A Guide to Food in Japan
Sushi is of course one of Japan’s most famous exports. For lovers of fish, sushi is a beautiful way to enjoy the fresh delicate flavours that only seafood can provide. I love fish and I love sushi, but what if you don’t like fish or sushi? Japanese food has something to offer everyone, pretty much all of which is tasty, some a bit weird, but you’ll be sure to enjoy an amazing adventure of food in Japan.
Japanese food is probably the most palatable of all Asian foods to the west. Simple fresh flavours seasoned with salt and sugar to boost umami. Japanese food is perhaps the Italian cuisine of the Far East in terms of highlighting the flavours of the natural ingredients rather than overpowering them with herbs and spices (although you’ll probably find a bottle of 7 flavour chilli powder – Shichimi containing chilli, sansho, orange peel, black sesame, white sesame, hemp, ginger, and nori) on most restaurant tables for those after a healthy spicy kick).
Japan is a wonderful place to have a food adventure and experience amazing tastes and flavours. Here are some great food options to try in Japan other than sushi.
You’ll see ramen stalls and ramen shops everywhere. Cheap and cheerful yet super morish. Even if you purchase a bowl of ramen in Japan for 600Y (less than £4) it’s going to be better than that £15 bowl you ordered from a hipster London restaurant. They know how to make a balanced dashi or tonkotsu (the amazing broth), and they know how to find and cook the noodles to the perfect texture.
Often you’ll also get a little side of pickles, and sometimes even a bowl of rice as if the ramen did not provide enough carbs. You can have all sorts of toppings like pork, chicken, eggs, or nori to add even more flavour to that delicious bowl. So morish are ramen that you’ll often see workers slurping a bowl for breakfast at the ramen stalls in train stations as well as for lunch and dinner. And yes there will be slurping, lots of loud slurping.
More noodles, but equally as delicious as ramen with a totally different texture. Udon is often served in a soup, but sometimes dry as well, these thick wheat flour noodles have a satisfying chewiness if your chopstick skills are good enough to pick up these slippery strings of tastiness. There are many varieties of udon dishes, some are even cold, or you could get some crunchy tempura on top, or top it off with an egg to add richness. It’s always a tough choice between udon and ramen.
As you can gather by now Japan is full of noodles, but just like Italian food it’s worth tasting all of them to try the differences and because they are all so delicious. Soba noodles are of a medium thickness made from buckwheat, and can be had hot or cold. The cold ones are surprisingly nice and make a great accompaniment to a meal like some nice and light tempura and cleansing pickles.
Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pancakes)
These savoury pancakes are an example of simple Japanese tastiness. Okonomiyaki is just an egg, flour, potato and cabbage based “pancake” but it just works. Much thicker than a crepe it’s substantial enough for a proper meal. Garnished with aromatics like spring onions and ginger, the smell and anticipation as it griddles in front of you just keeps rising.
Finally you’ll garnish the okonomiyaki with umami-filled tastiness like mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce (a bit like brown sauce and barbecue sauce mixed together), bonito and nori flakes. Depending on which part of the country you’re in, you’ll either get fillings mixed into the pancake mix or on top of the pancake.
Can anyone resist a gyoza? (Or Jioaxi for the Chinese version, or pot sticker if you’re from the US). Steamed or the more popular pan fried versions are supposedly just filled with pork, cabbage, garlic, ginger, and spring onions. There has to be something else in there to create that deliciously rich yet aromatic flavour right? The crispy texture of the pan fried versions complements the juicy filling perfectly as well. Don’t forget to try it with a bit of the rice vinegar dip too, chilli oil is nice too.
A great meal for groups hanging out, food on a stick is always good right? All sorts of meats are available which you’ll grill yourself, and there’s even a tasty breadcrumbed version for some nice textural difference. There’ll probably be a communal sauce pot for you to dip your cooked meat on a stick into, so shame on you if you double-dip.
Ahh food on a stick… (almost) always brilliant.
Takoyaki (Octopus Balls)
Little baby octopus in a batter ball doesn’t sound appetising, but it sure is. You’ll find lots of stalls selling this street food in Osaka which is usually topped with mayonnaise and a thick Worcestershire sauce. The queues will be long for these stalls, but the wait is worth it, it’s not just hype. Watching the chefs flip the many little balls is entertaining, the taste of takoyaki alone is probably enough to make you want to go to Osaka.
A Crab Kaiseki Feast
When you’re in Osaka you’ll walk past Kani Duraku, easily seen with the big moving crab above it’s doors. It looks tacky and cheesy from the outside (where in Dotonburi isn’t?), but once inside it’s serene and tranquil. You’ll be served a kaiseki style meal with course upon course of crab based dishes. All of which were actually beautiful despite the touristy appearance and location.
Dotonburi might be touristy but it does deliver on taste as virtually everywhere in Japan does. It is an amazing sight with dramatic and cartoonish restaurant signs all over the place, a Disneyland for foodies.
Crab Miso at an Izakaya
Izakaya are Japanese pubs that serve traditional Japanese food to late night revellers, tired businessmen, and drunken philosophers (there are many of each in Japan). Perhaps my favourite dish I had in Japan was Crab Miso at an Izakaya.
A crab shell was grilled until cooked on our table and then devoured. It was delicious! It must have been the miso mixed in with the crab meat to give it that amazing flavour… or so I thought. I later found out that there is no miso in crab miso, but the flavour is given by the crab brain and other innards mixed in with the crab meat. Another example of beautifully simple Japanese cooking extracting natural flavours.
Chicken Katsu and Kare (Curry)
Is there anything as satisfying as a nice big donburi? One of the most popular versions is a chicken katsu, with a perfect crispy coating and toppings such as egg, pickles, or curry sauce. This homely bowl is like a big soft cuddle. Short grain Japanese rice is just the best as well, slightly sticky, not too soft with an incredible bounce.
Incidentally like a lot of Japanese food, the origins of its curry (or Kare) lies abroad, this time apparently from the British. Hence Japanese curry is often not very spicy or aromatic like Indian or South East Asian curries, but morish due to the balance of saltiness and sweetness much like a curry sauce from an English fish and chip shop. So addictive that Kareraisu is probably the national dish of Japan alongside ramen.
Kobe / Wagyu Katsu
If you want something a bit more premium than chicken or pork, there are some more upmarket katsu joints selling premium cuts of steak that are breaded like Kobe or Wagyu, of course it’ll be served with fluffy short grain rice, pickles, miso soup, cabbage, and a bit of curry sauce. You’ll enjoy the beef not only because of the quality but it makes a nice change from the more popular Japanese proteins of pork, chicken or fish.
Okayu (Rice Porridge)
Another comforting bowl is okayu, or rice porridge. Great for people who are sick but just a great bowl to get you warmed up. Flavours are delicate as you would expect from a rice based soup/porridge, garnishes like egg and spring onions give it an aromatic taste.
Sacha hates tofu, I love tofu from Japan or China. The west just can’t seem to get it right and don’t know what to do with it. Tofu from the east can be silky smooth or have an amazing fluffy texture and they treat it like it is supposed to be treated, instead of using it as a meat substitute.
Someone was pretty happy with the Buddist breakfast we received at the temple we stayed at overnight, someone else was pretty disappointed. Fried tofu in miso soup along with all the other bits were a filling start to the day, giving (one person at least) the energy to go off exploring Koyasan.
My favourite though has to be steamed silken tofu, the ultimate in delicate food.
Amazing Salads from Tokyo Train Station
If you’re from the UK, you’ll have to make do with a soggy sandwich, a tiny packet of crisps and an overpriced drink for your long train journey. At the Tokyo train station before boarding the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto, I picked up this little box of goodness.
A salad box presented like sushi, where bits of salad or cold meats were prettily placed on top of rice bases or cup cake papers. This is how they roll in Japan.
I’m not sure if they are organic or if something has made these strawberries grow so big, but Japan is famous for its strawberries with locals debating which part of the country produces the best strawberries. Not only big, these strawberries may be a little expensive (around 300Y each for a premium one) but they really are sweet and possibly the nicest strawberries we’ve ever had.
It’s not just about the melons in Japan. Did we mention the giant apples as well?
Biscuits and Pastries
If I ever own a restaurant I will employ a Japanese pastry chef. Do I sound racist? Maybe you’ll be racist too if you experience the biscuits and pastries in Japan. There is a lightness of touch in all their breads, sweet pastries and biscuits, everything is light, fluffy and beautiful. Flavours are brilliantly balanced and not overly sweet, it’s just so tough trying to choose when you walk past a pastry shop.
KFC Crisps and Giant Pocky
Because it’s Japan you’ll find all sorts of weird and wonderful snack foods like Giant Pocky and KFC crisps/chips. So loved is KFC that it’s customary to have KFC at Christmas in Japan.
Fake Food at Kappabashi
Kappabashi in Tokyo is another area for budding cooks and foodies. There are many knife, cookware, and dinnerware supply shops serving businesses and consumers. There are also even shops specialising in fake food used as displays in windows. Some are pretty amazing, but they should be considering that they cost more than the real thing.
Ordering food in Japan is brilliant, many places have touchscreens for you to play with so you don’t have to deal with awkward pointing and gesture conversations with a waiter, or more importantly you don’t have to wait for a waiter to come and serve you when you are dying for some Japanese munch. In fast food places like many ramen shops you’ll often order at a machine near the door, pay, get a ticket and sit down ready for your food to be delivered to you.
Even in the more old school places without machines or touchscreens there will be menus with pictures, so you’ll never miss out on trying what you really want because of language barriers. But just in case here’s a little reference table for your major food groups and ordering needs.
If you’re into that sort of thing, another weird and wonderful thing in Japan are maid cafes. You need to pay not only for the food but a fee for the amount of time you spend in there. We declined, but were told that you can talk to the maids and enjoy their company, but strictly no touching!
Tsukiji Fish Market
Ok so we sneaked some fish in here, but if you’re a foodie this fish market is a must visit. Tsukiji market is a working market so be on the look out for the fast moving forklifts transporting stock around. If you’re an early bird catch the tuna auctions. Walking around the inner market gives you an insight into the variety and freshness of Japanese seafood.
In the outer market you’ll see many stalls selling cooking ingredients and of course some sushi stalls using fresh supplies from the market. Get there quick though as this famed market which is the biggest market for raw seafood in the world is moving this November.
Food in Japan: Fresh & beautifully simple
Fresh and delicate, Japanese food is brilliant and deserves its status as one of the world’s favourite cuisines. It’s no wonder that Tokyo alone has over 200 restaurants with at least one Michelin star. From street food to an all out kaiseki you’ll experience beautiful simplicity and amazing natural flavours.
Whilst there is a simplicity about the food you’ll realise the time and effort that goes into producing the flavours once you taste them, and of course the beautiful presentation that is prevalent in Japanese cookery.
Yes the sushi is amazing, but there is so much more to Japanese food than sushi, go try them all, have a food adventure in Japan.
Try these websites to find restaurants and food destinations in Japan:
- Bento – Eating and drinking in Japan
- The City Lane – Kyoto food guide
- The Culture Trip – Osaka’s 10 best restaurants
- Follow Me Foodie – Where to eat in Kyoto
- Gurunavi – Japan restaurant guide
- I Am A Food Blog – Where and what to eat in Tokyo
- Japan Times – A stroll through Nishiki market, Kyoto
- Lady Iron Chef – 30 restaurants and cafes you have to try in Tokyo
- Migrationology – Tokyo travel food guide
- Tsunagujapan – 30 cheap and delicious restaurants in Osaka
- Where in Tokyo – Gourmet Destinations
Even if you’re not into sushi, Jiro Dreams of Sushi is well worth watching to get an idea of the Japanese philosophy on food and the effort and skill required in producing beautifully simple and amazing food.