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An overview of Japanese cuisine

by Samantha Fergusson

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Japanese cuisine is one of the most popular in the world, with sushi restaurants and ramen bars found in airport lounges, shopping malls and high-end dining vicinities (to name but a few) all over the globe. Delicious, light, and generally pretty healthy, it appeals to many cultures beyond Japan’s borders.

Tokyo restaurant

Naturally, one of the draws behind travelling to Japan is its incredible food. But why is it so special? It may be something to do with the balance that can be found in most traditional Japanese cooking (washoku). Dishes are created adhering to “the rules of five” - even though these rules aren’t necessarily quoted by Japanese cooks, nor are their roots traceable, they are so ingrained into Japanese culture that it is unusual to find them missing from a Japanese table. These pertain to colours - black, white, yellow, red and green - the five senses - sight (evidential in the importance of colour), smell, touch, sound and taste - the five flavours - salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami - and finally the five ways of preparing food - raw, boiled, fried, steamed and roasted / grilled.

Yakitori grill

Whatever your tastes, you are likely to find something that appeals from the range of cuisine available in Japan. If you’re a real foodie, you can even take a tailor-made holiday that revolves around the delicious dishes available - our local experts have put together a culinary tour that explores everything from the restaurants and markets of Tokyo to the very best of traditional home cooking.

Planting a rice paddy by Mount Fuji

In the meantime, to get your mouth watering and your imagination whirring, we’ve gathered some of the main dishes that you are likely to come across on your travels to Japan.

Sushi

Born from the process of preserving fish in fermented rice, sushi is without a doubt the most famous food to come from Japan. These days, it is most commonly made from fish with vinegared rice and comes in a wide range of shapes and sizes, be that slices of tuna laid on top of rice to delicious little parcels of seafood, vegetables, rice and seaweed.

Rustic sushi Okinawa, Japan

There are over 5,000 sushi restaurants in Tokyo alone (swamping the 500 McDonald’s outlets) which should give you a good idea how intrinsic this dish is to the Japanese diet. Sushi restaurants come in two styles: most are like a normal restaurant with table service and the chef is behind a bar with their prep work on display, the other is kaiten where the sushi appears on a conveyor belt. Kaiten is a less common format and is generally for cheaper, high volume establishments.

Sushi being prepared in Tokyo restaurant

If you are looking for a good place to sample sushi in its homeland, then look no further than the city of Tokyo where it first originated - Tsugu Shushimasa is a highly recommended restaurant, as are Irifune and Ichibancho Teruya, but there are hundreds (nay thousands!) more to choose from and it always pays to be adventurous in Japan.

Sushi street food

Sashimi

If you love your fish and are not afraid to try it raw, then let sashimi lead you on a delightful discovery of the delicate flavours that can be enjoyed simply by not cooking meat. While fish or general seafood is the most common delicacy to be found in sashimi restaurants, it’s not unheard of for beef (particularly wagyu) or even horse to be prepared in the sashimi way.

Crab Sashimi

Skilled chefs train for years to learn the multiple ways that the produce can be sliced and prepared to offer maximum enjoyment. Naturally the sashimi has to be incredibly fresh and some restaurants even keep fish in tanks on site so that they are killed only moments before preparation. If you want to sample some sashimi, then head to Uosho Ginpei in the Ginza district of Tokyo, or Kanae in the Shinjuku ward where the sake menu is as impressive as the food offering.

Sashimi preparation

Tsukemono (pickles)

Tsukemono essentially translates as “pickled things” and you will definitely come across them in Japanese cuisine. They have been used in Japanese cooking for centuries, usually to balance a dish in terms of flavour but also to give a dish an all-important splash of colour. Tonkatsu (a curry with fried, bread-crumbed pork) and other fried dishes are usually accompanied by pickled daikon radish or yuzu (similar to pickled lemon) in order to compensate for the grease, whereas sushi is usually served with gari (pickled ginger) as a palate cleanser. You may also come across umeboshi (pickled plums) in your travels, though these have a strong flavour so are usually served as a central feature, rather than an accompaniment.

Tsukemono cucumber

Tempura

Crisp and mouth-wateringly delicious, a wide range of ingredients can be used to make tempura, with morsels ranging from seafood to courgettes and pumpkins. There’s an art to making the perfect tempura dish - one factor is that the batter must be incredibly cold and the oil sufficiently hot, and the other is that the dipping sauce must be divine. Each restaurant tends to have their own special recipe for dipping sauce, and their reputations can be built on having the best sauce in town. For example, a particularly good restaurant in Kyoto is the Yoshikawa Tempura Inn, and they are known for having exceptionally delicious dipping sauce...

Tempura morsels in Japan

Sukiyaki

This dish of beef, tofu and vegetables all cooked in a shallow iron pot with a soy sauce broth is truly a delight. It was all the rage when the ban on eating meat (which had been in existence for hundreds of years) was lifted during the Meiji period and is one of the best ways to enjoy Japan’s world-famous Wagyu beef.

Sukiyaki bowl in Japan

Yakitori

A meaty morsel, yakitori is bite-size pieces of chicken threaded onto a skewer and grilled. The Japanese culture is generally adverse to wasting food, and so every bit of the chicken is used in this dish, from the heart and liver to tendons and even the comb. You can choose to exclude offal and offcuts if you prefer by asking your server to exclude naizo (inner parts) and specifying that you prefer momo (thigh), teba (wing) and perhaps tsukune (a chicken meatball).

yakitori chicken skewers, Japan

While it is considered a traditional dish and was eaten sparingly throughout Japanese history, yakitori has only been widely consumed since the Meiji Restoration when European influences encouraged the Japanese to eat more meat. Now you can find it in many a restaurant, where it is usually served with a kind of tare (sauce) or salt. Different cuts of meat often suit a different seasoning and if you are unsure what to choose, then ask your server who will usually be happy to share their thoughts.

Japanese food stall

Miso

The thought of fermented food is often not an appetising one - very few people fancy trying the Scandinavian fermented fish or mare’s milk in Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia. Miso is a whole other story. Made from soya beans fermented with salt and the fungus kōji, the broth-like soup has a deep umami flavour which leaves you feeling truly satisfied on finishing a bowl. It is commonly served with cubes of soft tofu and a sprinkling of spring onions or chives, but can have all sorts of ingredients such as clams, fish or meats depending on the season and where you are trying it.

Miso soup with tofu

Udon

Udon is a thick, bold, chewy noodle made from wheat flour. It’s cheap, delicious and versatile so can suit all palates making it incredibly popular all across Japan and much of the western world. It can be eaten cold or hot, and can be customised with any number of toppings and served either in a broth or alongside a dipping sauce. Zaru Udon, for example, is served cold on a bamboo mat and you dip the noodles into a tasty sauce before eating. Kake Udon (aka Su Udon in the Kansai region), however, is a simple, tasty dish where the noodles are served hot, sprinkled with spring onions and covered in a broth.

Udon noodles

As well as being made in many different recipes (with tempura, tofu and even raw eggs thrown into the mix), there are also numerous varieties of the noodle itself, usually specific to different regions. The sanuki udon is the variety that you are most likely to have come across. Originating in the Kagawa Prefecture, the noodles are fat, firm and chewy and very different from the udon found in other areas of Japan. The inaniwa idon of the Akita Prefecture is made by hand - the process taking multiple days - and the resulting noodle is thinner than the norm with a silky texture; hoto noodles originated on the Yamanashi Prefecture and are flatter and wider than regular udon, usually served with seasonal vegetables in miso soup... The list goes on. You can find udon in restaurants all over Japan, and it is worth trying them wherever you go if you are interested in the various recipes.

Hiyashi Tanuki Udon noodles

Soba

Soba is another noodle dish that has been eaten in Japan for many hundreds of years. Like udon, it can be eaten with dipping sauce or in a broth, but the noodles are a lot slimmer and generally a little healthier than their udon counterparts. To a westerner, they look similar to spaghetti, however they are a slightly different colour and have a gentle nutty flavour due to being made from buckwheat flour rather than wheat. Tokyo is arguably home to some of the best restaurants in which to enjoy soba, whether that’s hot in a broth (kake soba) or cold with a dipping sauce (zaru / seiro soba). Head to Soba Bar & AN in the Akasaka district, or Edo Soba Teuchidokoro Asada in Akihabara where the tempura accompaniment is truly divine.

Soba noodles, Japan

Ramen

A noodle soup originally imported from China, ramen is now popular all across Japan and much of the rest of the world. Ramen dishes are inexpensive and widely available, making them ideal for travellers visiting Japan on a bit of a budget. They are named usually according to their soup base (though you can find ramen called tsukemen where the noodles are served separately) - shoyu ramen is with a brown soup made from chicken broth flavoured with soy sauce; shio ramen is commonly made with a clear chicken broth flavoured with salt; miso ramen soup can be found in the north of Japan in Hokkaido and has the distinct soy bean flavour associated with miso soup.

Ramen at market in Tokyo

Our local expert’s favourite ramen (they highly recommend you try it!) is tonkotsu, which is made with a broth of boiled pork bones. It hails from Fukuoka in Kyushu and is very popular in Japan, so can easily be found in other cities. Another recommendation is Afuri in Ebisu, Tokyo, which is located very handily next to Ebisu station - perfect to return to after a day trip to Yokohama or Kamakura.

Noodle dish being prepared in Japan

Gohei Mochi

Another favourite treat of our local partner in Japan is gohei mochi, a snack made of pounded rice squashed into a patty which is then coated in a sweet, salty glaze before being grilled. It’s a speciality of the Kiso Valley and Ina areas of southern Nagano and is traditionally offered at shrines in spring and autumn to pray for a good harvest. If you are travelling to the area, you should definitely give it a try.

Gohei Mochi

Kaiseki

Kaiseki is true Japanese fine dining; a flurry of small dishes inspired by the season and cooked with the utmost precision and attention to detail. It was inspired by the ancient tea ceremony, where little morsels of food were offered alongside the bitter cups of green tea. The tradition has now evolved into the best of haute cuisine and can be found all over Japan, though the best examples are in the restaurants of Kyoto. Head to En, an exclusive restaurant with just seven covers located in front of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. If you can get a seat it is one of the best places to try kaiseki - Chef Takei Suzuki is famed across Japan for his imagination when it comes to modernising traditional cuisine with ingredients like fois gras.

Kaiseki fine dining in Japan

Rice

Finally, how can you talk about Japanese food without mentioning one of their most historic ingredients - rice. It is the single most common thing that you will eat on your travels around Japan, and you will see some spectacular views of immaculate rice paddies once you have left the cities for the countryside.

Rice paddies at sunset in Japan

On the whole, Japanese rice is different to rice from other countries, as it is stickier in order to me more chopstick friendly (even those of you who are chopstick novices will manage to pick up a reasonable mouthful). Live like a local and grab a bento box before boarding the Shinkansen - a form of prepared lunch that is typically rice with various accompaniments.

Bento Box, Japan

Another easy way to fill up on the go is to stop off somewhere that serves rice bowls (we recommend Yoshinoya for those travelling on a budget). Rice bowls come in all sorts of varieties, whether you fancy your rice with chicken and eggs in dashi sauce (oyakodon), freshwater eel with sweet sauce (anagodon), or sauteed beef in a sweet umami sauce (gyuudon)... the options continue.   

Dietary requirements in Japan

Japanese food really does have something for everyone, however it is worth talking to our local experts if you have any specific dietary requirements. Vegetarians who don’t mind eating food made with a fish-based stock should be fine, but strict vegetarians may struggle and vegans will face limited options. Dashi, a stock made from fish, is used in most soups and broths which are often the base for other dishes. Celiac travellers may also find eating in Japan a challenge as there are trace levels of gluten in miso and soy sauce, both of which are extensively used in Japanese cooking.

Authentic sushi in Kyoto restaurant

When you book your holiday, you should let our local experts in Japan know about any dietary requirements and they can look into the best accommodation for you, as traditional inns (particularly those that are family owned) often don’t understand or cater to them.

Make it happen

If you are interested in planning a trip to Japan to sample their culinary delights, then get in touch with our local experts who can plan your perfect tailor-made holiday. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.

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