Photo:Alkan de Beaumont Chaglar on Flickr

More Than Just Sushi: Japanese Cuisine For Beginners

Many people, when they decide to visit Japan for the first time, cite the culture, the history and the high technology as their primary motivations. However, these days, Japan is attracting an ever-increasing number of culinary thrill-seekers.

For an ardent foodie such as myself, Japan offers an amazing array of edible delights, but then again not everyone has a palate as readily pliable as mine. As the son of an accomplished chef, I’ve always adopted a “try anything once” kind of attitude when it comes to food.

However, not everyone can stomach such unconventional fare as raw jellyfish, grilled eel or squid cured in its own ink. These are all delicious by the way.

For the more delicate tummies out there, here are my top 5 foods for newcomers to Japan, which are a little easier to stomach for western tastes.

1) Yakitori

Photo : Hideya HAMANO on Flickr

Yakitori, or grilled chicken to give it an approximate translation, is one of the most easily accessible and delicious foods in Japan. These little skewers come in a variety of sizes, flavours and textures, and are not limited to just chicken. In particular, I recommend Sasami. Sasami is a very lightly grilled chicken that maintains a white complexion and soft texture. For first timers, Sasami Cheese Yaki, will provide a familiar and delicious experience. Very simply it is chicken with cheese melted over the top, and garnished with some light herbs. The more adventurous among you may also wish to try the Sasami Ume Yaki. This is the same lightly grilled chicken with a sour plum and herb sauce lightly spread on top. It’s a personal favourite of mine. Tsukune is also a must try. These minced chicken meatballs on skewers can be enjoyed either with salt or a sweet sauce garnish. For the more calorie conscious among you, I recommend the salt, however the sauce is undeniably more tasty and distinctly Japanese.

2) Okonomiyaki

Photo : luke chan on Flickr

If you’ve read my previous article about my visit to Hiroshima, then you will already have some idea about my great appreciation for this fine dish. Falling somewhere between an omelette and a pancake in its consistency, okonomiyaki is a firm favourite among Japan’s visitors and locals alike. Like a great many of Japan’s more popular foods it is also subject to variation according to the region you happen to be staying in. Most famous amongst these variants are the Osaka and the Hiroshima style okonmiyaki. Firstly, I must state that both are delicious, and whichever you decide to go for, you’re in for a tasty treat. And it is here however that I must admit to some divided loyalties. Whilst I am a proud resident of Osaka, I have to say that when it comes to okonmiyaki, Hiroshima wins this particular battle. The main difference is in the composition of the okonomiyaki. Whereas in Osaka all the various ingredients are flung together in a mish-mash of noodles, meat, vegetables, eggs and sauce, in Hiroshima the various ingredients are organized into layers. From a connoisseur’s point of view, I find that this layering effect allows one to better sample the individual flavours and consistencies of each ingredient. Going out for okonomiyaki can also be a great cultural experience as some restaurants have special “teppan” hot tables that allow you to make your own okonomiyaki right there on the table. If you’re the type who prefers to be served rather than to serve, a number of restaurants also have a large teppan in their centre, where from the surrounding counters you can sit and watch the chef expertly slice, dice and cook your okonomiyaki right there in front of you.

3) Kaitenzushi

Photo by PYONKO OMEYAMA on Flickr.

Ok, I realize that to many sushi, as it is perceived in the US and Europe may not always be a particularly appetizing concept. “Oh no, I can’t eat raw fish!” is their cry. Well, I can honestly say there is a hell of a lot more to sushi than just raw fish, as a trip to any kaitenzushi restaurant will soon show you. A Japanese staple for decades, these “conveyor belt restaurants” are now also starting to gain a foothold in markets outwith Japan too. In a kaitenzushi restaurant, many of the dishes do not actually contain raw fish. Sushi aficionados can enjoy the delights of such dishes as raw tuna garnished with wasabi mustard and so on. However, for the delicate tummies amongst us there are dishes such as kara-age (fried chicken in batter), grilled salmon sushi and my personal favourite the “Inari Pocket”. This is a block of rice wrapped in a lightly warmed sweet omelette. Many kaitenzushi now also offer a variety of European style desserts such as cheesecake or crepes as well.

4) Yakiniku

Photo : Ken Lee on Flickr

Although this style of “barbecued meat” restaurant actually finds its origins in South Korea, a regular outing to the yakiniku restaurant has become something of a staple to many families and companies in Japan down the years. The gimmick here lies in being able to cook your meats yourself at the massive open fire in the centre of your table. I’ve often joked to my Japanese friends that the chef at a yakiniku restaurant must have the easiest job in the world. All he has to do is simply slice up tray after tray of raw meat and vegetables and make it look presentable. At yakiniku, the customer becomes the chef.

Much like a yakitori restaurant, the menu to be found in most yakiniku places allows you to be as conservative or as adventurous as you like. The trusty old chicken, beef and pork cuts sit alongside the more extravagant ox tongue, beef liver and even horse meat. If you’re brave enough, I highly recommend giving horse a try. Not only is it more flavourful than other red meats, it’s actually healthier too.

5) Gyudon

Photo : Hajime NAKANO on Flickr

The old adage says that a cup of coffee is what gets the world off to work in the morning, but in Japan it is undoubtedly the humble gyudon restaurant that keeps everyone working. With flexible opening hours and food that is as delicious as it is cheap, nothing beats a good old “beef bowl” when you want something fast and filling.

Restaurant chains such as Yoshinoya, Matsuya and Sukiya can be found all over Japan and increasingly in other territories too. The beauty of Gyudon lies in its simplicity. It is merely a bowl of white rice topped with shredded beef and onions. For garnish one can add a bid of soy sauce or pickled ginger which is usually readily available at no extra charge. If available I also recommend adding a little Kimchi (Korean spicy pickled cabbage) to the mix, just to give your succulent beef a little extra kick.

These are but a few of the amazing variety of foods and drinks that Japan has to offer. They are both simple and delicious. Hopefully after reading this article you’ll be as hungry as I now feel having written it.

Bon Appetit, or as we say in Japan “Idatakimasu!”

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