Amongst the most popular Japanese food, you will find a variety of dishes based on fresh seasonal and regional products, with an emphasis on seafood. During our first 7 days in Japan, we got to experience an amalgam of delicacies, including ramen, freshly made sushi and delicious desserts we didn't even know existed.
The beauty of Japan is the love which goes into food preparation. Popular Japanese food doesn't just taste incredible, but looks fantastic, as it is standard practice to combine the art of food aesthetics with the science of flavour fusion. One important thing to remember is that you can rarely go wrong with trying Japanese food. Even the smallest, oddest looking izakayas will serve incredible, hearty food, and offer you top-notch customer service. Don't forget to learn how to behave in a Japanese restaurant and spend a little time familiarizing yourself with all Japanese manners before venturing to this unforgettable, most amazing, country.
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Popular Japanese food
The Japanese have a worldwide reputation for being incredibly passionate about their food. Throughout the centuries, skilful chefs have perfected the art of cooking, to such extent that Japan is now renowned for having more Michelin star restaurants than any other place on Earth. Cooking is seen as a mastery by the Japanese and many abandon the office life to pursue the dream of opening an eatery.
With every bite of sushi or each sip of ramen, you can tell that Japanese food has a soul. It is the spirit of innovation and the passion for reaching perfection that drove Japan to become one of the best countries for culinary exploration. Here are the most delicious Japanese dishes you should try on your next visit.
Prepare for your trip to Tokyo
When I think of sushi, I immediately think of Japan. It is an automatic association which has been deeply imprinted in my mind. Basically sushi equals Japanese food. I visualise Japanese people sitting in sushi bars, eating these delicious fish rolls with their chopsticks. There are many types of sushi you can come across in Japan. From the popular makizushi, which is composed of fish or vegetables wrapped in rice and nori sheet, to temaki, a cone made of seaweed and filled with sushi rice, fish and veg. I particularly love gunkan, a type of sushi made of dried seaweed, filled with rice and topped with sea urchin or delicious fish egg, which create a popping sound when eaten. There are proud sushi chefs in Japan, called itamae. They take their sushi preparing very seriously, but in exchange, you too need to ensure you follow certain customs and adhere to Japanese manners. Making sushi is classed as art in Japan.
Many Western restaurants serve Japanese ramen, hence I was well versed in what to expect from the different type of ramen dishes. The Japanese experience proved to be much different and more delicious. I first tried ramen when I have just arrived in Tokyo. It was late, I was jet-lagged and the streets of Tokyo were already dark and empty. Hungry as I was, I entered the first restaurant across my hotel, right in the middle of Chiyoda. It was a traditional Japanese restaurant, where you need to take your shoes off and eat in a room, separated by sliding wooden doors. Nobody spoke any English, yet we managed to communicate by some chaotic sign language, awkward smiles and lots of bowing.
Since I had no idea what anything on the menu was, I decided to say two magical words which I heard so many times before: ramen and matcha. I was served a broth, topped with vegetables, seaweed and the freshest seafood I have ever tried. My little private dining room soon became submerged in the most pleasant seafood smell, which not only increased my appetite but created an unforgettable culinary experience. That was the moment, I have finally tried real ramen. And let me tell you, ramen is the soul of Japanese food.
As a child, I used to buy mochi from a local Asian store. It was a real treat for me, but my parents were never keen to feed me sugar, nor pay an exorbitant amount of money for such a small desert. I loved the consistency of these sweets, chewy and sticky, filled with jam or red bean paste. The more varied and colourful, the more I loved them. It wasn't until I visited Japan that I realised traditional mochi are actually made of sticky rice flour. In fact, I never even knew about the existence of such an ingredient. Whilst in Kyoto, not only I learned how mochi is made, but I got to sample such variety that I can barely believe I didn't turn into a human barrel.
Before trying an authentic Japanese breakfast, I never experienced drinking miso soup side by side with my coffee. I soon learned the miso soup plays a vital role as a side, to pretty much any fried dish, at any given time. During my first morning in Tokyo, I asked the hotel for directions to the nearest restaurant which serves breakfast. They seemed rather confused by my question, as I soon learned the options were quite limitless. I decided to enter a place, with an unknown name written in Kanji. Again, nobody spoke English but they seemed to understand what I was saying and my desire to eat breakfast. I was most surprised to receive fish, rice and a side of miso soup. At first, I was convinced "breakfast" must have meant something else in Japanese, but after a quick glance at the menu, I soon understood that actually, breakfast in Japan is the absolutely equivalent to a protein bomb.
Walking through the streets of Shinjuku is one of the most exciting things whilst in Tokyo. There are continuous labyrinths of streets which take you from one exciting site to another. One second I was blinded by the neon dance of jumbo adverts, whilst the next I was overwhelmed by a tremendous amount of street food smells. Shinjuku is organised chaos, where a myriad of street food vendors can be seen throughout the neighbourhood. The pungent smell of fish and fried vegetables usually overtakes some of the streets. Curious by nature, I followed the smoke, coming from a small food stall. That was the night I first discovered yakitori, a grilled chicken skewer, served along with other meats and deliciously fresh tofu which complements the chicken like no other ingredient, I've ever tried.
Prawns have always been the key ingredient to a satisfying meal and Japanese food loves incorporating prawns. Whilst some prefer meats, I think seafood is most delicious. I can never refuse a bite of seafood, whether it's prawn, octopus, squid or fish roe. In Japan seafood is an integer part of the cuisine. It's difficult to imagine anything better than travelling the world in the name of cultural and culinary exploration.
One night, through the streets of Kyoto, I was making my way back to the hotel, when from a dark corner, an old but jovial Japanese lady appears out of nowhere and says "Hello, tempura". Nothing more. Her huge grin intrigues me and not knowing what to say, I smiled back awkwardly. She continues by repeating the same words "Hello, tempura", only that on this occasion she also gesticulates and clearly invited me to enter a house which looked rather dubious. I ponder for a moment, not knowing what to do, but then give in to my curiosity and decide to follow her.
From the dark and quiet streets of Kyoto, I pass a wooden gate and enter into another world. I found myself in a restaurant, with an interesting but typical Japanese decor, several patrons and loud noises coming from the kitchen. I sit down but no-one comes to take my order. Instead, after a few minutes, I receive a large platter with all sort of tempura, followed by a mug of Japanese tea. The same lady bows and tell me a Japanese mantra which I can only assume it means "Enjoy your meal". I never managed to find the same place again, as Kyoto in itself is a maze of narrow streets and countless eateries.
I wish my mother knew of Okonomiyaki when I was young, as it would have saved us much trouble figuring out ways to incorporate food leftovers into something fun and delicious. We used to create turkey sandwiches or some sort of bubble and squeak, especially after Christmas and New Year. It was almost Christmas time in Japan when I first visited.
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I was travelling on the Shinkansen on my way to the Kansai region when I come across this glossy magazine with chopsticks on the front cover. Although it was all written in Japanese, I still flicked through, until I came across this fun little advertisement section at the back, which showed a cook, making some pancake-shaped food. At the time I had no idea what the advert was about, or what the type of food in the picture represented. It intrigued me so much, that I decided to ask about it once I got to my hotel in Kyoto. At the reception, I asked information about this unknown advert and I've been referred to a local restaurant which sells a dish called Okonomiyaki. Apparently, this is a savoury pancake, traditionally prepared with leftovers. It contains several layers of ingredients, including batter, cabbage, noodles, eggs, onions and sauces. I also learned how different regions and cities create the Okonomiyaki completely different, which makes this dish a surprise every time you try it in a different place. Back in Tokyo, I also discovered it to be sold as street food, through the streets of Shinjuku.
The moment I arrived back to the UK, I called mum to tell her about my new dish discovery. Although we aren't as versed as the Japanese people in making Okonomiyaki, it is now a post-party tradition to use our leftovers and create something which to a somewhat extent, resembles an Okonomiyaki.
I was surprised to see how warm Tokyo was in December. I expected snow, plummeting temperatures and some sort of winter disruption, but instead, Tokyo was very much just about chilli. It did rain a bit, but since I am accustomed to the British weather, it seemed rather natural. It was mid-December, cloudy and gloomy, but the streets of Tokyo were as explosive as always. Loud adverts, countless people, a myriad of colourful restaurants dotted on each corner of every street. I wanted to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere when all of a sudden, torrential rain swept away my plans. I entered a quiet sushi restaurant with the itamae inviting me to take a seat by the bar. He had limited English skills, unlike his cooking talents. We managed to converse a little, which gave me great joy and confidence. He went above and beyond to make me feel like home and offered to prepare me a special platter full of sushi and sashimi. I was most excited about finally trying Japanese sashimi, because, for as long as I can remember, the idea of raw fish never seem too appetising. The misconception goes probably because I could never imagine buying seafood from a supermarket and rushing to eat it raw. You take your time, cook it, transform it into a delicious dish. Sashimi breaks all the rules. It's just raw fish. You can have tuna, salmon, cod, octopus, squid and many other uncooked sea creatures. They are served in tiny slices, with a small side of fresh lettuce. I soon learned the importance of looks when the itamae prepares a platter of sashimi. When it comes to food, aesthetics are very important in Japan, however, nothing quite compares to a platter full of colourful raw fish, which melts in your mouth and it's surprisingly more delicious than any other cold Japanese dish.
In Japanese, Tako means octopus. I learned this during my first visit to the Tsukiji market when a street food vendor kept shouting Tako and pointed to what it looked like a grilled octopus. He gave me some "tako" bits on a bamboo stick and poured some sticky sauce all over it. I was left 300 yen poorer and holding this stick with tentacles. It smelled sweet and fishy and after a few moments of hesitation, I took a leap of faith and bit into it. Japanese food at its finest. I couldn’t believe how delicious this odd-looking tako was. This was the most delicious thing I tasted in Japan. I became addicted to it.
It wasn't until later that evening, that I also discovered Takoyaki.
I started my usual evening wander, through the busy streets of Tokyo, in search of those perfect photographic opportunities. I came across a queue of people formed in front of a food stall. They were buying these hot balls of batter. I looked around when suddenly I saw Takoyaki written on some old cardboard just above the establishment. The stall itself was old and outdated and had some round-shaped pans where the vendors seemed to add octopus tentacles and pour some cream liquid over them, similar consistency to that of pancake batter. Using their chopsticks only, these skilled people were creating a round-shaped savoury item out of liquidy batter. How impressive, I thought. I ordered 4 takoyaki, to begin with. I turned around and realised there was a variety of condiments, on top of an old wooden table covered with a washed-out antique tablecloth. A smiley Japanese person attempted to translate what each and every single one of these sauce was. I settled for some mayo, red sauce of some kind and minced nori. Takoyaki, or octopus balls, proved to be some of the most amazing street food in Japan.
I was aware that Kyoto, located in the Kansai region, was meant to have some of the most popular Japanese food. I was eager to explore the main food streets, trying to make me forget that calories matter. I came across this shop with white wooden windows which seemed to sell some mochi looking balls. I assumed they must be making mochi, so I decided to purchase some. I was handed a plastic box with four differently coloured sticky balls. A couple were wrapped in some red dusty looking material, whilst another was entirely covered in what looked like matcha tea. One bite and my whole mouth got overwhelmed with an amalgam of tastes.
The sticky balls were still warm and filled with sweet red bean paste. As soon as I started chewing, I realised these mochi-like deserts, were incredible. I went back to ask for a different type of desert, only to receive smaller sticky balls, which have been grilled and covered in a sweet sauce. As if possible, they tasted even more amazing than the previous lot, but still, I had no idea what these food items were. It was quite late, the shops started closing and I was running out of ideas on how to figure out what this deliciousness was. The stall vendors spoke no English either. Out of desperation, I stopped a sweet looking couple and asked what “this” was, by pointing at my food and speaking with my mouth half full. The Japanese couple smiled and said Dango with a super cute English accent. Dango, I repeated to myself in satisfaction. I spent the rest of my stay in Kyoto by making sure I try every type of dango there is, from every street vendor in Kyoto.
Whilst in Kyoto, I dined in many restaurants located in the Kyoto station where I discovered the Katsukura restaurant, located in the Cube. I've written about and recommended the Katsukura restaurant because I very much loved the service and the food. They are one of the best places where you can get introduced to Tonkatsu. This dish is essentially breaded pork in Japanese breadcrumbs, served alongside rice, miso soup and shredded cabbage. It's one of the best things to eat whilst in Japan and the good news is that you can find it pretty much anywhere.
Soba is a dish made of buckwheat flour noddles, topped with various ingredients. I noticed soba can be quite expensive and it's probably best to order it in a high-end restaurant to get the real taste of it. I ordered mine with soy and sugar sauce, topped with egg, tempura and nori.
Kaiseki Ryori is a traditional Japanese meal served in authentic ryokans. Kaiseki Ryori is composed of several small dishes which vary according to the season. The prices can be quite high for eating this traditional Japanese meal and a reservation is normally required.
I learned that udon and nabe yaki udon are two different things. The former refers to the actual noodles, made from wheat flour. Great udon noddles have to be firm. I recommend trying them at a specialized udon restaurant. Not everyone can get these noddles right! The later, nabe yaki udon, refers to a noddle stew which is usually served with tempura and lots of green onions. It's hot and delicious, especially recommended during the winter times.
I will start by saying that I don't recommend this meal on a regular basis. This is because Chankonabe is a highly nutritious dish served to sumo wrestlers. Unless you want to build upon the pounds, best to leave the Chankonabe to those in need of extra sizes. To try Chankonabe, I needed to find a restaurant run by a former sumo wrestler. Each sumo stable has its own secret recipe and it's rather fun to go on a Chankonabe hunt.
This is a Japanese dish which you must try in a restaurant known to specialize in Shabushabu. I first tried this in Kyoto and then ordered it in a restaurant in Tokyo. Shabushabu is a meal made of meat and vegetable boiled in a special Japanese stock. To enjoy it properly, I needed to submerge the meat in the boiling stock before eating it.
The best time to eat Fugu in Japan is actually during December, right when I visited Tokyo. You can only buy it in licensed restaurants. It usually takes years of mastery before one can claim to be a Fugu chef. If you dare to try this speciality, best to eat Fugu sashimi which looks and tastes incredible. Picture from Wikipedia Commons.
Unagi No Kabayaki
I avoided trying eel (unagi) for several years, and this is because I didn't actually like the way the fish looked like. It reminded me too much of a sea snake. Whilst in Nagano, I went to dine in an old ryokan where I wanted to eat the chef's recommendation. When the food was brought out, the Japanese hostess told me I was having Unagi-no-kabayaki which was eel coated in a special sauce and broiled over the charcoal. It was served over a bed of brown rice with miso soup and a cup of green tea. The dish looked absolutely delicious and it tasted incredible!
I tried Yakisoba on my way to Fushimi Inari Shrine. As with most popular Japanese food, I didn't quite know what to expect, but I was intrigued and determined to try as many types of food as possible. In some of Kyoto's old neighbourhoods, you can find street vendors selling all sort of goods, Yakisoba noddles being amongst the superstar dishes. The Yakisoba contains fried noodles, pork, cabbage and bean sprouts. It's usually topped up with soy, fish or Worcester sauce, along with with pickled ginger, shredded nori and dried fish flakes.
Gyoza originates from China so you might wonder, how come I'm recommending this dish as part of the popular Japanese food guide. The Chinese steam the dumplings, whilst the Japanese grilled or pan-fried them. Kyoto and Osaka are amazing places to eat these delicious dumplings, but if you are up for a challenge, why not visit the Kagurazaka Hanten restaurant in Tokyo, where you can attempt to eat giant gyoza? The monster gyoza is the equivalent of 100 small gyozas (I know, right?!) and it costs 9600 yen (or free if you can eat it all in under 60 minutes!). Are you up for this?
Most Popular Japanese food? Everything matcha! Matcha cakes, matcha tea, matcha biscuits. You can read about matcha here and learn why this strong powdered green tea became so popular. I started replacing coffee with matcha tea and after my Tokyo itinerary, I became addicted to matcha cakes. I even make it at home, as a dessert for the family.
What popular Japanese food makes you the most excited? Tell me your culinary story in the comments section below.