With a capital that has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, Japan’s culinary prowess is certainly no secret. Not only does Japanese cuisine feature a bounty of unique, innovative flavors and cooking techniques, but the dishes arrive at your table with such artful presentation that mealtime is as much a feast for your eyes as it is for your taste buds.
Here are some suggestions for enjoying a mix of haute cuisine and street fare on your next adventure to Japan:
Japan loves its noodles. They’re tasty, inexpensive, and you can find them everywhere. On top of that, you can order them to match the season! They’re often served cold in the summer months, while in winter it’s common to find them swimming in a rich broth and topped with scallions, veggies, or tofu. Common noodle varieties include soba, made with buckwheat flour, and udon, made with wheat flour.
These round, fritter-like morsels got their start in the food market stalls of Osaka, and today they are among Japan’s best-known street foods. Also called Octopus Balls, they consist pieces of octopus coated in a flour batter and cooked on a special molded griddle. You can still buy them on the streets from local vendors, but you can also find some inventive varieties—as well as more traditional versions—in sit-down restaurants.
Considered the ultimate Japanese comfort food, donburi is a rice bowl dish topped with eggs, meat, and veggies. It’s a delicious, inexpensive staple of street food markets across the country.
Okonomiyaki is a savory cabbage pancake whose name translates roughly to “grilled as you like it.” Ingredients vary widely across regions and include such common fillings as pork belly, seafood (octopus, squid, and shrimp), veggies, and cheese. Top yours with sweet sauce, mayo, powdered dried seaweed, or dried fish flakes and you’re good to go!
Green tea products
One of the great aspects of Japanese food culture is its ability to inject new life—and flavors—into popular worldwide products. Ubiquitous across the country, green tea features in such treats as ice cream, cookies, Coca-Cola, and Kit Kats. (You can also find the latter in soy sauce, banana, and ginger ale flavors.)
It doesn’t get much better than chicken skewers grilled over charcoal, especially when they’re salted or served with a sweet soy sauce. These are another fantastic offering of many food market stalls.
Introduced to the country over 2,000 years ago, mochi is now an important part of Japanese cuisine. These chewy buns are made from boiled and mashed sticky rice and are frequently enjoyed during the Japanese New Year. Mochi has become so popular that it exists as much more than just a sweet snack. You can find it grilled, doused in soy sauce, and wrapped in seaweed. It can also be added to soups, wrapped in bacon, or used as a topping on potato gratin.
Teppanyaki is a selection of meat, seafood, and veggies prepared on a flat griddle in a Japanese steakhouse (think Benihana). This type of interactive environment creates for travelers a fun, social, cultural dining experience.
Sushi is everywhere, and the varieties are seemingly endless. Common kinds include nagiri (usually raw fish on top of sushi rice), sashimi (raw fish or shellfish on its own), and maki (rice and other ingredients wrapped in seaweed). Wasabi and soy sauce are popular condiments.
A kaiseki is a traditional multi-course meal with an emphasis on pristine presentation. Though it comes with a high price tag, this set-menu dining experience is the perfect introduction to Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques. In the gourmet world, many view kaiseki as an art form.
Japanese Dining Etiquette
For your trip to Japan, it’s good to remember a few helpful etiquette points:
- The Japanese generally don’t eat while on the go.
- It’s considered rude to blow your nose inside a restaurant.
- Don’t eat small bites of your sushi; each piece is meant to be eaten in one bite with chopsticks.
- It’s perfectly okay to completely clean your plate.
- You can use a toothpick in a restaurant, but you should cover your mouth.
- When eating noodles in broth, slurping is a compliment.