Japanese culture values food greatly, and it’s almost impossible to have a bad meal in Japan. We’ve picked some of our favourite Japanese foods that you should definitely try while in Japan.
Okonomiyaki is a kind of pancake, filled with cabbage, seafood and meat. It’s cooked on a large hotplate, sometimes built in to the table so customers can cook their own. Each city usually has its own variation on the recipe, so it’s a great way to experience local produce and specialities. It’s usually topped off with barbecue sauce, mayo and bonito (dried tuna flakes).
Yakitori are often sold in izakaya as a snack to go alongside your drinks. They are essentially a kebab, with meat or vegetables threaded on to a stick and flame grilled. Chicken and pork are popular, and you can order several small plates over the course of an evening to keep you going. Keep an eye out for more unusual meats or cuts – gizzard is surprisingly tasty.
Green tea is the standard drink in Japan, and matcha is seen as the deluxe version. It’s made from powdered tea leaves, which are whisked in to hot water to create a frothy bitter drink with a creamy texture. Matcha is also used to flavour sweets and pastries, and many western style coffee shops will serve matcha lattes.
Gyoza are little dumplings filled with meat or vegetables, and served with a dipping sauce on the side. They can be steamed (which produces a soft rubbery pastry) or fried until crispy. They can be eaten as a snack on their own but are often served as a side dish alongside ramen.
Ramen is the Japanese version of Chinese noodle soup, and consists of thin spaghetti-like wheat noodles in a thin broth – usually made from miso paste. Meat, seafood, vegetables and eggs are used as toppings. Ramen is usually cheap and filling – popular ramen shops can have queues around the block!
Tonkatsu is a pork chop, coated in crispy panko breadcrumbs and fried to perfection. Tonkatsu can be served on its own with a salad or miso soup, but is often served with rice and curry sauce. Tonkatsu sandwiches are often for sale in convenience stores and coffee shops, but the dish loses some of its magic when served cold.
These fried dough balls topped with mayo and bonito hide a tiny chunk of octopus inside. The contrast of the creamy soft dough against the chewy octopus is delicious, and there are a range of other toppings like spring onions or barbecue sauce to further add flavour. Be careful though – fresh takoyaki can be volcanically hot so let them cool down a bit!
Named after the swishing sound that this dish makes, shabu shabu consists of a bowl of simmering stock in to which raw ingredients are ‘swished’ until cooked. Often the stock is kept warm by a small hot-plate on the table, and diners can dip the ingredients in the order that suits them. Save the noodles for the end and slurp them with the remains of the stock.
Onigiri are the ultimate Japanese snack food. It’s a ball (or triangle) of seasoned rice, wrapped in edible seaweed (nori). You can buy plain onigiri, but there is usually some kind of filling, such as a small piece of fish, pickled vegetables or meat. Onigiri are for sale at every convenience store, as well as some casual restaurants.
There are not many Japanese desserts, as the Japanese prefer to eat sweet things alongside tea. However mochi is a popular sweet and can be bought as a snack. It’s a ball of ground rice paste filled with a sweet red bean puree; this is a typical Japanese flavour but can be quite alien to foreigners. The texture is also quite strange as the rice coating is very chewy and sticky. It definitely worth trying if you want to experience the more unusual side to Japanese food.