Ultimate Guide to Japanese Food

Looking to brush up on your Japanese food knowledge before that trip? Or perhaps you had something he other night but don’t remember what its called, well feel free to take a look below and see if anything tickles your fancy. Wherever you are in the world you can always learn a lot about a culture through their food.

No matter how much you attempt, it will take a lifetime to truly understand Japanese food and all it has to offer. Anthony Bourdain once said, “the history of the world is on your plate”. If there was any way you wanted to get a crash course in Japanese culture, eat up.

Sushi

When you think about Japanese food, Sushi is probably the first thing that comes to mind. Back in the day, you could only find Sushi in fine dining Japanese restaurants but it is now available everywhere; from more casual restaurants and even supermarkets. Understanding the different types of Sushi can be a little confusing at first, and you may find that tend to order based on pictures or opt for a set meal option. The below covers all the different types of Sushi available to you.

Sashimi

Sushi without rice; Sashimi consists of slices of raw fish cut with precision. In Japan, there is a knife for every task, and Sashimi is no exception. Good quality Sashimi melts in your mouth.

The most common Sashimi you will find is Salmon or Tuna. In fine dining restaurants. In Japan, you’ll have the option to choose from different parts of the fish, with the belly being the most expensive. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even try Octopus or the poisonous Fugu fish.

Nigiri

Nigiri is similar to Sashimi but with the added element of the rice. The fish is actually cut differently and is usually half the amount of what you get with a cut piece of Sashimi. Nigiri is the most common Sushi available at supermarkets and casual restaurants. To truly enjoy Nigiri, the rice should be warm and the fish freshly cut, only add a small amount of Wasabi to the fish portion. When dipping in soy sauce, only dip it slightly on the fish side, do not dunk or drown the Sushi!

Temaki

Temaki rolls are Japanese seaweed (Nori) wrapped around rice in the shape of an ice cream cone. Temaki feature a range of raw fish and vegetables as fillings. Easy to eat and convenient for those on the go or commuting. Of course in Japan, it is frowned upon to eat on the train.

Chirashizushi

Also known as ‘scattered Sushi’, Chirashi Sushi is a bowl of rice with pieces of raw fish on top. The pieces used are the offcuts from the preparation of Nigiri or Sashimi and can vary in quality. However, it is much better value for money and can be quite filling.

People in Japan normally add Wasabi into the bowl with a bit of soy sauce and then stir it around for a more casual meal. There are also fine-dining versions where you are likely to get better quality fish and preparation overall.

Hosomaki

A supermarket regular, this type of Sushi is filled with one ingredient such as cucumber, avocado or salmon. It is made by placing rice and an ingredient in the middle of dry seaweed (nori), then rolled up and cut into pieces. A great quick snack and starter before a meal. Another thrifty sushi meal and one of the most common types of Sushi made at home using the bamboo mat.

Futomaki

Futomaki is what you picture when Sushi is mentioned. The same as Hosomaki but much thicker as it contains more ingredients. This type of Sushi comes in special rolls like Dragon Rolls, which contain slices of fish or avocado placed on top or even substituted for the nori wrap. Futomaki can be made at home using the bamboo matt and is great to experiment with lots of different variations.

Uramaki

Also knows as inside-out rolls because the rice is formed on the outside and the nori inside. Uramaki became famous outside of Japan because it was seen as more familiar to bite into rice than into seaweed. Generally filled with similar ingredients as Futomaki and Hosomaki but with the bonus of sesame seeds on the outside which adds depth to the taste. Size-wise, it’s not as big as a Futomaki and not as small as a Hosomaki — somewhere in the middle.

Onigiri

One of the best snacks that you can get in Japan, the Onigiri (おにぎり/rice ball). Found in all supermarkets across Japan. Made up of a ball of rice wrapped with dry seaweed (Nori) in a triangular shape. Within the rice ball, you will find not just raw fish but also cooked meat like chicken and pork. Commonly given to kids for school lunches in Japan and a great snack. Easy to make at home and because it doesn’t require raw fish or even a bamboo mat, can be made with basic ingredients akin to an omelette.

Gunkanmaki

Also known as the ‘battleship’ roll. You won’t normally see this type of Sushi outside of Japan. Gunkanmaki is a type of Sushi that consists of rice with a strip of seaweed wrapped around but with extra nori to hold soft, loose or finely chopped ingredients. Common ingredients are fish roe, nattō or Uni, all which you either love or hate.

Sasamaki

A rare type of Sushi, Sasamaki is Japanese rice wrapped in tied bamboo leaves using the same thread used in bamboo mats. The leaves are tied to preserve the Sasamaki during periods of high humidity, and the rice can be seasoned with soy sauce or a simple ingredient, to add taste. Available in supermarkets all over Japan but is best enjoyed in the countryside with locally sourced ingredients.

Oshizushi

A type of Sushi normally found in the Kansai region of Japan, around Osaka. Oshizushi contains cooked or cured fish and never raw fish. The fish and rice are pressed and formed in a wooden block mould called an Oshibako. The resulting mould is then taken out and sliced into compact bite-size pieces. Also known as Hako Zushi, which means ‘box Sushi’. If you’re ever visiting Osaka, this is a must-try local delicacy.

Fugu

Fugu is the illustrious and daring poisonous bloated spikey fish served in Japan. You might recall The Simpsons episode where Homer eats Fugu for the first time and thinks he’s been poisoned. Fugu is prepared by skilled Sushi chefs who spend years training to be able to remove, delicately, the poisonous parts of the fish.

Fugu is one of the few dishes which the Emperor of Japan is prohibited from eating. When cut correctly, it tastes incredible and is served at more fine dining restaurants in Japan. Not recommended to consume outside of Japan because the level of skill that is needed to prepare is quite hard to find.

Rice Dishes

Rice is the staple food of Japanese cuisine. You’ll find it in Sushi and paired with countless dishes. Rice was used as a form of currency before the introduction of gold. Feudal lords and families that owned rice granaries or rice farms in Japan were considered very wealthy, highlighting the integral role that rice played in Japan’s history and how ingrained (pun intended) it is in their culture.

Japanese Curry

Anyone who’s tried Japanese food has tasted Japanese curry, a well-loved dish that resembles gravy poured over the rice. Curry was introduced to Japan during the Meiji restoration when trading with Britain over goods from India. It was only after curry was served in the Japanese Navy & Army in the 20th Century that curry became a nationwide meal and eventually served in every school cafeteria in the country.

Today curry is consumed in Japan more than Sushi. Curry stew made in Japan comes with all kinds of meat, but outside of Japan it’s most commonly paired with deep-fried breaded Chicken Katsu. Other variations in Japan feature thin slices of beef with potatoes and carrot with rice.

Donburi

Another Japanese favourite enjoyed all over the world, Donburi is a rice bowl dish containing either fish, chicken or beef along with vegetables, or if you’re feeling adventurous- Unagi (eel). Donburi sauces vary according to the season, ingredients, region, and taste. Most sauces consist of dashi flavoured with soy sauce and mirin. A popular variation of Donburi is Oyakodon which is chicken, egg, spring onions simmered together and served on the bowl of rice.

Hayashi Rice

A western-inspired dish that was introduced to Japan by a French engineer who worked in the mines in 1868. He used ingredients such as red wine to create a thick demi-glace that mixed with tomato sauce. Contains beef, onions and button mushrooms; typical of french stews. Hard to find but very popular in Japan so if you’d like to try more unusual western-inspired Japanese dishes, this is a must.

Omurice

Another western-inspired Japanese rice dish that is basically an omelette filled with rice and a few other ingredients that are commonly found in the fridge. Served with tomato ketchup with salad on the side. Omurice is a favourite among children and is usually cooked at home. You will find it in a few casual restaurants in Japan but rare outside of Japan. Once you experience the ketchup on your Omurice, It’ll be difficult to imagine omelettes without it.

Tamago Kake Gohan

Tamago Kake Gohan consists of cooked rice and a raw egg that is placed over the top of the rice. People sometimes create a hole in the rice to pour the egg into. You’ll also find the egg mixture to include soy sauce. Tamago Kake Gohan is normally served as a breakfast meal and is the equivalent of ordering eggs on toast at a restaurant or cafe.

Ochazuke

A dish enjoyed in Japan for over 1000 years, Ochazuke became popular during the Heian period, where it was fashionable to pour tea + water over rice. This liquid combination was poured over rice and toppings such as dry seaweed, umeboshi plums and salted salmon, marinated pollock roe was added.

Ochazuke continues to be a favourite in Japanese cuisine and is often an excellent way to eat leftover rice as a snack. In Japan, Ochazuke is enjoyed in the comfort of one’s home or upmarket restaurants. Since the 1950s, supermarkets have sold instant Ochazuke packets.

Kamameshi

A traditional Japanese dish cooked in an iron pot (kama), similar to the Korean Bibimbap. Kamameshi (literally translates to “kettle rice”) contains a mixture of meat, seafood and vegetables. During the cooking process, rice is slightly burnt to add extra flavour and crispy texture to the dish.

Takikomi Gohan

The Japanese equivalent of Chinese fried rice; whereby the ingredients such as dashi, soy sauce, meat, fish and vegetables are all cooked together to make a tasty combo. A staple Japanese comfort food and an easy dish to prefer at home with similar methods to Chinese fried rice but with more Japanese oriented dashi and ingredients.

Sekihan

A Japanese dish made from glutinous rice and adzuki red beans. Sekihan is frequently eaten when celebrating a birthday, weddings or public holidays. Sekihan, also known as ‘red rice’, is so universal in celebrations that people say, “lets Sekihan” as an alternative to saying “let’s celebrate”. Often eaten with toasted sesame seeds. The reason for the rice being red in Sekihan is because back in ancient times cultivated rice was originally red.

Yaki

The word Yaki comes from yaku (焼く), which makes sense, as this translates — ‘to grill, broil, or pan-fry’. One of the most popular cooking methods in Japanese cuisine you’ll encounter all types of ‘yaki’ foods when visiting Japan. In fact, it’s nigh impossible to avoid them especially if you’re looking for delicious and comforting Japanese food. ‘Yaki’ style dishes are typically found as street food all across Japan.

Yakitori

Yakitori is skewered, grilled chicken. Yaki meaning grilled and tori meaning chicken. The skewers are normally made from steel or bamboo and are the ultimate finger food. In casual Japanese eateries, you’ll find only one type of Yakitori, but if you visit an Izakaya, you’ll encounter Yakitori that uses more than the flesh of the chicken. It is often seasoned with a bit of salt and tare sauce and is perfect with a Beer.

Yakisoba

Yakisoba consists of pan-fried or grilled buckwheat noodles (soba) that are grilled with soy sauce and other ingredients. Yakisoba first appeared in market stalls in Japan in the early 20th century. It originated from China and has since become a favourite for anyone that loves Japanese food. Normally served as a side dish or starter with meat, seafood, vegetables and can be eaten both hot or cold depending on the weather.

Yakisoba Pan

A fusion between Japanese food and hot dog buns. Yakisoba is added into the bun with sauce and garnished with seaweed (nori), ginger and Japanese mayonnaise. It doesn’t contain any meat like a standard hotdog.

Yakiniku

For meat-eaters; Yakiniku is one of the greatest gifts of a foodie’s life..except it’s kind of Korean, but don’t tell Japanese people that. Translating to “grilled meat”, this popular dish draws heavily from Korean dishes such as Bulgogi. Meat is cooked on the built-in grill within a table and dipped in sauces known as tare. Beef, in general, was not really consumed by Japanese until the Meiji restoration when the Emperor started eating beef around the 1870s.

Taiyaki

A traditional Japanese snack. Taiyaki is a fish-shaped waffle treat. Commonly filled with a sweetened paste of adzuki red beans but can also be filled with chocolate or custard. Taiyaki batter is similar to pancake batter, and is poured into hot fish-shaped moulds, along with the filling, and fused together. Taiyaki should be on your must-try Japanese foods on your next trip.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savoury pancake made of flour batter, grated yams, dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage and topped with mayonnaise, special sauce and bonito flakes. The most common version of Okonomiyaki is the Kansai version popular in Osaka. Other versions include the additional fillings such as Yakisoba or layered cabbage, pork and cheese that are part of the Hiroshima version.

Takoyaki

One of Japan’s most famous and appetising street food snacks, Takoyaki translates to octopus roast. Takoyaki are battered balls cooked in a special moulded pan filled with diced cooked Octopus, spring onion, pickled ginger, tempura scraps and brushed with the special tangy Takoyaki sauce.

Mayonnaise is topped on the finished octopus balls along with delicious sprinkles of bonito flakes, which seem to sway from the heat. You can buy Takoyaki ready-made but they are best enjoyed by market stalls.

Teppanyaki

More a style of cooking rather than a type of dish. Teppanyaki translates in English to ‘metal plate for grilling’, with teppan meaning iron plate and yaki to grill, fry or broil. Teppanyaki is a historically a new form of Japanese cooking by Japan’s standards and it originated in 1945.

Not surprisingly this more unconventional Japanese cuisine was very popular among foreigners, made famous by Benihana in 1964, in NYC. Beef, seafood, chicken and assorted vegetables are all fried on the teppan with teppanyaki sauce consisting of soy sauce, mirin, ponzu, and vinegar.

Yaki Onigiri

Yaki Onigiri or fried Onigiri is a twist to the regular version. The extra grilling process creates a crunchy outer texture that transforms the dish entirely. It’s also a healthier alternative to other fried Japanese food but with the same experience. Easy to make at home and utterly irresistible.

Himono

You may be familiar with the Japanese using seaweed (nori) and ginger to preserve fish but they also used techniques that are more common in South-East Asia — which was the preservation of fish using salt and drying naturally in the sun. Himono can be eaten as a snack and does not require any preparation. It can also be grilled or fried and coated with soy sauce to become a main dish, often eaten with rice.

Soul Food

Now we’re entering into the realm of Japanese Soul Food. Let it be known that the Japanese are the best at taking a recipe that ain’t theirs and reconstructing in a Japanese way, making it taste even better! Don’t believe me? Have you tried Japanese fried chicken? Japan may be known for its fresh fish and delicate rice dishes but let’s not forget how mouthwatering its Izakaya specials are. Whether at Izakayas, festivals or local markets and konbinis, you’ll find many places selling Japanese soul food. Fried food to the Japanese is like hamburgers to Americans. In Japan, if you can eat it, you can fry it; for lunch, dinner and snacks.

Gyoza

Gyoza is the equivalent of dumplings in Japan. The only difference is that they are both steamed and pan-fried, which creates a soft juicy centre covered with a slightly crispy outer skin. It can contain a range of different ingredients, including pork, chicken, prawns and vegetables. Either cooked at home or eaten at restaurants. Best enjoyed with a cold beer or as a side order to your main dish. Any Japanese food fan can easily polish off 10 of these babies.

Tonkatsu

One of Japan’s favourite Western-style foods. Tonkatsu are slices of pork cutlets coated with panko breadcrumbs deep-fried in oil. Pork Katsu was first concocted in Japan in 1899 at a local Tokyo restaurant called Rengatei. Originally considered a type of yōshoku, the term “tonkatsu” (pork katsu) was adopted in the 1930s.

Before Tonkatsu, Katsu was traditionally made from beef. During the Meiji era, Emperor Meiji encouraged Western eating habits and influenced his people to adopt this new eating habit in accordance with their bid for Japan to become a more modern country. Tonkatsu are served with a special Japanese sauce and lots of cabbage and rice. A great option as a starter dish and is part of the Katsudon dish. It is relatively cheap and is very popular in Japan.

Karaage

Let’s put it out there; Japan makes the best fried chicken in the world. Karaage meat is very juicy and has a strong umami taste. The chicken meat is marinated with ginger, garlic, soy sauce and cooking sake prior to deep frying. Often found at convenience stores and even frozen but it’s always better to enjoy fresh Karaage at Izakayas or casual restaurants.

Tempura

One of the earliest Japanese dishes that developed as a result of European influences. Tempura was introduced by the Portuguese to Nagasaki in the 16th century. Tempura is usually seafood or vegetables lightly battered and deep-fried into irresistibly crunchy and light flavour bombs. Cooked Tempura is served alongside tentsuyu dipping sauce made from dashi soup, mirin, and soy sauce.

Ebi Furai

Ebi Furai means fried shrimp is a type of Yoshoku that came to Japan between 1868 and early 1900. It is not to be confused with Tempura which has a different texture and batter. Ebi Furai uses panko breadcrumbs and succulent shrimp. It is often eaten as a starter or part of a Donburi.

Korokke

Another example of Yoshuku, Korokke is the Japanese version of French croquettes which was introduced in 1887. Although Korokke varies from the original croquette recipe, in its filling, which contains potatoes. The reason for this was because dairy processing technology had not been widely perfected at the time. The mashed potato filling is formed into a patty, covered with panko breadcrumbs before being fried until crispy on the outside, yet retaining their softness inside.

Kushiage

Kushiage is a dish of deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables. It can often include different types of meat and fish and became popular in Osaka in a neighbourhood called Shinseikai (new world). It was originally eaten by blue-collar workers in 1929 and cheap to buy and very filling.

Specials

Sometimes you’ll come across Japanese food that just doesn’t fit into a specific category. For those dishes that are still worth a special mention, read on.

Kaiseki

The Japanese version of “haute cuisine” where a chef prepares multiple courses of Edo-period meals. Preparation of an outstanding kaiseki-ryōri is considered an art form. Kaiseki is an amalgamation of traditional Edo-period imperial court cuisine (yusoku ryori), Buddhist monastery cooking (shoujin ryori), samurai household cooking (honjin ryori) and tea ceremony cuisine (cha kaiseki). Often served in ryokans all over Japan or small high-end restaurants.

Nasu Dengaku

A Vegan favourite, Nasu Dengaku is miso-glazed eggplant. The eggplant is sliced in half, scored and brushed with a sweet and savoury miso glaze before being oven grilled. Traditionally, Nasu Dengaku was grilled over an open fire.

Agedashi Tofu

If you’re fond of tofu but long for a bit more taste, then you must try Agedashi Dofu. This dish features tofu that is deep-fried and served in a hot broth made with Japanese stock, wine and soy sauce and garnished with Japanese spring onion (negi) and bonito flakes.

The stock is absorbed by the tofu without softening the crispy outer edge. Often eaten as a starter before your main meal arrives and it is one of the most popular dishes amongst foreigners and Japanese alike.

Senbei

Senbei are basically Japanese rice crackers, both savoury and sweet. They are often served with Japanese green tea and offered to guests. Senbei are normally baked or grilled but were traditionally cooked with charcoal. The rice crackers are brushed with different sauces to add flavour. They can also be found wrapped with Japanese seaweed (nori) or served with salt or green garnishes.

Nattō

Considered the marmite of Japanese food, you’ll either love its sticky, slimy texture or hate it. Nattō has an acquired taste and pungent smell. Having said that, Nattō is an extremely healthy probiotic that helps maintain a healthy gut flora. A dish normally served during breakfast alongside karashi mustard and soy sauce.

Noodles

Another staple of Japanese food that is the main substitute of any Japanese rice-based dish. Noodles were first documented to exist in Japan during the Nara period. Not surprisingly, Japan got its noodles from China and were originally rice-flour based. Eventually, Japan developed wheat-based noodles by the time of the Kamakura period. Today, Japan has at least 8 types of noodles and countless ways in which they can be prepared. If you haven’t tried them all, start slurping!

Ramen

Japan’s most famous noodle soup. Consisting of a bowl of sliced meat, delicious pork/miso/soy broth, vegetables and wheat noodles, made from flour, salt, and water. Contrary to popular belief, Ramen is actually from China and arrived in Japan in the nineteenth century. Today, you can find a Ramen joint in every major city around the world. Best enjoyed hot and meant to be devoured, this is arguably Japan’s most popular dish.

Udon

Udon noodles are a wheat-flour noodle that is thicker and chewier than the more common ramen noodle. In its simplest form, Udon noodles are eaten in a light broth called kakejiru which is made of dashi, soy sauce, mirin and topped with Japanese green onions. Eaten hot or cold and with the broth varying in depth, flavour and colour depending on what part of Japan you are in. Other notable ingredients added to an Udon Noodle soup include Prawn Tempura, Kakiage, deep-fried tofu pockets and fish cakes.

Okinawa Soba

Not surprisingly, this dish is a version of a Soba noodle dish hailing from Okinawa. One of the most unique parts of Japan (and that’s saying something!) Okinawan cuisine is known for its meat, in particular pork.

Okinawa Soba is a noodle dish containing pork belly cooked in soy sauce and topped with fish cakes, fish paste, sliced scallions, and pickled ginger. The broth consists of dashi and pork; kind of a halfway meeting point between Ramen and your stock standard dashi noodle broth.

Tsukemen

A Ramen dish where cold noodles are eaten after being dipped in a separate bowl of hot broth. Tsukemen is actually a modern dish by Japan standards and was invented in 1961. The dipping sauce holds a much stronger taste than regular Ramen broth and can be served along with Tamago omelettes, nori, and chashu.

Hiyashi Chuka

A popular summer dish in Japan when the average daytime temperature is 38c +. It’s a chilled Ramen dish which has all the similar toppings you would expect with standard Ramen, but just cold. Cold Ramen might seem strange initially, but once you experience a typical Japanese summer, you’ll be craving a Hiyashi Chuka. Inspired from Chinese cuisine which you can find in the name of the dish “chuka”.

The base of the soup is not as heavy as ramen and consists of rice vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, sesame oil and a few other light ingredients. In the Kansai region of Japan, the dish is called Hiyashi Ramen, which translates to Chilled Ramen.

Soups & Stews

Soups and stews play an essential role in Japanese food culture and cooking. Hot pots, soups and stews, whatever you want to call them, they’re all delicious! Warming and communal, Japanese stews and soup-based dishes are sure to pack a lot of flavour. From home-cooked meals to being part of teishoku set meals at restaurants there’s nothing better than a dash of those dashi broths or hearty hot pots.

Shabu-Shabu

A Japanese nabemono hot pot dish, Shabu-Shabu is a communal dish that involves diners boiling thin slices of meat and vegetables in a broth and then dipping in sauces before being eaten. Some ingredients cooked in Shabu-Shabu include beef, cabbage, shungiku green onion (negi), carrots and broccoli…a hot pot heaven! Unlike other types of hot pot, shabu-shabu ingredients are served raw and cooked tableside during the meal. This meal is shared by Scarlett Johanssen & Bill Murray in Lost in Translation.

Miso Soup

Almost 75% of people in Japan drink miso soup at least once a day. Miso soup broth is made from water, dashi stock, miso paste, with seaweed and tofu added. The paste that flavours the soup is made from fermented soya beans, barley or rice malt. Miso is such an essential part of traditional Japanese cooking and originated in ancient times. Miso soup was a popular dish of the Samurai during the Kamakura and civil war periods.

Sukiyaki

A cooked skillet communal dish. Soy sauce, sugar and mirin (Japanese wine) are added and slowly cooked. Sukiyaki is enjoyed among friends and family. During the meal, diners add meat or vegetable ingredients to the pot. Ingredients are taken out when cooked and dipped in a small bowl of raw beaten eggs. Best enjoyed in a restaurant and commonly eaten in Japan as a winter dish at new year parties.

Chankonabe

The main dish by Sumo wrestlers. There actually isn’t a defined recipe for Chankonabe beyond the stewing of the main ingredients in vast quantities; proteins (chicken, beef, fish or tofu), vegetables (cabbage, potatoes, mushrooms, bok choy and radishes), and broth. The portions are meant to be substantial considering that to bulk up, Sumo wrestlers need to eat on average 5,500 calories per day.

Originally published at www.japannakama.co.uk on September 8, 2020.

Japan Nakama are a London based online publication that investigates and explores all aspects of Japanese Culture.

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