One of the most rewarding experiences no matter where you travel in the world is the food. It doesn’t matter where you go, trying new flavours, ingredients and combinations is a great way to experience local culture.
And Japan is no different. There are more top-quality restaurants in Tokyo than anywhere else in the world but it’s not all fine dining, expense and sushi.
Japanese food is one of the most popular cuisines in the world and for good reason. Traditional Japanese cooking (和食 washoku) is based on ‘rules of five’: five colours (black, white, red, yellow, and green), five cooking techniques (raw food, grilling, steaming, boiling, and frying), and five flavours (sweet, spicy, salty, sour, and bitter).
There is an emphasis on using seasonal, high quality ingredients to create beautifully presented food. If you’re looking to expand your knowledge of Japanese food, here are some of Japan’s best traditional restaurant and street food dishes.
The A-Z of Japanese Food
Bento is a take-out meal typically comprised of rice, pickled or cooked vegetables and fish or meat, served in a box-shaped container. The dish is widely available from street vendors, convenience stores, railway stations, bento shops and department stores.
Butaman is a tasty pork bun that comes with tasty hot mustard and is particularly famous in Osaka.
Dango are glutinous rice dumplings served on a skewer. Also known as mochi, dango can be grilled and either savoury or slightly sweet. Do be aware that as a traditional Eastern snack, dessert dango are not as sweet as many people expect.
The ultimate in Japanese fine dining, kaiseki is a tasting course comprised of small, seasonally themed dishes crafted with the utmost precision and attention to detail. Kaiseki was born from the traditional tea ceremony, where small morsels of food were offered alongside the bitter green tea, and over time these offerings evolved into a multi-course haute cuisine meal.
Kushikatsu, also known as kushiage, is a traditional Japanese street food made up of seasoned, skewered and grilled meat. Kushi refers to the skewers themselves while katsu refers to a deep-fried cutlet of meat. They are served on bamboo skewers after being coated in egg, panko breadcrumbs and then deep fried in vegetable oil.
Miso soup is an essential Japanese food that is served alongside most meals. The soup is made from dashi stock (either fish or kelp stock) combined with miso bean paste. Tofu and sliced green onions, as well as ingredients like fish, clams, and pork can be added.
Primarily consisting of daikon, boiled eggs, radish, yam cakes and processed fish cakes, Oden is stewed into a soy-flavoured dashi broth. Containing such a variety of strange looking ingredients, the dish may appear intimidating to tourists!
Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savoury pancake. Toppings and batter tend to vary depending on the region. The Osaka-style version (the most popular version) of the dish is typically prepared with flour, eggs, yam, meat, seafood, vegetables and cheese. The ingredients can be mixed together or layered on top of each other. Often referred to as Japanese pizza or Osaka soul food, Okonomiyaki are cooked on a flat grill or griddle. Traditionally, cabbage or other firm vegetables make up the bulk of the batter but you can also order a thinner version and really do whatever you want with it.
Sashimi refers to any thinly sliced raw food. Fish and seafood are the most popular varieties, as well as raw beef and even raw chicken.
Another noodle dish, Soba is made from buckwheat flour and has a long thin shape and firm texture. Like udon noodles, soba can be served in a hot broth or chilled with a dipping sauce, making it a delicious and healthy option any time of year. In the summer, it’s common to order your soba chilled with a dipping sauce rather than in a piping hot broth, this is called zaru soba.
Sukiyaki is a one-pot dish of beef, vegetables, and tofu cooked with a sweet soy sauce broth. It became highly popular after a ban on eating meat was lifted during the Meiji period, and is the perfect way to enjoy Japan’s incredibly rich and tender wagyu beef.
Sushi is, without doubt, one of the most famous foods to come from Japan. A dish that was born in ancient times, sushi originated from the process of preserving fish in fermented rice. Today it’s made with vinegared rice and fresh fish, presented in several different ways.
This funny-looking fish-shaped snack is often described as a cross between a waffle and a cake. While the batter is usually made from ordinary pancake mix, it is baked with a tantalizing filling unique to Japan. The most common fillings are red bean paste made from sweetened azuki beans, chocolate, sweet potato, cheese, custard, okonomiyaki, gyoza, or sausage.
A Japanese dumpling comprised of battered and grilled octopus pieces. Other ingredients like pickled ginger, green onion, okonomiyaki sauce, fish shavings and Japanese mayonnaise are usually added to the octopus to make a sumptuous filling. This traditional street food will often be sold at festivals in large servings made to share, with toothpicks instead of chopsticks to enjoy.
Tempura is a dish of battered and fried fish, seafood, or vegetables. Special care is given to the way the ingredients are cut as well as to the temperature of the batter (ice cold) and oil (very hot) for deep-frying, so that every piece is a bite of crisply fried perfection. In the Kanto region around Tokyo, tempura is eaten with a dipping sauce, while in the Kansai region around Kyoto and Osaka it’s dipped in flavoured salt.
Tonkatsu are breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets, usually served as part of a set meal with soup, pickles, rice and other sides.
Toriten consists of chicken cut into large chunks, buttered with a tempura coating and deep fried which gives it a crunchy texture with a simple but strong flavour.
Traditional pickles that have been eaten in Japan since prehistoric times, Tsukemono pickles are made with a variety of ingredients, including vegetables such as daikon radish and eggplant and fruits like ume plum.
Udon is a dense and chewy noodle made from wheat flour. Eaten hot or cold and customised with any number of toppings it’s one of the most popular foods in Japan. There are three famous regional varieties of udon noodle: sanuki udon from Kagawa prefecture in southwest Japan, kishimen from Nagoya in central Japan, and Inaniwa udon from Akita in northern Japan.
Unagi means ‘eel’. Most often, the unagi is grilled, brushed with sauce and served on a bed of rice (unagi-don).
Yakiniku originally referred to the grilling of Western meats. Today, it refers to a Japanese style of bite-sized pieces of meat and vegetables cooked over a flame of wood or charcoal. Yakiniku is commonly found in Japanese-style pub restaurants known as izakayas and in street food stalls.
Bite-sized cuts of chicken grilled on a skewer. It makes use of every part of the chicken (including heart, liver, and even chicken comb) to avoid wastefulness, an important element of Japanese food culture. Served on either a bamboo or metal skewer, yakitori are grilled over a charcoal fire.
Vegetarian and Vegan Diets
It is relatively easy to avoid meat dishes in Japan however seafood is very common. Fish stock or ‘dashi’ is frequently used in soups, salad dressings and Ramen broth. It may be easier to explain you cannot eat meat and/or fish products rather than referring to yourself as a vegetarian/vegan.
Many restaurants and hotels across Japan are unfamiliar with the concept of coeliac disease/gluten-free food. The main problem is soy sauce, which contains wheat and is used vastly in both the preparation and consumption of a lot of Japanese dishes. A small number of restaurants offer tamari, a soy sauce that can be produced gluten-free and is also suitable for vegetarian and vegan diets. Check with restaurant staff to see if this is available where you are and always double check the label. Please note that Japanese restaurants are not always open to requests to modify their dishes. Do not be surprised if a restaurant is therefore unable to accommodate your needs.