwheat flour used to make the noodles themselves. Soba noodles rose to popularity in Tokyo, when it was discovered that they were rich in vitamin B1, a vitamin that was lacking from their diet of mainly white rice and causing people to get sick in the 1600-1800’s.
Alternatively, and likely a dish you’ll have already heard of is ramen! A Japanese noodle soup, this directly translates to ‘pulled noodles’. It often consists of a meat-based broth, flavoured with miso or soy sauce and Chinese wheat noodles, along with any number of toppings, including nori, bamboo, and fried onions. Each region of Japan has a different variation on the standard ramen recipe – some regions use a pork bone broth, or a miso soup base, while others have a much ‘saucier’ consistency. Ramen was likely introduced to Japan in the late 19th century by Chinese immigrants of the Yokohama region. There even is a ramen ‘museum’ in Yokohama today.
Japan may not be the first country that springs to mind when you think of curry, especially not when your mind jumps to places like India, Sri Lanka, or even Thailand. But Japan has its own style of curry, it’s almost as popular as ramen and it’s downright delicious. Unlike in other Asian countries, Japanese curry tends to be more mild and sweeter in taste, and is thick in consistency. It’s served on a bed of steamed rice, a variety of curried vegetables and katsu (breaded & fried) pork or chicken on the side.
CoCoICHI is a chain restaurant that you’ll find all over Japan that specialises in Japanese curry, you may have one near you as you can find them all over the world! They serve over 40 different varieties of Japanese curry, and you can customize the amount of rice, spice and even add optional toppings.
Invented before World War II, Okonomiyaki started out as a very basic kind of pancake. The dish gained popularity during the war when staples like rice became scarce and the Japanese had to find ways to develop new dishes out of the ingredients they did have available. The basic pancake dish they’d already been cooking evolved into what we now know as Okonomiyaki, as people started to add ingredients like eggs, pork and cabbage. Okonomiyaki can differ hugely depending on where you are, but the two most popular variations are the Kansai or Osaka style. In Osaka, all the ingredients are mixed into a batter then fried but in Hiroshima, the pancake is fried and the other ingredients are then layered on top. We couldn’t recommend this dish more!
Every guide to Japanese food has to include Okonomiyaki, luckily this is actually one of the dishes that is very much easy to recreate at home! So if your taste buds are tingling, try out our recipe here and give it a go yourself.
Takoyaki is a unique dish made from minced/diced octopus that’s been battered and cooked in a special pan, giving it a spherical shape. Often referred to as ‘octopus balls’ (for obvious reasons), Takoyaki was first made by a street vendor in Osaka in 1935, inspired by an octopus dumpling dish. Typically, Takoyaki is served with a sauce similar to worcestershire sauce, and topped with seaweed and dried fish.
Takoyaki can be found all over, but if you’re joining us on our 10 or 14 day tour you can find it easily in both Takayama & Osaka!
If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you can’t get Matcha better than this! Ok, sorry about that… we just love a pun! In our defense, Matcha is one of the most popular ingredients in Japanese desserts. Matcha itself is a finely ground powder made from green tea leaves. Traditionally, it is the centre of Japanese Tea Ceremonies, where it is prepared, presented and consumed as a symbol of peace, harmony and happiness, as well as for social bonding and as a demonstration of respect. Nowadays, Matcha can be found in everything, from Soba Noodles to KitKats. Some of the most popular matcha desserts in Japan are Matcha parfait, Matcha ice cream, Matcha cakes, and the classic Matcha mochi.
To finish off our guide to Japanese food, we of course have to mention another Sweet Japanese treat that you simply must try when you’re in Japan – Mochi. Often referred to as ‘rice cakes’, Mochi is made from glutinous rice that is pounded into a paste in a practice called Mochitsuki. Mochi is most popular during Japanese New Years Celebrations, however, there are seasonal varieties to celebrate events throughout the year, such as Sakura flavour to celebrate Spring, as well as varieties to celebrate ‘children’s day’ and ‘girls’ day’. On its own, Mochi is more or less flavourless, but it’s often sweetened with sugar or sweet red-bean paste (anko) and served with fruit, ice-cream or spices to make delicious treats.
For those travelling to Japan over the age of 20, you might want to try out the national beverage known as Sake. Sake is an alcohol that was initially introduced to Japan by China in around 500BC and is derived from fermented rice. It is traditionally served from a tall porcelain bottle into matching cups at formal ceremonies and events and it’s common to see large and ornately decorated Sake barrels that were used to transport Sake from rural breweries to large cities, decorating the streets of Japan.
WRITTEN BY: Holly Harverson