The best-known Japanese food in the world is undoubtedly sushi – those irresistible parcels of raw fish, rice, ginger and wasabi wrapped in an umami-rich layer of seaweed. However, there is so much more to the cuisine of the Japanese archipelago than sushi that will leave visitor’s mouths watering. Whether you are setting off to explore the northern snowbound reaches of Hokkaido or are relaxing on the sun-drenched beaches of Okinawa, this food tour through Japan will show you the best of the country’s gastronomic traditions so that wherever you can try some of the world’s most unique flavours.
Sushi: Japan’s iconic dish
The first thing most visitors to Japan look for is some authentic sushi, which offers a totally different taste to the popular supermarket versions served up in Europe and North America. Moreover, it matters little where you arrive in Japan, as this dish of raw fish is ubiquitous throughout the country. One thing that takes many visitors by surprise is the difference between classic sushi (raw fish served with vinegar flavoured rice) and sashimi, which is simply thin slices of raw fish served with a dip of soy sauce.
For sushi, there are two main types – nigirizushi and makizushi, with the former serving the raw fish on a fluffy pillow of rice and the latter wrapping it in a seaweed roll. Both of these varieties are more often than not presented with a streak of luminous green wasabi – a pungent ground paste that provides Japanese cuisine with its fieriest kick.
In Japan, the variety of sushi restaurants can leave visitors overwhelmed – in Tokyo alone there are well over 3000 of them spread across the metropolis. These establishments can range from the über-expensive with individual pieces of sushi costing hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to kaiten-zushi, where diners pick their favourite sushi off a moving conveyor belt. Generally, the more expensive the restaurant the higher quality the fish, although that is not to say the sushi served up in kaiten-zushi is not excellent. Moreover, if you want to experience top of the range sushi on a budget try to book a table for lunch, as sometimes even Michelin-starred restaurants can be surprisingly affordable during the day.
Despite the massive differences between these types of restaurants many of the same rules apply: dip your sushi fish side down in the soy, as otherwise the rice absorbs too much and can fall apart; feel free to pick up the sushi with your hands; and use pickled ginger (gari) to refresh your palate.
Ramen: a warming soup perfect for the cold Hokkaido climate
After sushi the Japanese food that has made the biggest splash in Europe and North America is probably ramen – thinly sliced pork belly, fresh vegetables and possibly even a boiled egg served in soy or miso-based broths.
While ramen is now ubiquitous throughout Japan, the best place to slurp down this deliciously warming soup is northern island of Hokkaido, where the dish originates. Indeed, the island’s capital of Sapporo even has a Ramen Alley lined with garish neon-lit ramen parlours barely bigger than a cupboard. Within Hokkaido, there are three different types of ramen that any foodie should make sure to try. In Sapporo, the most common form of ramen broth is made from miso paste while in Asahikawa it is mostly flavoured with soy sauce and fish stock. What is more, in Hakodate, which is known as Japan’s premier ramen town, it is served as a more delicate broth flavoured with fresh mountain herbs and salt.
Gyoza: a wonderful Sino-Japanese fusion
The centuries of friendly (and not so friendly) cross-cultural exchange between Japan and China has resulted in some of the world’s most mouth-watering fusion dishes with the best of the bunch being gyoza – small dumplings filled with just about anything the Japanese can think of. Usually served fried, although sometimes they come boiled for a silkier texture, gyoza are most commonly filled with thinly sliced vegetables but can also have various types of seafood, meat or even tofu hidden inside. More often than not these delectable dumplings are served with a tangy dipping sauce and an array of pickles to refresh your palate.
For the best gyoza experience head to the irresistible Gyoza Centre that sits not far from the base of Mount Fuji. This restaurant, which some have called the spiritual home of gyoza, has countless varieties waiting to be tried.
Monja-yaki: Tokyo’s speciality
Monja-yaki, a savoury pancake that is made right before your eyes at street food stalls, is Tokyo’s favourite dish and is probably Japan’s most fun food to cook. The dish has evolved from a children’s treat to become ubiquitous throughout the capital but it is best sampled in the historic Tsukishima district where it originated.
Once you take your pick of fresh ingredients ranging from crunchy vegetables, seafood and minced meats to be in your pancake, the street food chef will stir fry these before pouring over a runny batter that will form the monja-yaki. The dish is then served piping hot and can be smothered in a variety of tangy sauces.
Takoyaki: the number one dish in Japan’s food capital, Osaka
Osaka is renowned as Japan’s food capital, but no dish gets the city’s gastronomically discerning residents as excited as takoyaki – delicious fried dough balls stuffed with octopus fresh from the surrounding sub-tropical sea. The dough is packed with minced ginger and other spices that give it a fragrant flavour while the octopus brings the punchy flavours of the sea into this mouth-watering equation. While these dumplings are a common street food they are also served in restaurants across Osaka, where they are often served topped with dried seaweed or bonito fish.
Tempura: one of Japan’s simplest but tastiest dishes
In Europe and North America tempura is often one of the most disappointing dishes on any menu – tasteless fish and vegetables coated in a forgettable batter. However, do not let this put you off trying this Japanese classic, as in its home country it could not taste more different.
The star of this simple dish is often a fresh vegetable, such as okra, tofu or a type of seafood, such as prawns. These fresh ingredients are then coasted in a silky batter that is flash-fried to become a simultaneously fluffy and crunchy morsel that is one of Japan’s most moreish dishes. For the best tempura experience head to Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market where you can take your pick from a vast array of seafood and take it to nearby tempura joint for it to be prepared. It might be a good idea to spend a few days in Japan to enjoy these delicacies fully.
“Over the past decade, Ross Cameron has travelled extensively across Europe, Southeast Asia, North America, North Africa, and the post-Soviet space. As someone who has areal passion for these regions of the globe, he is able to offer an expert opinion that highlights the best off the beaten track destinations.”
Image details and licenses: Monja-yaki: https://flic.kr/p/fc2KjW (Avisionn Photo, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), Takoyaki: https://flic.kr/p/DJHjLV (Kate Hopkins, CC BY 2.0), Tempura: https://flic.kr/p/5tCLYd (Oi Max, CC BY 2.0)