Japanese Food Guide: What to Eat in Japan
Japanese cuisine is renowned worldwide for its delicate flavors, artful presentation, and diverse range of ingredients. From savory noodles to fresh seafood and delightful street snacks, Japan offers a gastronomic adventure like no other. Here’s a guide of the must-try dishes and snacks during your next stay in Japan.
Noodles are a staple in Japanese cuisine, and you'll find various types that satisfy every craving and preference.
Ramen: Indulge in a steaming bowl of ramen, featuring chewy wheat noodles swimming in a flavorful broth, accompanied by tender slices of pork, marinated eggs, and an array of toppings. From rich and creamy tonkotsu ramen to spicy miso or soy-based broths, each region has its unique take on this beloved comfort food.
Soba: Made from buckwheat flour, soba noodles offer a nutty flavor and a delicate texture. Enjoy them chilled with a dipping sauce or in a warm broth with toppings like tempura or green onions. Soba is a popular choice, especially during the hot summer months.
Udon: These thick, chewy wheat noodles are often served in a soy-based broth, accompanied by toppings such as tempura, green onions, and grated daikon. Udon is known for its heartiness and comforting appeal, making it a popular choice in colder seasons.
No visit to Japan is complete without indulging in sushi and sashimi, which showcase the pristine flavors of fresh seafood. Sushi is a type of roll made with the freshest ingredients, including raw fish, seaweed, vinegared rice, and various vegetables. Sashimi, on the other hand, is thinly sliced pieces of raw fish or seafood served with condiments. My favorite way to eat it is going to an Omakase restaurant where the chef selects and prepares dishes for you. Here are just a few types of seafood you need to try:
Fugu: This pufferfish is a delicacy in Japan, and it can only be prepared by specially-trained chefs. Fugu has an unmistakable flavor and its mild texture melts in your mouth.
Uni: Also known as sea urchin, uni is a bright yellow-orange seafood delic by many. Its firm and sweet taste offers a unique flavor you won’t find elsewhere.
Sake: Japanese for salmon, sake has a delicate, buttery texture and a mild, slightly salty flavor. It’s often served as sashimi or sushi.
Toro: This fatty cut of tuna is slightly sweet and creamy, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture.
Hotate: Japanese scallop is one of the most popular types of sushi in Japan. Its juicy, sweet flavor perfectly complements the crispness of the vinegared rice.
Aji: An often overlooked species, aji is a type of white-fleshed fish with a mild flavor and delicate texture. It's usually served as sashimi or sushi, but can also be grilled or deep-fried.
Buri: Another type of white-fleshed fish, buri is known for its firm texture and slightly sweet flavor.
Ika: Ika, or squid, is a popular and versatile seafood in Japan. It’s often served as sashimi, sushi, tempura, or grilled. Its mild flavor and slightly crunchy texture make it a great choice for those who are unfamiliar with seafood.
Saba: Saba, also known as mackerel, is a popular and affordable type of fish in Japan. Its strong flavor pairs well with other ingredients and its firm texture makes it an ideal choice for sashimi
Tempura is a culinary delight consisting of lightly battered and deep-fried seafood, vegetables, or even sweets. Shrimp Tempura is what most people are familiar with, but feel free to get creative and try eggplant Tempura, sweet potato Tempura, or even mochi Tempura. Enjoy your tempura with a light dipping sauce or salt for extra flavor.
Tonkatsu is a Japanese-style breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet, a beloved comfort food. Its crunchy exterior and juicy interior makes it the perfect accompaniment to a bowl of steaming hot rice. I like pork tonkatsu the best, but they have other variations such as chicken and fish, and also beef which has been gaining in popularity.
Okonomiyaki is a savory pancake made with a batter of flour, grated yam, cabbage, and a variety of toppings. It’s usually cooked on a hot plate or griddle, and the finished product is crisp on the outside with a soft and savory interior. You can customize your okonomiyaki with whatever toppings you prefer, such as pork belly, shrimp, squid, or cheese.
Yakitori refers to skewered and grilled chicken, often enjoyed as a bar snack with friends and a refreshing beverage. Choose from giblets, wings, skin, hearts, and other parts of the chicken that are marinated in a savory teriyaki sauce, then lightly grilled. It may sound simple, but the flavors are out of this world!
Shabu Shabu is a communal hot pot dish where thin slices of meat and vegetables are swished in a bubbling broth. The ingredients are cooked in the broth, then enjoyed with a variety of dipping sauces. It’s an interactive and delicious experience perfect for sharing with friends and family.
Karaage is the Japanese version of crispy fried chicken, often marinated in soy sauce, ginger, and garlic before frying. The coating is light and delicate, and the inside remains tender and juicy. This simple yet delicious dish makes for a great side or snack.
Onigiri, or rice balls, are a popular grab-and-go snack made by shaping rice into triangles or balls and filling them with various ingredients. Common fillings include tuna mayo, salmon flakes, ume (pickled plum), or mentaiko (spicy cod roe). Enjoy your onigiri plain or add a sprinkle of furikake (rice seasoning) for extra flavor. This was one of my favorite on-the-go snacks during my travels in Japan, and I would get them at convenience stores like 7-11 and Family Mart.
Miso soup is a staple of Japanese cuisine, typically made with fermented soybean paste, dashi broth, and various ingredients like tofu, seaweed, or green onions. It’s light yet flavorful, and a great way to start a meal. Many Japanese dieticians actually recommend miso soup as part of a healthy diet due to its many health benefits.
Mochi is a traditional Japanese rice cake made from pounded sticky rice, offering a delightfully chewy texture. It’s often eaten as a dessert, and you can find it in various shapes and flavors. Try some sweet mochi filled with red bean paste, matcha, or chestnut.
Taiyaki is a fish-shaped pastry filled with sweet red bean paste, custard, or other delicious fillings. It’s usually enjoyed as a snack or dessert and is often sold at festivals or on the streets by vendors. Its unique shape and flavor make it a popular choice among locals and tourists alike.
Wagyu, or literally "Japanese cow," is a breed of cattle native to Japan and renowned for its high-quality beef. Known for its intense marbling, wagyu beef delivers a tender, buttery texture and a flavor that is both rich and savory. The fat in wagyu beef is evenly dispersed throughout the meat, contributing to the melt-in-your-mouth sensation that it's famous for. There are four types of wagyu cattle, with Kobe beef being the most famous. However, Matsusaka and Ohmi beef are also high-quality variations. Whether you're indulging in a wagyu steak or trying wagyu sushi, this beef is a must-try for any foodie visiting Japan.
There are plenty of places that serve wagyu, but my favorite place to eat it is at Wagyu Mafia. It used to be (and still is) an exclusive members-only restaurant that serves up some of the best Wagyu beef dishes you can ever imagine, and it recently opened 10 first come first serve seats. Known for their famous Wagyu Katsu Sandwich, which by the way, is as delightful as it sounds, this place is a true paradise for Wagyu lovers. The experience is centered around showcasing the beauty of Japanese beef in various creative ways. So, if you ever get the chance to visit, it's an opportunity you won't want to miss!
Japanese cuisine is a tapestry of flavors, textures, and culinary artistry that will leave you in awe. From the comforting bowls of noodles and the delicate artistry of sushi to the adventurous experience of fugu and the crispy indulgence of tempura, there is something for everyone to savor in Japan. So, embrace your inner foodie, explore the diverse culinary landscape, and let the exquisite tastes of Japan transport you on a gastronomic journey like no other. Enjoy every bite, and be prepared to create lasting memories of incredible flavors and food adventures. Itadakimasu!