- Cathy Neubauer
Go to Japan and Eat This...15 Must-Try Japanese foods
Updated: Apr 5, 2021
Like many of you, when I go on a trip I really look forward to exploring that particular culture through their food. So when planning a trip to Japan, trying out the local food favorites was a must. I'm also extremely lucky that I currently live in Los Angeles which has a fairly high population of Japanese-run businesses and restaurants and means authentic Japanese food is never too far from my reach. Despite living in a cultural mashup of cuisine, nothing beats actually going to that particular place and experiencing their food. Here are my recommendations for food you must try when visiting Japan.
1) Sushi and Sashimi
This one is obvious right!?!?!? When you think of Japan, the first thing that comes to mind is probably sushi right? It certainly is the case for me...I love sushi for so many reasons... I love that it can be really fun and exciting and includes crazy ingredients I would never really use in other dishes like unagi (eel), uni (sea urchin) and wasabi (Japanese green horseradish) for example, but at the heart of the matter traditional sushi is really very simple. It's one of those things I love about good food and cooking; something that's made really simple but with really good ingredients.
Sushi can come in many different forms but typically it is some sort of cold (flavored with vinegar) rice with (usually) raw seafood and/or vegetables. The most well-known form of sushi is probably the type of sushi that is rolled or covered in nori (seaweed sheet) and filled with veggies or other types of seafood. Usually the seafood in sushi is raw but some rolls do include seared or cooked versions. Traditional sushi in Japan will also be simple and almost 'honor' each ingredient on it's own; in other words classic nigiri sushi will have the rice shaped by hand, with an added bit of wasabi and topped off with a single piece of sashimi (raw fish) on top. Simple, yet classic! Beyond the traditional 'rolls' of sushi, you can also try sashimi, which is a bite-sized portion of raw fish, served without rice but with wasabi and soy sauce for dipping. Additionally, convenience stores in Japan (the most popular is called Lawson's and it's amazing) will also have sushi for sale. Don't worry the quality of 'gas station' sushi is much different in Japan than in the States; meaning it's actually pretty good if you're in a rush.
Side note: due to the reverence with which a lot of sushi is made, it's not customary to add additional wasabi or soy sauce to your nigiri rolls. Usually a dollop of wasabi is already in your rice and too much soy sauce will only cover up the already curated flavor of the sushi; however, many restaurants will still serve it. To make a long story short, eat sushi when you go to Japan and eat as much of it as you possibly can.
If you're like me then you'll know what I mean when I say I could survive on noodles alone. Noodles in any way shape or form are my absolute favorite thing which is why my next pick revolves around the world of ramen!!!
Traditional Japanese ramen is a far cry from the pre-packaged stuff we all ate around midnight in college. No, real, delicious, umami flavored ramen is completely different from that. It's actually incredibly interesting because it's one of the only Japanese dishes that doesn't have 'limits' to how it 'should be' made, which makes it totally unique to each place you try it. So what is a traditional bowl of ramen? Well, it's basically a dish of noodles in broth, topped with various goodies; but what makes this dish unique is that it varies from restaurant to restaurant and region to region. In other words, you'll be hard pressed to find two ramen dishes that are exactly alike! Beyond that what makes ramen so special (in my humble opinion) is the broth. Most ramen recipes have broth that has a unique combination of ingredients (usually some sort of pork bone broth) and is usually cooked for hours to develop that rich taste. In addition to the broth, most ramen is topped with some sort of meat (usually pork or chicken) and other treats like a soft-boiled egg, beansprouts, mushrooms or in rare cases (and my absolute favorite) black garlic oil.
There are many different styles of ramen which can include:
1) Shio Ramen (Salt-based broth), one of the oldest and most fundamental types of ramen
2) Shoyu Ramen (Soy sauce-based broth), usually a lighter clear broth
3) Miso Ramen (Soybean-based broth) and
4) Tonkotsu Ramen (Pork bone-based), super luxurious, almost milky and thick (my absolute favorite)
Ramen is really a great option when traveling, not only because it's delicious and comforting, but also because it's fairly cheap so your wallet and belly will thank you later!
3) Anything Matcha
Matcha is a finely ground powder of specialty green tea. This particular type of tea has been used in ceremonial blessings for thousands of years and has grown in popularity. In addition to tea, nowadays you can find it in almost any type of sweet treat from cookies, cakes and even kit-kats, it has a mildly sweet, tea-like flavor.
4) Shabu Shabu
Shabu-shabu is one of my favorite dishes because it's a communal dish that you cook yourself, usually with one or more people. It's a 'hotpot' which consists of a big bowl of boiling broth and plate of thinly sliced meat and vegetables which you then add to the pot. Once the meat and veggies are cooked you can serve them with a dipping sauce (which is usually some type of vinegar, chili, garlic sauce). Think fondue minus the cheese :)
5) Any kind of 'Kawaii' food
'Kawaii' is the Japanese word for cute and it comes in many different forms from clothes to drinks to food. Food-wise you're sure to find cute bento boxes or animal shaped baked goods that will be just as cute as they are delicious!
6) Strong (Beverages)
I'm adding 'strong' drinks here because we had the best time in Japan getting these at various shows and at the popular Japanese kwik-e-mart called Lawsons. They are alcoholic drinks usually flavored with citrus or fruit and are delicious, but be careful these are actually strong and do pack a punch!
7) Kobe Beef
You can't go to Japan without indulging in a little Kobe Beef, which is Wagyu beef from the Tajima strain of Japanese Black cattle. This type of beef is particularly special because it is raised in Japan's Hyōgo Prefecture according to rules set out by the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association, which include:
1) Giving the cows beer to induce appetite
2) Massaging the cows daily, sometimes with sake (Japanese rice wine), as a proxy for exercise in the tight living quarters and to further accentuate the marbling that Kobe beef is so well known for.
I'm not a huge beef or meat eater but can truly value the way this particular type of meat is raised and processed to produce a delicacy, valued for it's flavor, tenderness and fatty/marbled texture.
8) Pork Curries
Before going to Japan, when I thought of curry I typically thought of Indian-style dishes of vegetables in some sort of coconut/spiced broth; however, Japanese curry is very different. The classic kind consists of a simple plate of white rice with beef or chicken, but usually pork, which is breaded then deep fried (aka Katsu-kare). This is then topped with a dark brown curry sauce which has some sweet, spicy flavors to it and sometimes a fried egg.
9) Bento Boxes
Bento boxes are the Japanese version of a home-packed lunch box and are very common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento box has different sections which include a space for noodles or rice, fish or meat and cooked or pickled vegetables. These all come packed in a handy dandy box and are great for those trips on the Shinkansen bullet train or if you want to have a picnic in the park.
Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans with salt and koji and sometimes rice, barley, seaweed or other ingredients. Miso is extremely popular in Japan because it's often served as part of a 'teishoku' (traditional Japanese set menu) that you will have in a ryokan or small family run bar. It's usually served as a soup or simple broth with tofu, seaweed or spring onions and is nice and light. I'm particularly fond of miso not only for the flavor but also because more and more research has suggested that it's good for our digestive system. If you're not a fan of traditional fermented foods then try some miso :)
Tempura is great because hey who doesn't like fried food? Well, this is a bit different because tempura batter is extremely light and fluffy which results in a really nice crispy fry, usually of fish or vegetables. Served alone as an appetizer or as a topping for some dishes, tempura is great because of the light batter that allows the veggies or meat to retain their moisture and crunch without getting soggy.
12) Taiyaki (aka grilled snapper)
Taiyaki is a more modern, Japanese sweet snack consisting of a fish-shaped pancake that's cooked on a grill. It imitates the shape of the Tai, which it is named after. Taiyaki can be filled with different types of things but the most common filling is red bean paste that is made from sweetened azuki beans. Other common fillings may be custard, chocolate, cheese, or sweet potato. You can usually find these at festivals or street food areas that lead up to major attractions like the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo.
Dango are Japanese dumplings made from mochiko, a slightly heavier version of mochi. There are usually 3-5 dango which are served on a skewer and grilled. They are usually eaten year-round but their flavor can vary according to the season. For example, the three color version will include pink, white and green and topped with a sticky, sweet soy-based sauce. This snack is so popular it even has its own emoji <3
Unagi is the Japanese word for freshwater eel and is a common ingredient in Japanese cooking. It's usually cooked on a grill and basted with soy sauce. This is a dish best serve fresh!
15) Nikuman (aka pork buns)
Nikuman is a bun made from flour and usually filled with some sort of cooked ground pork, beef or vegetables. These buns are usually steamed and sold in food stalls during festivals or near high-traffic areas.
Beyond these popular Japanese dishes, I would also highly recommend spending a night exploring the exciting Golden Gai district, which is a popular city district (in Shinjuku) and is famous for it's narrow, winding alleys and row after row of small taverns. You'll usually pay a small entrance fee but this will typically include some type of small snack like a cup of miso. This was one of my favorite nights, going out with friends, hopping from bar to bar and seeing how the locals drink and unwind. Additionally, you'll also notice that Japan has a strong interest in Parisian Baked goods. Beyond traditional Japanese food you'll find a ton of French bakeries with plenty of pastries, crepes and quiche to hold you over. Lastly, one of my favorite things about Japan is the great fake food displays many restaurants have in their window. I don't know why but I love seeing pictures or examples of what my food will look like, probably because it helps me see if I'll like what I'm ordering. Either way it's a fun and quirky way to explore Japanese food.
Visitor tips for eating in Japan
Beyond trying the food, here are a few more tips when eating in Japan:
1) If you don't speak Japanese don't worry. Many restaurants will have either an english menu or more importantly pictures or display windows of the food (usually outside the store front). If this is the case you can easily smile and point to what you'd like and say “kore wo kudasai” which basically means “I’d like this, please”. You can also simply take a picture of what you'd like and show that to your server.
2) Some restaurants will actually have a coin operated machine as you enter with pictures of every dish displayed on different buttons. You simply push the button of what you'd like (like a vending machine), pay and take your ticket up to the counter.
3) Bring cash... I'm not usually a cash person but when traveling to a foreign country never assume all places will have a credit card reader. This is particularly true of traditional and perhaps smaller restaurants and bars in Japan. Remember, tipping is not expected or part of the culture in Japan and you may even offend someone if you try to tip.
4) Servers will generally leave you alone after you order and then bring your food. Similar to French cultures, they don't want to bother or interrupt you so don't expect them to continue coming around your table, asking how everything is.
5) Finally, if you have food allergies (such as shellfish or nuts) consider typing this out on a card and translating it before traveling. Chef cards are a great way to relay food allergy information in a variety of languages! You can create and print them here. This way you can easily show your server any allergies you may have just in case you order something that has an unexpected ingredient in it.
These are just a few of the many glorious foods to try in Japan, please comment with your thoughts or other recommendations!