10 Foods You Have to Try When You’re in Japan
As well as anime, manga, video games, the latest technology and some of the best public transport in the world, Japan is home to some delicious foods, snacks and desserts that you can’t get anywhere else. Outside Tokyo, access to western foods such as breads, cheeses and red meats can be difficult and expensive, so it only makes sense to expand your palate and explore what the land of the rising sun has to offer. Here are ten delicious dishes and snacks you can get in most restaurants or convenience stores in Japan.
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Firstly, onigiri. Onigiri is a ball of rice stuffed with different fillings and wrapped with nori, or flat seaweed. They are available in Japan’s many convenience stores, and also in some vendors made freshly for take-out. They’re perfect for a small snack, and only cost between 90 and 120 yen.
Onigiri comes in many flavours; traditionally, sour or salty ingredients such as pickled ume, or salmon. Today, there are many more flavours, including tuna mayonnaise, nattō, chicken mayonnaise, or other kinds of fish. They can come in a triangular shape or a sphere shape, and sometimes they come wrapped in nori, sometimes they don’t. There are many kinds of onigiri to try, and are a great thing to pick up as you’re walking around in Japan, as a yummy snack between meals.
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A nikuman is another delicious snack that you can pick up at most convenience stores, and are great on a cold day. Niku literally means meat. A nikuman is a steamed bun stuffed with pork, perfect for a small breakfast or a snack in winter. Sometimes at festivals, bigger, fresher versions of nikuman are available to buy and feast on.
There’s also anman, which is the same thing except stuffed with red bean paste, and is sold as a dessert. There are other flavours also available, but nikuman remains the most popular.
Photo : Hajime NAKANO on Flickr
Of course, you can’t go to Japan without trying the world-famous sushi. Sushi comes in many different varieties, shapes and flavours. You can get sushi in many restaurants, including restaurants that specialise in sushi such as Hamazushi, a ‘conveyer belt’ restaurant, or simply packaged and sold in convenience stores.
Sushi has been around in Japan for many years, and comes in so many flavours that it would be impossible to try them all in one trip.
Photo : Zanpei on Flickr
Ramen is a very filling dish made with thin noodles that are excellent as a hearty meal in winter time. Ramen, like sushi, comes in a huge variety of flavours. On a typical ramen dish, the noodles are at the bottom of the bowl, with broth added. Added to the dish are different kinds of vegetables, slices of meat, such as pork, sliced boiled egg, seaweed, spices and sauce. The four main categories of ramen are shoyu (soy sauce), miso (bean paste), tonkotsu (pork) and shio (salt). Tonkotsu is my personal favourite, as it gives that meaty and slightly salty taste, but all are delicious. Typically, a bowl of ramen is large and extremely filling, so it might be a good idea to share between two people.
There are many speciality shops on street corners that exclusively sell ramen dishes. These generally offer fresher, better ramen than bigger restaurants.
Photo : Hiroyuki Takeda on Flickr
Udon is similar to ramen, except the noodles are much thicker, and hence more filling. Udon dishes are very different to ramen dishes, in what is added to them. Udon can be served in its simplest form – as a hot soup, kake udon where the noodles are the main part of the dish. Udon can also some in a variety of hot and cold dishes with various toppings, such as tempura, vegetables and broths. Udon is sometimes also served as a side on its own. A simple and cheap dish, perfect for a snack or as part of a main meal.
There are also fun opportunities in some parts of Japan to help make fresh udon noodles, by rolling a wheat flour based dough and cutting it thickly before boiling.
6. Maguro Bowl
Photo: Kanko on Flickr
Maguro is the Japanese word for sashimi-grade tuna, i.e. raw and sliced, very different to grey tinned tuna we mostly eat in the west. It’s delicious in this simple maguro rice bowl dish, also sometimes called Tekka Don.
There was a fantastic restaurant in Ueno, Tokyo that served a maguro bowl. Japanese rice is light and slightly sticky, and the subtle taste of thickly-sliced sashimi tuna complimented it very well. This cold dish is perfect for lunch in the summer, and definitely worth a try during your stay.
Photo : OiMax on Flickr
Tempura is a guilty fast food that’s extremely naughty and delicious. Tempura is anything, such as eggplant, asparagus, prawns or fish, battered and deep fried until crispy and light, and extremely yummy. There is a restaurant called Tendon where you can buy tempura bowls – types of tempura of your choice on top of a bowl of rice and drizzled with Tendon’s special sauce. Beware, though, this dish is fatty and certainly not one of Japan’s famous ‘healthier’ dishes. However, it’s great as a treat now and then. Fresh tempura is best, so make sure you eat it inside the restaurant if you can, rather than taking it home (as it can get a little soggy). Most popular tempura types include pumpkin, prawn and mushroom, and you can get it on its own, with a bowl or even inside soup, or broth dishes like udon.
You can even get tempura ice cream or other deep-fried desserts. Click here for more delicious Japanese sweets and desserts.
Takoyaki is another fast food snack, particularly popular in Osaka. It consists of doughy balls with part of an octopus tentacle inside them. They’re chewy, fatty, and fantastic with Japanese Worcester-style sauce and mayonnaise. Octopus may look strange, but it goes well inside takoyaki (tako literally means octopus, and yaki means fried).
Takoyaki can be purchased in street vendors (usually in Osaka and the surrounding areas), some restaurants, and bars that serve food. It’s been named a ‘street food’, and it’s not uncommon to see people eating it whilst walking.
Okonomiyaki is possibly one of my favourite Japanese dishes, and it’s easy to make at home too. Okonomi literally means “whatever you like/want”. Okonomiyaki is a fried Japanese pancake with a variety of fillings and toppings. At most restaurants serving it, the customer fries it themselves, and orders the fillings of their choice. Varieties of okonomiyaki differ around regions and cities of Japan.
The pancake itself is made of egg, chopped yam, shredded cabbage and water. Possible fillings include vegetables, meat, fish and prawns.
At okonomiyaki restaurants, you are guarenteed to walk out full and satisfied. Your group shares the food that you cook together, making it a very social outing. Best of all, you can add whatever you want to the dish, so that every time you eat it, it’s different. Japanese Worcester sauce and mayonnaise is also available to add on top. Definitely try this when you’re out on a group meal for delicious quality time.
Soba is delicious to eat in summer. It includes cold soba (buckwheat) noodles that you dip into a special sauce with spring onions; it’s common to pour most of the noodles into the sauce and eat it as a cold broth. This dish, called zarusoba, is usually served in a basket. You can buy this dish all year round, but is most popular in the humid summer months.
These 10 Japanese foods are readily available in most parts of Japan, and are definitely worth a try, as they’re best fresh and authentic. Grab your chopsticks and tuck in!