I know what you are thinking. Sushi. That is what everyone always thinks about when there is talk about Japanese food. And do not get me wrong, sushi here is amazing! Even the hyaku yen kaiten sushi (cheap sushi train restaurants that only charge 100JPY a plate) places have such amazing sushi it will be better than most sushi anywhere outside Japan.
Indeed, the sushi is so amazing that when I first moved to Japan I ate sushi every single day for the first two months. No joke. After that, for the first time in my life, I felt like my sushi quota was filled for a while.
But as sushi is the obvious culinary item here in Japan I would like to open the lid and take a look at what really is cooking in Japan’s culinary pot. I consider all the following items a must try for those traveling or living in Japan.
Natto. Fermented beans. A gooey, dodgy looking dish that not many people can say they whole-heartedly love. Natto is considered to be a superfood due to it’s great health benefits but whether you can stomach it or not is a different story. It has a light pungent smell, not overpowering, but the apperance itself is off putting to many. And if you know that you are being served these old beans the idea itself does not really make your mouth water. None the less you should give natto a go, either as it is or with rice, as sushi or seasoning it with soy sauce and mustard.
Mochi. Made of glutinous rice, mochi is very sticky, rolled into small balls and served on skewers or on a plate, sometimes covered in sauce. There are both savory and sweet mochi balls so they can be had as an appetizer, snack or a dessert. Mochi itself has quite a bland taste but they come in various flavors and can be filled or covered in sauce. Mochi is also used in savory Japanese soups.
Apparently many people in Japan choke on mochi balls regularly as they are dense and very sticky, so pay attention to not devour one whole.
Anko. Red bean paste. Most Japanese sweets and desserts include anko as it is a very old and traditional Japanese delicacy. It is used in pastries, cookies, chocolates, ice-creams, you name it. As itself anko is not very sweet, hence fitting the Japanese palette perfectly. A popular dessert would be mochi with an anko filling.
A smooth paste of deep red color, anko is one of those foods that foreigners either love or hate.
Matcha. Powder made of green tea which does not taste like green tea at all. This intensely green powder is mixed with hot water into a foamy tea which has a unique, strong taste. Some foreigners find it an acquired taste whereas some of us fall in love with its peculiar goodness.
Matcha is part of the old Japanese (tea) culture that is still very much alive today. The history of this green delicacy goes back thousands of years but luckily nowadays we don’t have to spend weeks to educate ourselves in the fine making of it: simply stroll to a café or buy a bag of matcha powder from the supermarket.
Matcha is also used to flavor to many goods such as chocolate, ice-cream, bread, pastry, mochi, nuts, coffee, etc. My personal rule of thumb is “if it is green, it just might be matcha”.
Yakitori. Yakitori literally means “grilled chicken” but basically its general meaning is nibble-sized food served on small skewers, e.g. fried or deep-fried meat, intestines or vegetables. In yakitori restaurants you order from a menu that seems to have everything and anything on it and you build your meal on skewers, ordering until you are ready to roll out the door. Most skewers come in three options: unsalted, salted or with black pepper. I recommend chicken liver, chicken skin and chicken heart.
Edamame. Japanese soybeans in pod, boiled or steamed, and served as an appetizer or as a “beer snack”. Many Japanese people have a habit of ordering certain snacks as they are drinking alcohol, nuts and edamame being the most popular ones. Edamame has very little taste so it is quite a safe option for everyone. You can order edamame in any restaurant with your beer or other alcoholic beverage of choice.
Okonomiyaki. “Japanese pizza”. “Cabbage pancake”. I have heard foreigners and Japanese trying to explain the essence of this gem but so far I have not heard anything that could even come close to describing the awesomeness of this dish.
A standard okonomiyaki is made of sliced cabbage, noodles, flour, milk, egg and bacon, piled up to look like an enormous stack of pancakes. It is then covered in okonomiyaki sauce (made of soy sauce and ketchup) and served with bonito flakes (fish flakes) as well as mayonnaise.
Hiroshima takes the credit of creating the “original okonomiyaki” right around WWII when food supplies were very limited. Okonomiyaki was quite a different dish back then, made mostly of cabbage without much else, but has now a very revered place in people’s hearts – and stomachs – all around Japan.
Five stars and my highest recommendation. Order a niku-tama-soba okonomiyaki (pork-egg-soba noodles) for a classic treat.
Japan is full of delightful dishes – just like any country in the world. Personally I think food is an elementary part of a culture, so if you wish to truly experience Japan grab your chopsticks and start exploring!