UPDATED: October 15, 2022
As many of you already know, Japan is famous for its wonderful and unique cuisine. But when we think about Japanese food, the first thing that comes to mind is fish and rice. This blog post will give you a wider view about the food culture in Japan, and teach you what to order from the moment you sit at the restaurant.
1. Sushi & Sashimi
Let's start with the food item that most of us associates Japan with: Sushi and Sashimi. Sushi is known all over the world and is unique in its creation because every piece of rice is seasoned with a rice vinegar mix (made with sugar and salt) and then mixed with different ingredients such as a variety of seafood, vegetables, and nori (seaweed). You can just grab a piece of sushi with chopsticks and dip it into soy sauce or wasabi, or both. It is truly a mix of flavors in your mouth! Depending on the shape and ingredients that are used, sushi can be called different names: Nigiri sushi, Maki sushi, Oshi sushi, Temaki sushi, etc.
Sashimi is basically raw fish or seafood served with wasabi (a spicy Japanese condiment) and soy sauce. It generally comes with slices of radish on the side. The name sashimi comes from a tradition of presenting the fish itself with the meal to identify which kind of fish you are eating. Sashimi in kanji it is written like this: 刺身. The first kanji means spine and the second kanji means body.
Here's a time-saver:
If you are planning a trip to Japan and want to ensure that you have the best possible food experience in the country, you should first check out all the different sushi tours that GoWithGuide offer - some are truly unique, such as learning how to make and cook sushi in the suburbs, participating in sushi workshops at Tsukiji Fish Market, and even making a trip to the Shimizu Sushi Museum. Feel free to send a message to any of the local guides in Japan if you have questions on how to receive a customized itinerary and quotation to begin planning for an unforgettable food experience.
Ramen is one of the most popular options at the moment when choosing something to eat in Japan. It is a bowl of wheat noodles served in a soy sauce or miso soup mixed with many kinds of ingredients. The most typical ingredients are slices of pork, green onions, seaweed and egg. I can´t compare the flavor of this dish with anything else I have tasted before. The most important part of this dish is the soup. It has the most tasty flavor I have ever tried, and can range from soft to strong depending on where you order it. The way the pork is cooked, makes it so soft that sometimes it breaks into pieces as soon as you catch it with your chopsticks. With one order of ramen and a side dish of rice, you can be sure that you will be satisfied when you finish your meal... if you can!
If you want to experience the best local ramen while in Japan, I recommend to doing a Ramen Tour with a local guide.
There are correct ways of enjoying your ramen, and special ramen such as the Tsukemen Ramen.
Tempura is a Japanese fried dish made mostly from seafood and vegetables. It is seasoned with a sauce made with soy sauce, ginger and sugar. Tempura can be made using almost any and every vegetable. The size of the piece has to be able to be eaten in one bite and despite being deep fried, Tempura does not have an oily texture. Tempura is usually served with Tetsuyu sauce that is a mix of consommé, sweet sake, soy sauce, ginger, radish and spices.
4. Kare-Raisu (Curry Rice)
Also a very popular, simple and delicious dish that we can find in Japan, Kare-Raisu is just rice with curry but the taste is certainly different from any other curry dishes. To make Japanese curry, you can use a variety of meats and vegetables. The basic vegetables are onions, carrots and sweet potatoes, and the meats used are chicken, pork, beef and sometimes duck. There are different levels of spiciness for curry: mild, regular and hot are the most common. Which level would you choose?
Meet one of the best curry shops in Tokyo - Curry Kingdom. They have one of the greatest varieties of curry to choose from that we have ever seen, including fish curry, chicken curry, pork curry and even fruit curries such as the Strawberry-flavored one.
Okonomiyaki is similar to a pancake with the way it is pressed on a griddle but the ingredients are much more diverse and is usually considered a savory dish. It is typically made with flour, yam and egg, but you can add almost anything you like. The most common additions are green onions, beef, shrimp, squid, vegetables, mochi and cheese. In some restaurants, the experience is more interactive because the chef goes to the table and makes it on a griddle while the customers help the chef by adding other ingredients.
6. Shabu Shabu
Shabu shabu is essentially a Japanese hot pot dish. For this dish it uses many kinds of meats and seafood, mostly the softer kinds, and sides of vegetables, tofu and noodles. The way it works is you grab a piece of meat (you can also pick some of the vegetables) and immerse it in the pot with hot water or consommé. Once it is cooked, you dip it in a sesame sauce with some rice as a side dish. Very delicious!
7. Miso Soup
Miso soup is served as a side dish in most meals and with almost every dish. It is a soup made from a miso paste (fermented soybeans) and dashi (fish stock). Inside this kind of base soup, you will find pieces of tofu, onion, wakame seaweed, and sometimes vegetables like sweet potatoes, carrots and radish. It is never served as a main dish. It always comes with a bowl of rice and one or 2 more dishes.
Yakitori is a Japanese brochette, or otherwise known as skewers. Earlier in history, the meat used for Yakitori was just chicken (Note: the "tori" in "Yakitori" means "bird"), but nowadays it can also be made using pork, beef and fish. These brochettes/skewers are essentially a mix of vegetables and meat cooked on a grill and dipped in teriyaki sauce. It is also a typical Japanese fast food dish as well as a dish eaten best with alcohol.
This is the most popular snack in Japan. No matter what time is it, or where you are, if you are hungry and you don´t have time, you can buy an onigiri. Onigiris are rice balls seasoned in a variety of ways. Some of them are filled with chicken, vegetables, fish, pork, egg, and can be covered with a piece of seaweed. Some of them have just rice mixed with some sauce, vegetables, beans, furikake, and other simple ingredients. As you can see, you can find a huge variety of flavors for all palates. There are shops that only make onigiris, but aside from those, you can also just grab an onigiri and go from any convenience store or supermarket.
Udon is a thick noodle made from wheat flour. It is commonly served in a dashi stock with soy sauce and mirin. Most of the times it comes with negi (welsh onion). The shape and the size depends on the prefecture it comes from. Udon can be eaten cold or hot. Soba and Udon are very popular in Japan. It is a common dish for office workers and students when they have lunch time and they need to eat something fast. There are Udon shops everywhere and they are typically crowded, but don't be surprised or worried as you usually don't have to wait for a long time to be seated.
Soba noodles are made with buckwheat flour, which gives it the colour, and are also known as fast food in Japan because they are cheap and popular. Soba noodles are thin (Udon noodles are thick) and they can be eaten also cold or hot. There are shops in Japan that only cook soba, maybe with some simple side dish as tempura. At the supermarket you can find the fresh noodles to cook at home. These noodles can be also be eaten with a simple mentsuyu sauce to make preparation easier.
Gyudon is basically a bowl of rice with beef on the top seasoned with different ingredients and spices. The most famous place to eat gyudon is Sukiya. Besides the simplicity, it is a very delicious dish, and most importantly, inexpensive. In most places, you can order a Gyudon in a set that comes with a small salad and miso soup. Another important tip about this: the service is very fast! Typically if you order a Gyudon, it will be prepared and brought to your table in less than five minutes. The size of the dish is suitable for every meal, as you can choose from small, medium, or large sized Gyudons. For a quick lunch period, Gyudon is a favorable option.
14. Matcha and Sweets
Matcha is a popular flavor enjoyed by the Japanese people. The word “Matcha” actually has two meanings. One is a powdered form of steamed green tea leaves, which is used to flavor things like ice cream or sweets. The other meaning is a thick and mildly bitter tea made by frothing the matcha powder with hot water.
I learned that tea in Japan is almost always accompanied with decadent sweets and is not served on its own at these Tea Houses. The most common sweets in Japan are made with beans or sometimes with matcha. Japanese sweets in Japan are considered art because of their relationship between taste, shape, and color.
Want to learn more about match and where to have a true authentic experience? Then check out this article on: The 7 Top Places for Matcha in Tokyo
Gyoza are popular Japanese dumplings or pot stickers that may come in three different types: Yakigyoza (fried), Suigyoza (boiled), and Agegyoza (deep-fried). Fillings usually include chives, thin slices of cabbage, mushrooms, and finely minced pork or chicken, and are made with thin wrappers as opposed to Chinese dumplings ("jiaozi"), which use a more thick and doughier wrapping. As for what the gyoza is eaten with, dipping sauces usually include soy sauce, vinegar, sesame oil, chili oil, or ponzu sauce, which is a citrus-soy dressing. When in Japan, you should definitely try the Gyoza in Utsunomiya, a city that boasts the largest consumption of gyoza per household anywhere in Japan. Within the city, 30 gyoza restaurants jostle for space. From the newest spots to the most venerable establishments, the restaurants boast their own special brand of gyoza. Feel free to send a message and ask any of the tour guides in Japan through the GoWithGuide website for a customized itinerary for the best gyoza recommendations.
Want to have the best food experience during your stay in Japan?
If you’re interested in having a true Japanese culinary experience, then I recommend taking a Food Tour with a local guide. It can be difficult to have the best food experience on top of planning your travel itinerary without knowing the Japanese language. Many restaurants in Japan have menus only in Japanese, so it can be difficult to find the best restaurants as well as order the right items - having a private tour guide from GoWithGuide or joining a private tour group can eliminate those intimidating factors and risks - not only will you not get lost with the aid of a professional local guide, the guide can lead you and/or your group to the best restaurants and help you order the most delicious foods hassle-free. Check out GoWithGuide today and let the guides help you plan the most convenient, fun, and amazing trip to Japan!
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