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Japan is undeniably food heaven for those who love eating.
Varied geography means access to fresh seafood, poultry and red meats, vegetation grown deep in the mountains. Rice and noodles are staples while konbu serves as a common base for broths.
Distinct seasons also welcome diverse foods to complement the weather; hot pot, udon, and ramen to warm the body, sushi and sashimi for summer delights.
It is true that Japanese cuisine caters to almost every taste – except perhaps, spice lovers. Regardless, there are iconic foods that everyone should sample.
Whilst it is hardly possible to list every must-try because Japanese food is just so good, the following nine Japanese dishes are the perfect starting point for your foodie adventure when you’ll travel to Japan.
Ramen is synonymous with Japanese food!
Found all over the country in both tiny corner-shops and served at pricey restaurants, this dish is a staple go-to.
Generally a budget meal, ramen are great for travelers who need a quick but hearty bite.
Typical soup broths are the salt-based shio, miso soybean paste, and the soy sauce base. You’ll find that each region specializes in its own flavors, and family-run ramen stalls usually come with a twist.
Most shops offer customization; you can choose how thick and firm you want your noodles.
While the usual toppings include seaweed, pork belly, or seafood, and a half-cooked egg, every restaurant has its own special combination.
My personal favorite is the seafood ramen! mmmm
Short for omelet rice, omurice is cheap gourmet for hungry university students.
What’s so special about rice and eggs? Well, take a generous heaping of jasmine rice wrapped in a thin, eggy cocoon and garnish with ketchup or curry for this Japanese specialty. Variations can include cheese or spinach or any textured filling.
Newer interpretations of omurice now serve a fluffy layer of scrambled eggs over fried rice.
I recommend the cheese and gravy combo for a warm meal that hits you right in the heart. It is amazing how something so simple can taste like heaven.
If you’re set for a night of stomach worshipping, yakitori will have you shelling out for plate after plate of grilled chicken skewers.
The juicy aroma of char-grilled meat will entice you even before you set the into the Japanese restaurant.
These tender chicken-and-spring onion skewers cost around 100-200 yen per stick; it’s customary to order a few at a time.
Other skewer delicacies include animal innards like chicken intestines, crunchy heart and lungs, the soft gullet and fried chicken skin.
Indulge in the deep fry and grease and wash it down with a cold glass of mango yogurt. Yummy!!
A bubbling hot pot of konbu and soy sauce broth denotes a typical Japanese hot pot, although certain regions serve a creamier soy base.
Vegetables (mostly cabbage), tofu, and meat slices are dipped and cooked, with noodles rounding off the meal. Popular nabe variations include sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, set apart by their broth.
Nabe is best for entertaining groups due to its single pot serve. Try an all-you-can-eat nabe restaurant if you’re up for a challenge; the variety of meats, pastes, noodles, and vegetables are worth splashing out for.
Often described as the Japanese pancake, okonomiyaki is better explained in its full form:
The traditional Osaka okonomiyaki is built from a batter of flour, eggs, grated yam, dashi and shredded cabbage formed in shape of a pancake; Thin meat slices may be diced in as well; Upon reaching a browned, solid-state, thick sweet sauce is brushed on top with it. A heaping of bonito flakes and mayonnaise completes the dish.
Surprisingly, it is the Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki that people come across most often.
Layering on top of each other is a noodle base, followed by cabbage and bacon, then the original okonomiyaki batter and sauces.
Okonomiyaki restaurants offer a range of filler ingredients, so you’ll definitely find something you like.
6. Sushi & Sashimi
Raw seafood defines Japanese cuisine with its refreshingly cold nature.
Rice, fresh seafood slice, and seaweed wrapping characterize this food choice. Referred to as nigiri sushi, the raw fish over rice presentation is the most common kind.
Maki rolls are exactly what it sounds like, a roll of seaweed-wrapped rice with a variety of fillings.
Singular fish slices are called sashimi, served fresh with accompanying pieces of pickled ginger.
Experience conveyor belt sushi for its fun presentation and budget prices. Prices are based on the color of the plates, depending on the type of sushi, choice of sea food, etc.
There are also specialty sushi restaurants where the chef presents their freshest auction of the day.
Grilled eel over fluffy rice sounds mouth-watering on its own, but the traditional hitsumabushi set meal will have you praising every bite.
Aside from the usual grilled eel over rice bowl, the set comes with miso soup, clear broth, spring onion, and wasabi garnishing and sometimes sesame seeds.
What’s the correct way to eat hitsumabushi? Draw four quadrants through your eel rice bowl; the first is to be eaten as it is. Separate your second quarter into an empty bowl provided, and pour in the light broth – eat it warm. For the third quarter, mix in the spring onion and wasabi (or seaweed) per your preference. The last bites can be eaten however you like!
Set meal aside, a regular serving of grilled eel on rice is just as tasty. Add a dash of sweet soy sauce and let the simple dish melt in your mouth!
Golden and crispy, tempura are the battered goods of our dreams.
Often served on the side with udon and soba noodles, tempura can also be the main meal. The deep-fried pieces are mostly seafood and vegetables, such as shrimp, eggplant, mushroom, pumpkin, sweet potato, and leaves.
To eat, simply dip it into the light sauce provided. Some restaurants give a small dish of salt instead, which helps bring out the batter flavor.
While tempura is mostly found in bento boxes and as an accompaniment, there are Japanese restaurants that specialize in tempura and tempura only.
More snack food and quick meal than gourmet, onigiri nonetheless makes the list as a must-try Japanese food.
While onigiri can be found in restaurants, you are more likely to come across them in convenience stores. They’re a crowd favorite among office workers and students craving fast sustenance.
Budgeters similarly appreciate the few hundred yen price tag.
Don’t be fooled by its simple triangular shape and seaweed wrapping – it is notoriously hard to get the right rice consistency!
Classically flavored with pickled Japanese plum, umeboshi, other popular fillings include tuna and mayonnaise combo, or even salmon.
Heavier flavored variations have seasoning sprinkled over the rice, including pickled plum, dried fish and egg smatterings. There are also lightly grilled versions called Yaki Onigiri, tinted with savory soy sauce.
There is plenty more Japanese food to try, veering into snack and dessert territory. Mostly seafood and vegetable-based with rice as the main staple, you’ll love the variety. Innovation has always played a big part in Japanese cuisine.
To ensure a smooth-sailing dining experience, here are some tips to eating right:
- Start off your meals with a cheery “Itadakimasu!”
- Don’t stick your chopsticks upright in the rice; it is considered a rude imitation of funeral rites.
- No tipping is required. In fact, it might offend some people as the service industry believes quality service is part of their duty.
- Slurping noodles is a must to express your enjoyment.
- Don’t blow your nose at the table; excuse yourself to the bathroom.
- Raise your bowl to mouth level and eat cleanly.
- Refill your table-mates’ tea or water if they’re older than you, or in a more senior position.
- Keep petty cash on you as smaller establishments may not accept cards.
- Definitely aim for family-run restaurants as recipes passed down through generations prove to be delicious.
And don’t forget to learn some Japanese phrases so you can communicate easier with restaurant staff.