Spending time in Japan without trying traditional Japanese food is like walking through the Louvre with a blindfold on. Japanese cuisine is imbued with the very best parts of the country’s culture, and there is no better way to get a taste of the country’s singular zeitgeist than digging in.
Here are 15 foods you simply have to try when you make your way to the Land of the Rising Sun.
Sitting down to a nabemono hotpot dish of shabu-shabu is one of the most quintessential things to do in Japan. The name of the dish is onomatopoeic and refers to the sound the ingredients make when diners around the table stir thinly sliced meat and vegetables in a central dish of boiling water to cook it piece by piece. Served with an array of dipping sauces, this type of meal is a great communal affair, best enjoyed with a group of friends or fellow travellers.
Essentially a type of Japanese kebab, yakitori is skewered meat grilled over a charcoal fire. Chicken is very popular with locals and often grabbed on the go from street vendors. Buy it fresh from the grill for a cheap and filling snack. Or enjoy it as a meal while you indulge in a spot of people watching at a market over lunchtime.
Okay, fair enough, this one is rather obvious, but you can’t travel all the way to Japan without trying one of the most famous Asian specialities. Although sushi is said to have originated as a dish called ‘narezushi’ (essentially fermented fish, wrapped in rice to preserve it) in Southeast Asia around the Mekong River, it soon spread to China and Japan. Today, sushi is enjoyed all around the world. However, the Japanese are really, really good at making it, so it’s still worth your while to put it on your culinary bucket list for Japan. Keen to get a little experimental? Forgo traditional salmon and tuna sushi in favour of aji (horse mackerel), kurage (jellyfish), or uni (urchin).
Closely modelled on jiaozi, a type of Chinese dumpling that forms an important part of the Chinese New Year food line-up, Japanese gyoza are dumplings filled with ground meat and vegetables and wrapped in a thin dough. Your typical gyoza features a combination of ground pork, nira chives, green onion, cabbage, ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil, but there are endless varieties to choose from.
Wagyu beef from Japan is the most prized beef in the world. One cow can be sold for as much as $30,000. Pronounced ‘wag-you’, the term literally means Japanese cow. Wagyu beef is popular around the globe because of its higher levels of intramuscular fat – or marbling – and fine meat texture, which results in a wonderfully flavoursome eating experience.
Got a sweet tooth? Head straight for the mochi! Mochi is a Japanese rice cake made from glutinous rice that is ground, steamed and pounded into a sticky ball. This pretty, round confection is bite-sized, pillowy soft and often sweetened with sugar and coconut milk. YUM. Try it with green tea for a true Japanese dessert experience.
Onigiri is a traditional Japanese comfort food that basically consists of steamed rice shaped into a triangle, ball, or cylinder and wrapped in nori (dried seaweed). This dish truly pays testament to the inventiveness of Japanese food artists; it can be stuffed with anything from salmon to veggies, or eaten plain, and often feature in children’s lunch boxes in the shape of adorable characters like panda bears, etc.
More sweet stuff! A melonpan is a type of Japanese sweet bun made from enriched dough covered with a thin layer of crisp cookie dough. It’s said to resemble a rockmelon, which accounts for the name. Get it hot from a bakery and get ready to have your dessert-loving mind blown.
Tonkatsu is a Japanese dish that consists of a breaded, deep-fried/tempura pork cutlet. The locals love it!
Travel Tip: Head straight for the superbly comforting, deliciously devilish tonkatsu sandwich if you encounter it somewhere on a menu in Japan. Think soft, white, crustless bread, filled with layers of crispy fried pork, shredded cabbage, and tonkatsu sauce (something resembling a combination of Worcestershire sauce and ketchup). Delicious!
Almost every country around the world has their own special rendition of fried chicken, and Japanese karaage does not disappoint. Flavorful, juicy and ultra crispy, karaage is a staple of Japanese home-cooking and a popular bento box filler. It’s made by coating pieces of chicken in flour, or potato or corn starch, and deep-frying it in hot oil. Often served coated in a tasty soy sauce, sake, ginger, and garlic marinade, it is bound to pop up on your craving roster pretty regularly once you’ve tried it!
Did you know? A bento box is a single-serving take-away or home-cooked meal popular in Japan. They are usually filled with rice or noodles, chicken or fish plus cooked or pickled vegetables. You’ll often find them sold at train stations across the country.
Although it essentially boils down to good old beef on rice or noodles, gyudon is so flavourful and delicious that these little bowls of goodness will definitely have you pining for more. Normally topped with beef and onion simmered in a mildly sweet sauce flavored with dashi, soy sauce and mirin, it is sometimes also topped with a raw egg or soft poached egg for extra umami flavour.
Often referred to as a Japanese pizza in the United States, okonomiyaki is a savoury pancake made with a wheat-flour based batter that normally contains shredded cabbage and a meat/protein. The baked pancake is then topped with a variety of condiments and garnishes that are often a speciality of the restaurant or street vendor serving it to you.
Another well-known Japanese street food, these ball-shaped snacks originated in Osaka. It is cooked in a moulded pan and consists of a wheat flour-based batter filled with minced or diced octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger, and green onion. It is soft, moist and melts in your mouth as you chew to impart a savoury flavour reminiscent of a warm ocean breeze.
Just trust us on this one. The Japanese egg salad sandwich is revered among true Japanophiles and is a well-guarded secret among travelling foodies. Best purchased from a 24-hour convenience store after a night out on the town, it is a true-blue hunger buster and lesser-known hangover cure to boot. It also happens to be disproportionately delicious in comparison to its very affordable price tag. Just do it!
On a cold day, a nice steaming bowl of Japanese curry is just the ticket to drive away the chills. Commonly served in the form of curry rice, curry udon (pasta) and curry bread, it’s one of the most popular dishes in Japan. It’s made with a wide variety of vegetables and meats, and normally quite affordable, especially if you purchase it from a street vendor rather than sitting down at a restaurant.
Feeling a bit peckish yet? We don’t blame you! Now all you need to do is book your tour to Japan, pack your bags (and at least one pair of trousers with an elasticated waist), and be on your merry way to sample all the deliciousness this East Asian country has to offer. Go on – treat yourself.