James has been an online writer for more than 6 years and particularly enjoys writing about Japan, Malaysia and Singapore.
Have you ever been to Japan and savoured authentic Japanese cuisine before? Forget about the food that you get in your local Japanese restaurants; most of them don't taste close to the real deal. No, don’t get me wrong. Before any of you pounce on me for making such a sweeping statement, let me remind you of the general rule of nature: Nothing outside the original can be as good as the original itself. This rule also holds true as far as Japanese cuisine is concerned.
Japanese cuisine involves a unique blend of ingredients combined and cooked in a unique fashion, producing characteristic sensations for the taste buds that will delight any culinary fan. For those of you who have savoured the originals in the Land of the Rising Sun itself, you will definitely understand what I mean. But for those of you who may have yet to enjoy this privilege, here is a rough guide to some of the best Japanese food that you should not miss when you are in the Land of the Rising Sun.
1. Sushi (寿司)
This common delicacy needs no introduction. Pop into any Japanese restaurant near you, and chances are that you will see this simple yet unique delicacy in your menu. Nevertheless, for those of you who may not be familiar with it, let me give you a brief introduction.
Sushi basically comprises cooked glutinous, vinegared rice wrapped below, around or within other ingredients, most commonly raw fish, seafood, seaweed, layered omelette or tofu. At times, additional ingredients may be embedded within the rice to add flavour or aesthetic value. Sushi may be eaten alone, or it may be served together alongside other dishes in set meals such as bento (lunch/dinner boxes) or funamori (boat-like structures on which assortments of small food items are placed).
The Finest Quality Sushi
Sushi may be common, but sushi of the finest quality is definitely not. The best sushi is undoubtedly found in Japan, but it is still possible to savour some of the best in your home country, particularly in restaurants that employ the services of master sushi chefs or those who have trained under one.
Good sushi is judged from the quality of its rice, the freshness of its ingredients, the succulence of its raw fish and the beauty of its presentation. Some of the best sushi in Japan normally includes a thin layer of wasabi beneath its layer of raw fish, giving it an exquisite taste that requires no dipping in extra wasabi.
2. Sashimi (刺身)
Another Japanese culinary commonly found outside Japan, “sashimi” literally means “pierced body”, a term said to have been derived from the ancient practice of preparing this culinary by sticking the tail or fin of a fish onto its slices in order to allow identification of the type of fish that was used. Although raw fish was the sole ingredient used in preparing sashimi in olden times, raw meat and other types of seafood are now becoming equally popular ingredients.
The preparation of this culinary delight involves slicing the raw ingredients into thin, smooth slices – a symbolic representation of the appreciation of delicateness and refinement in Japanese culture. Sashimi is ideally enjoyed with soy sauce, wasabi and shredded white radish, but other condiments such as shiso and grated ginger are also commonly added.
Sashimi may be widely available worldwide, but one should seriously consider trying some of the finest whilst in Japan. Sashimi in Japan, in particular those made by skilled hands, possess a fine quality and exquisite taste that perfectly embodies the delicateness and subtlety so unique to the Japanese psyche.
3. Tempura (天ぷら)
Among all traditional Japanese cuisine, tempura is unusual in the sense that it is one of the few dishes that involves frying. Tempura is basically a dish of battered and deep fried seafood or vegetables, served either as a side dish on its own or as an accompaniment for many other types of Japanese cuisine. This “unusual” Japanese dish is said to have been first introduced by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in Nagasaki in the sixteenth century, thereafter gaining widespread popularity amongst the ruling classes and as a street food.
Common ingredients used for deep frying in making tempura include eggplants, pumpkins, mushrooms, carrots, shrimps, scallops and fish, but this list is not exhaustive. It is commonly seen as a topping for many types of Japanese noodle and rice cuisines, or as a component in bento sets. Some of the best tempura in Japan is judged by their crispiness, amount of batter and oil used, and the quality and softness of the core ingredient’s taste.
4. Tonkatsu (豚カツ)
Unusual amongst Japanese cuisine for reasons similar to those of tempura, tonkatsu is another Japanese food commonly served as a component in rice and noodle dishes or bento sets. Introduced by the Portuguese around the same time as tempura, tonkatsu shot to popularity in the late 1800s and early 1900s with the infiltration of Western influence in Japan, when yoshoku (Japanese-styled Western cuisine) and Western-styled cooking became more fashionable.
Tonkatsu consists of breaded, deep fried pork cutlets, although beef used to be the core ingredient in the early years of its introduction. Today, it is still quite common for one to come across beef and chicken varieties of tonkatsu, known as gyukatsu and chikinkatsu respectively.
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5. Udon (饂飩)
Known also as the Japanese “big noodle”, udon is a popular Japanese cuisine that involves thick wheat flour noodle being served in a bowl of lightly flavoured broth made from soy sauce and various other ingredients. This centuries-old cuisine is said to have been an import from China, when Japanese monks learnt the art of making noodles from the Chinese, thereafter bringing this knowledge back to their homeland. Although the noodle component of this dish is generally similar everywhere, the broth component differs according to the different regions in Japan.
In some regions, the broth tends to be darker and thicker, while in others they appear lighter, depending on the amount and quality of soy sauce being used. Additionally, the broth can either be served hot or cold, depending on the season in which it is eaten (i.e. hot udon for winter and cold udon for summer). Udon is usually eaten with various kinds of toppings, the common ones being tempura, seafood and tofu.
6. Soba (蕎麦)
Soba is another popular Japanese noodle cuisine widely eaten as both fast food and luxurious meals. Unlike udon, soba is of a thinner variety, made from buckwheat and served either chilled with a dipping sauce or in a bowl of hot soup. Like udon, soba is served with different kinds of vegetarian and meat-based toppings, some of which are unique to particular regions in Japan, thus giving rise to a vast variety of soba dishes, each with its own unique name.
Nevertheless, one of the most common, yet most unique soba varieties is the zaru soba, which is a dish in which soba noodles are served on a zaru, a bamboo draining tray. Zaru soba is normally served chilled, accompanied by a cold dipping sauce called tsuyu, which is made with a mixture of soy sauce and other traditional soup bases. Eating zaru soba involves picking up the noodles from the zaru and dipping it thoroughly in the sauce before consuming them.
7. Donburi (丼)
One of the favourites of many Japanese, donburi is a popular rice dish served with various ingredients marinated in traditional sauce and simmered together. These ingredients vary widely according to the type of donburi being made. Gyudon, for example, consists of beef and onion marinated in soy sauce, while oyakodon uses chicken, eggs and onions as its primary ingredients.
Other popular donburi varieties include tendon, which consists of different kinds of tempura served over the rice; unadon, which uses unagi (eel) as its main topping component; and katsudon, which comprises tonkatsu, onions and eggs as its topping ingredients. As its name suggests, donburi (which means “bowl”) is typically served in large bowls, and extra sweet or spicy sauces are sometimes added over the rice and toppings for extra flavour.
8. Omurice (オムライス)
Although I would not recommend this dish if what you are seeking is purely traditional Japanese food, I would still strongly recommend it if you want to have a feel of contemporary Japanese culture. True to its name, this contemporary Japanese dish comprises fried rice served with omelette as a topping or wrapper, with a generous amount of ketchup or other sauces of Western origin.
Simple and Western in origin as it may be, omurice is a highly popular dish that dominates the menus of cosplay and maid cafés, and if you are a true-blue anime/manga/cosplay fan or if you simply want to experience a popular segment of Japan’s contemporary sub-cultures, drop by a maid or cosplay café and order your plate of omurice today.
9. Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き)
A one-of-a-kind dish with obscure origins, okonomiyaki is a highly localized dish that resembles a pancake or an omelette. The term “okonomi” literally means “what you like”, while the term “yaki” means “grilled”, hence okonomiyaki involves grilling ingredients that one likes in a batter. These ingredients can include anything from vegetables to meat products and seafood, and the types of ingredients available depend upon individual restaurants and seasons.
Methods of cooking vary, with some readily mixing the raw ingredients in the batter before grilling it, while others involve grilling the raw ingredients for a short while first before pouring the batter over them. In some restaurants, okonomiyaki is grilled in the kitchen before being served to the customer, whereas in others they are made by a professional cook right before the customer’s eyes.
It is also common to find establishments that have special teppan (hotplates) fixed onto the customer’s table, in which the customer is provided with the raw ingredients, batter and utensils to grill his/her own okonomiyaki.
10. Wagyu Beef (和牛ビーフ)
Expensive as it may be, wagyu beef is one of Japan’s popular food exports, and it is advisable not to consider trying it unless you have brought along with yourself some extra cash or credit. Wagyu beef is produced from the wagyu (Japanese cow), with four different existing breeds which are native to Japan, namely Kuroge Washu (Japanese Black), Akage Washu (Japanese Brown), Mukaku Washu (Japanese Polled) and Nihon Tankaku Washu (Japanese Shorthorn).
Kuroge Washu (Japanese Black) is the breed most commonly used to produce this special beef. Kobe beef is undoubtedly one of the most famous and expensive wagyu beef, being widely prepared as sashimi, steak, sukiyaki or shabu-shabu.
11. Whale Meat (鯨肉)
Despite its extensive popularity in Japan, this delicacy has recently been mired in numerous controversies, both for health and environmental reasons. Whale meat fetches different prices according to which parts of the whale it is obtained from. The tail meat is said to be the most delicious, as such it usually fetches the highest price. Other parts of the whale, such as the belly, tongue, offal and even sex organs are also commonly eaten, although they are normally cheaper in price and are comparatively less tasty than the tail meat.
Japanese whale meat has recently garnered much global attention and concern, particularly due to the fact that whales are an endangered species, and also because recent studies have demonstrated that the organs of whales caught from Japanese waters tend to contain unsafe levels of mercury and other toxins. Regardless, one of the major centres of whale meat sale in Japan is none other than the renowned Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, where the freshest whale meat can be obtained for the best prices.
12. Fugu (河豚)
Fugu, or the Japanese blowfish, is yet another famous Japanese cuisine that has had its fair share of controversies. With its notorious reputation of poisoning many unsuspecting consumers since time immemorial, this fish has been banned several times in history, and is in fact the only food that the Emperor of Japan is forbidden to eat for fear of his safety.
Nonetheless, in recent times, the Japanese government has put in place strict regulatory laws that allow only chefs who have undergone rigorous training in the preparation of fugu to be licensed. Such chefs, who are required to undergo an apprenticeship period and an official examination process before being licensed, are highly skilled in identifying and removing poisonous organs from the fish, as well as washing the fish thoroughly before cooking it in a proper manner.
For this reason, fugu is considered to be a luxuriously expensive item in the Japanese menu. So, be a daring sport and have a bite of this marvelous fish, but be sure to prepare some extra cash for it, and always remember to only order your fugu from outlets with properly licensed chefs.
13. Nabemono (鍋物)
This dish, which literally means “an object which is a cooking pot” or “things in a cooking pot”, traces its origins to the Chinese hot pot or steamboat. There are many varieties of nabemono available all over Japan, some unique to certain regions and others involving ingredients specific to certain areas only. Nabemono generally features raw ingredients boiled in pots of stew, served particularly during winter when the cold weather makes this dish a heartwarming comfort.
Two of the most famous types of nabemono are sukiyaki and shabu-shabu. Sukiyaki, which almost exclusively uses beef as its primary meat component, typically involves thinly sliced meat, vegetables, mushrooms, tofu and jelly noodles being cooked in a pot of sweet soy sauce stew. Shabu-shabu, although using almost the same ingredients as those of sukiyaki, sometimes utilizes boiling water in place of stew, and requires the cooked ingredients to be eaten with white rice and Japanese black sauce or sesame seed sauce.
14. Yakitori (焼き鳥)
One of the Japanese’s favourite grilled varieties, yakitori is a fairly common delicacy that features several bite-sized pieces of chicken meat or offal skewered on bamboo sticks and grilled over charcoal fire. Yakitori is usually grilled with salt or sauce.
Although chicken meat or parts are typically used, meat and offal of other animals are not uncommon, especially in recent times, and it is also not surprising to see mushrooms, garlic and other plant-based ingredients being used. The best yakitori is judged by how well-cooked it is, as it is common for inexperienced chefs to either undercook or burn the ingredients if not careful.
15. Kabayaki (蒲焼)
Unagi (eel) is widely eaten in Japanese cuisine, either alone or as a component of other dishes. One of the most popular forms of preparing unagi is known as kabayaki, whereby it is cut either at the back or belly, after which its interior is split open into two halves before its internal organs and bones are removed. It is then cut into rectangular fillets and grilled with a mixture of flavourings and sweet soy sauce-base sauces before being served.
While kabayaki usually refers to the preparation of unagi in this manner, this method can also be used in preparing other types of fish, which can then be enjoyed as both a stand-alone dish or as an accompaniment for rice.
16. Yakiniku (焼肉)
This delicious favourite, which literally means “grilled meat”, features bite-sized meat, offal and vegetables grilled over fire, thus giving rise to its alternative name, “Japanese barbecue.” It is sometimes considered by some to be of Korean origin, since it is somewhat adapted from the Korean bulgogi and galbi.
Yakiniku, unlike yakitori and most other grilled varieties in Japanese cuisine, is special in the sense that outlets offering this cuisine often have gridirons and grilling equipment fitted into each table, whereby customers are provided with raw ingredients to be manually grilled for consumption. Many such outlets offer yakiniku as tabehodai, the Japanese all-you-can-eat concept, sometimes even throwing in bottomless beer and other alcoholic drinks as part of the entire set.
17. Teppanyaki (鉄板焼き)
A somewhat Western-influenced style of food preparation in Japanese cuisine, teppanyaki involves the preparation of food atop an iron plate or a flat-surfaced grill. Ingredients used are very varied, ranging from vegetables and poultry to seafood and all sorts of meat. In some places in Japan, wagyu, particularly Kobe beef, is used as one of its feature ingredients. Teppanyaki typically involves the chef cooking the ingredients in front of the customers, sometimes even showcasing unique cooking techniques or special performances for the sake of entertainment.
18. Robatayaki (炉端焼き)
Robatayaki is yet another addition to Japan's abundant varieties of "yaki" (grilled) cuisine. Perhaps somewhat rarer compared to the other "yakis", robatayaki, like many of its other grilled counterparts, also involves grilling over charcoal fire, albeit in a slightly different and much slower manner. This cuisine style traces its origins to the northernmost and coldest Japanese island of Hokkaido, where for centuries long, fishermen have used communal hearths called irori both for cooking and as bulwarks against the harshly cold weather.
In attempting to reproduce this traditional style, robatayaki establishments are arranged in such a way that the grill is centrally placed while customers are seated all around it. A blend of seafood and vegetables is usually the norm for grilling, but it is not uncommon to see other types of food being offered as well.
19. Green Tea (緑茶)
Japanese green tea, which is also commonly known outside Japan by its Japanese names ryokucha or ocha, is so ubiquitous that not drinking it at all whilst in Japan is effectively tantamount to a grave sin. Never mind the fact that you may have tried lots of it in your home country; having a taste of the original in the land of its birth is always the best.
Ryokucha itself has a long list of its different types, classified according to the different methods by which the tea leaves are planted, harvested, processed and prepared, with each type possessing its own distinct fragrance and flavour. It is thus a good idea to pop into a specialized tea shop whilst in Japan, learn about the various types of ryokucha from the dedicated tea merchant, have a tea tasting session where possible, and bring back some packs of tea leaves both as souvenirs and gifts.
20. Japanese Alcohol
Lastly, a trip to Japan would definitely not be complete without at least having a go on the special set of alcoholic beverages the nation has to offer. Most renowned among these are the sake and shochu, each generally containing an approximate alcohol content of 20% and 25% respectively. While sake is made by fermenting rice, shochu is produced from distilling various starch-rich plants, hence giving rise to the different qualities of taste between these two.
Besides these, Japan also specializes in producing its very own beer brands, most notable among them being names such as Asahi, Sapporo and Kirin.
So what are you waiting for? Book a ticket now and be on your way to relish some of the greatest gastronomical delights that the Land of the Rising Sun has to offer!
© 2013 James
James (author) on August 20, 2013:
Thanks janshares! Glad to hear that you like it. Japan does have a lot of delicious cuisine that you should try if you have a chance to go to Japan. One of the reasons why I look forward to going back there again one day is no doubt because of its food.
Janis Leslie Evans from Washington, DC on August 20, 2013:
Wow! This is a fantastic hub. It makes me want to go to Japan to try authentic Japanese cuisine. Great images and descriptions of the food and its history. Well-done, well-written presentation that held my attention. Voted up, useful, and awesome.