17 Unusual Traditional Foods You Should Try in Japan
When you think of Japanese food, dishes like sushi, sashimi, tempura, udon, ramen, and chicken teriyaki will probably immediately come to mind. Some Japanese dishes that aren't so well-known have been gaining popularity, such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki, natto, and yakiniku.
However, there are still many other Japanese dishes that have not made it to the West. To all the foodies out there planning to travel to Japan, or to those who like to be adventurous, here are some interesting dishes that are not necessarily hard to find while in Japan, but could be easily overlooked if you didn’t know about them.
1. Tara Shirako (Cod Testicles)
Yes, tara testicles are edible, and not only that, they are delicious! It’s perhaps more of a texture thing since they don’t have that much flavour overall and are usually doused in ponzu (a delicious condiment made of soy sauce and yuzu, a Japanese citrus fruit).
The shirako is usually prepared by quickly blanching it in hot water, allowing it to keep its creamy texture (although it will get drier, harder, and smellier the more you boil it). It is also mouth-watering when prepared as a tempura: a crispy batter on the outside but still smooth and silky on the inside. Shirako can be found in some izakayas (Japanese-style pubs), in sushi shops, or even in supermarkets when it’s in season (winter, specifically January and February).
2. Chicken Tataki (Mostly Raw)
Your best bet to find this dish is at a yakitori restaurant (an eatery specializing in grilling skewered chicken, usually over charcoal) or at an izakaya. The dish is called tori no tataki (tori = chicken). It is lean white meat that has been cooked ever-so-slightly in hot water so that when sliced, it is white on the outside and a raw pink on the inside.
Different restaurants provide different dips or sauces to add flavour, a common one being ponzu. Some will served the dish with thinly sliced onion or green onion alongside as a garnish. Although chicken breast can be used, the cut of chicken called sasami, or chicken tenders (the long and narrow part found just under the breast) is mostly used.
The texture is what stands out, as it is much different than cooked chicken and is almost like biting into a piece of raw fish. Because it’s not heavily seasoned, it usually makes for a refreshing dish, good for the summer months. If you buy sasami from a grocery store here in Japan (and are confident that it is fresh), then you can even easily make it yourself if you have access to a kitchen.
3. Nama Tamago (Raw Egg)
You could technically eat this anywhere around the world, although it isn't always recommended due to the risk of salmonella contamination. Japan’s rules and regulations are very strict, from the time the chicken is born, and cover both what it is fed and how the eggs are handled and cleaned. This results in a package of eggs with a relatively short expiry date of 1-2 weeks, but you can feel pretty safe about eating them raw.
“Why would you want to eat a raw egg?” you may ask. The best way to find out is by trying. If you ever get the chance, simply break open a Japanese egg, stir lightly with a few drops of soy sauce, and pour it over a bowl of steaming white Japanese rice. Eat this dish with a spoon. You will find that the egg yolk tastes richer with the sweetness of the white rice, symbiotically enhanced by the raw egg. This perfect pair has long been enjoyed by the Japanese for this reason (aside from its simplicity and overall low-cost).
Another great pairing for raw egg is sukiyaki, thin slices of beef simmered in a sweet soy-sauce-based broth. Imagine a slice of marbled beef, coated in a teriyaki-like sauce, dipped into a bowl of a beaten raw egg. Eaten without the egg, the beef might be too rich with all the fat coated in the concentrated flavours of the sauce, but when dipped in egg, the yolk coats the beef, helps retain the meat's juices, and mellows the saltiness of the sauce for the perfect balance. The soy sauce also brings out the flavour of the yolk, making the combination irresistible.
If you’re still a little squirmy about eating a raw egg, try an onsen egg. It’s an egg that has been cooked at a low temperature (traditionally in the hot waters of an onsen or hot spring). It comes out half cooked; the whites are no longer clear, but are still soft and runny, and so is the yolk when cracked open. You can find these in the regular supermarkets, and many restaurants will serve their donburi (rice bowl dishes), or pasta dishes topped with an onsen tamago. I personally find it matches best with white rice because the richness of the yolk isn’t lost as it is with heavily seasoned pasta dishes.
4. Ankimo (Monkfish Liver)
Ankimo also known as the foie gras of the sea. I, however, find that it doesn’t taste like foie gras and has a completely different texture, but it does have the same fat content. If you eat it for the first time thinking it’s going to taste like foie gras, you might be disappointed. As a separate identity, it is delicious!
Prepared by salting, cleaning with sake, and then steaming, this liver has a seafood flavour and fall-apart texture that absorbs and goes really well with ponzu (you might be starting to see a pattern here, but ponzu really is a versatile ingredient!). Ankimo can be found in all the same places as shirako, and is also best during the winter months. Unlike shirako, you can also find it being sold in cans, even in some convenience stores (obviously it won’t taste as fresh, though).
5. Umi Budo (Sea Grapes, Seaweed)
Other than the appearance, this seaweed has nothing to do with the fruit, despite its name. It looks like a bunch of miniature grapes connected together on a long vine. Each little ‘grape’ bursts inside the mouth just like caviar (you eat the ‘stems’ as well). The natural saltiness from the sea, along with the unique texture is what makes this seaweed so delicious. Pairing it with vinegar (or of course ponzu) is a common way to eat it in Japan.
It is in season from October to May, and you can find it in some grocery stores, izakayas or sushi restaurants during this period. What I find surprising is that it must be stored at room temperature. Putting it in the fridge actually causes it to wilt. This is because it is grown in warm waters such as in Okinawa (the most southern part of Japan), which provides most of the country’s supply.
6. Mozuku (Type of Seaweed)
This is another type of seaweed that is also mostly grown in the warm waters of Okinawa. It’s a thin, stringy looking seaweed with a slight crunch. Unlike umi budo, it is stored at cooler temperatures, so you can find the pre-packaged type at any time of the year in grocery and in convenience stores.
It’s fun to eat because you can slurp them up like noodles. It is usually prepared as sunomono with a vinegar-based dressing (unlike salad dressing, it is perfectly acceptable to drink the remaining vinegar in the pack). The low-calorie feel and the slight sourness of the vinegary brine make it a great side for a summer meal. You may also be able to find plain fresh mozuku sold in supermarkets in the spring to summer months (oftentimes a bottle of mozuku dressing is sold alongside the fresh variety).
7. Natto (Fermented Soy Beans)
While on the topic of healthy foods, I’ll bring up natto just briefly, since most people know about it. This is the smelly and slimy package of fermented beans that most foreigners usually avoid after the first try. The Japanese are bringing back its popularity not only for the recently condoned health benefits, but also for its umami-packed flavour and how convenient it is to just open a pack, mix with the accompanying sauce, and eat.
Natto made it onto this list because I wanted to mention that although you may be initially put off by the odour, the more you eat it the more you may actually start to understand why the Japanese love it so much (this is what happened to me).
8. Kujira (Whale)
For Westerners, eating whale may seem inhumane and you may be slightly uncomfortable with the idea. However, for older Japanese people, whale meat has a certain nostalgia, as it used to find its way to the dinner table. I have been told by elderly people that in their youth, when a kara-age (meat that is battered or floured and then fried) meal was ordered, kujira was what mostly came.
Nowadays chicken kara-age has taken over. It may be a bit harder to find now, but I have found kujira in sushi shops, sautéed kujira in a restaurant specializing in whale meat in Nagoya, and in my local grocery store being sold as whale bacon. It may look like red beef, but is much softer when you bite into it. The flavour is also completely different; there’s no mistaking that you’ve had something from the sea. It tastes more like lean tuna rather than beef, but it is in between the two in terms of texture.
9. Basashi (Raw Horse Meat)
I have tried to introduce basashi to some of my family members who have visited me in Japan, but they ended up cringing and avoiding it. I've ordered raw horse meat tartare in French restaurants back in Canada, so I don’t think that it's only the Japanese who eat this. The Japanese do add their touch by dipping the thinly sliced horse sashimi in a grated ginger or garlic and soy sauce mixture (instead of wasabi and soy sauce used for most fish sashimi). It is often paired with sliced onion (which has been soaked in water to make it milder) or green onion. Sometimes the soy sauce provided is a sweeter variety that is mostly used in Kyushu where they are known for eating horse sashimi.
10. Ise Ebi (Japanese Lobster)
Also known as a Japanese spiny lobster, this creature is a delicacy in Japan costing as much as $40-70 USD for just one, depending on the size. Although similar to the Western lobster, you won’t see it here being dipped in melted butter. In Japan, it is served as sashimi (raw), grilled or roasted (seasoned with salt), put into gratin and pasta sauces, or boiled with the shell in miso soup or broths for ramen. As I have only eaten it as sashimi, I can only tell you that it tasted and had a similar texture to ama-ebi, or sweet shrimp sashimi. If you go to Mie prefecture (central area of Japan), many restaurants and ryokans (Japanese style inns) will include some form of ise ebi in their chef’s menu (also known as kaiseki style).
11. Kani Miso (Crab Innards)
This is the part of the crab that looks like a greyish-green miso paste. I think it is actually the innards, but despite the gruesome description, it is actually quite nice, and pairs well with Japanese sake. Some might say it is pungent, but that is why it is often served as sushi (with a sweet and vinegary rice), eaten with slices of fresh cucumber or incorporated into seafood sauces to give a strong crab flavour.
A restaurant specializing in crab will most definitely have kani miso, but you may also find it on the menus of izakayas and even in cans on the shelves of convenience stores or supermarkets. I personally like to mix it with Japanese mayonnaise, add a dash of soy sauce and some wasabi to taste, then dollop it into the crevice left behind by the seed of an avocado sliced in half. Yum!
Ok, so most people already know about this poisonous blowfish, but I just had to add it to this list because it is something that is known to be exclusive to Japan. Personally, I don’t see what’s so special about it. The most well-known way to eat it is as sashimi.
Fugu has sinewy and rather chewy meat, so it is usually sliced thin enough for it to appear transparent. And because each slice is so thin, it has virtually no flavour. Therefore it is customary to pick up a few slices at a time, wrap them around some green onion, and to dip it in ponzu that has been slightly spiced up with a grated daikon and red pepper mixture (called momiji oroshi).
If you do go to a restaurant specializing in fugu, order a course meal because it is quite interesting to see and try all the different types of dishes made with the blowfish; kara-age, tempura (dipped in a light batter different than kara-age), hot pot, zo-sui (rice and egg drop soup usually made with the remaining broth from the hot pot), and fugu fin-infused warm Japanese sake.
13. Inago (Grasshopper)
This one may be a little harder to get a hold of, if you're willing to try it, that is. It is not readily available in the regular supermarkets, though. You may be even surprised to hear that the Japanese eat grasshopper—but let me make it clear that it is not a regular food that you’ll find on anyone’s kitchen table. Most of the population probably have never even eaten it before. This is why in order to get your hands on it, you may have to go to Nagano.
It is said that long ago, those living in secluded places among the mountains could not easily go fishing for food and so turned to insects. It is often prepared as tsukudani which means boiled in soy sauce with sugar or a syrup (such as mizu-ame) until the sauce becomes a thick, sweet and sticky coating. Inago tsukudani is actually pretty good with a sweet juiciness coming from the concentrated sauce absorbed by the inago, and a slight crunch held up by the sugars added to the concoction. If you aren’t planning a trip into Nagano though, you still may be able to find the cans at Tokyu Hands, a nation-wide store that sells almost anything (a great place to find interesting souvenirs, as well).
14. Hachinoko (Bee Larvae)
This one too, has its origins in secluded mountainous areas. It is prepared similarly to inago, but can also be found added to rice with seasonings in a rice cooker (a version of takikomi-gohan). I’ve also tried hachinoko, and found it takes on the flavour of the concentrated sweet and sugary soy sauce mixture, but I did not care for the mushy texture.
15. Kazunoko (Herring Roe)
Although a lot of fish are eaten fresh and raw in Japan, herring roe is best after it has been salted and/or dried. Although it can be found in grocery stores at any time of the year, it is something that is commonly eaten at New Years. Because kazunoko consists of an abundant mass of tiny eggs, it is thought that eating it is good luck for expanding the family.
Preparing it yourself, soaking it to extract some of the excess sodium, and adding back flavour (usually soy sauce-based and including dashi) can be time-consuming, so many grocery stores will sell it ready-to-eat. What you’ll get is one big burst of salty seafood flavour that goes well with a bowl of white rice, sake or beer (avoid wine, especially white, at all costs; it brings out too much of the fishiness). The texture is also something to enjoy, as the little eggs burst open one by one when you bite into it.
16. Nankotsu (Cartilage)
Normally, we avoid the hard parts of chicken when we eat it off the bone; however, in Japan, you’ll see people literally cleaning the bone. That white, hard piece connecting the meat to bone around the joint areas of chicken wings and legs is actually edible.
Nankotsu tsukune uses pieces of cartilage mixed with ground chicken meat to make a patty or ball, often skewered and then grilled with a teriyaki glaze. Nankotsu yakitori is just the pieces of cartilage cut into bite-sized pieces and skewered before grilling. The Japanese seem to like the crunchy texture and believe that the collagen will produce youthful skin as well as keep joints flexible and lubricated. It also serves as something good to nibble on when out drinking with friends (as so many Japanese love to do). I have seen nankotsu tsukune sold in some convenience stores but the best place to experience eating cartilage would probably be at a yakitori restaurant.
17. Horumon (Offal)
It sounds like the word 'hormone', but don’t mistake it for that, as horumon is something you should definitely try eating. Technically, horumon refers to any of the innards such as the heart, liver, stomach, etc., but most commonly, it is the name used for the intestines.
You’ll find pork and beef intestines in any grocery store (also known as motsu), as well as in yakiniku restaurants (Japanese BBQ). I prefer the beef horumon compared to pork because it is juicier and has less of an offal taste. Some may not like the bothy, chewy and crunchy texture of the membrane part, or the fact that it looks like a big hunk of white fat, but it’s something different than any other type of meat and I recommend you to try it at least once! There is a lot of fat that drips off it when cooked, but I am told that what’s left is a lot of collagen (supposedly good for the skin), and it’s not as fatty as eating, say, belly cuts.
Explore and Enjoy!
Even though Japanese food has gained so much popularity overseas and there are so many restaurants popping up everywhere, you still may not be getting the full Japanese food experience. If you do decide to come to Japan, I recommend that you keep an eye out for some of the things on this list that you aren’t used to seeing in your hometown Japanese restaurants.