Japanese food is nothing like what we get in European Japanese restaurants! First of all there is much more than just sushi, and even the sushi is different (Sushi-making). Their cuisine of course mainly includes rice and proteins: fish, meat and eggs.
The diversity of the country is reflected also in its food,
So here is a top 5 of the best dishes I tried in Japan:
5. Ramen – to explain the art of making ramen I should probably be a japanese chef. Each bowl or ramen is catered to with so much care that seems crazy, and each cook has his own recipe. Ramen can be described as noodles served with a fish or meat broth, topped with all kinds of delicacies like pork, dried seaweed, eggs, green onions, and much more. The plate is said to have Chinese origins, but after World War II and the cheap import of US flour and with the creation of instant noodles they have become an iconic Japanese plate. Ramen’s diversity starts with its noodles: they can be of different shapes and lengths. The best of course are fresh noodles, which in Japan are often served cold. The broth is nothing like our western style broth, but they use ingredients like shitake mushrooms, kombu seaweeds, Shōyu (with a lot of soy sauce), Shio (very salty), Miso (which is made for fermented soy beans, and the broth is usually served in accompaniment of meals), Tonkotsu (from pork bones and fat), and Curry ramen.
If you’ve ever wondered what the little white and pink flower you often see in ramen is it is Narutomaki or simpli Naruto, a type of cured fish surimi (paste), which is sliced to show the pink or red spiral.
If you’re not much into soups you can always try fried noodles, sauted with all kinds of vedgetables, fish, eggs and meats. Maybe one of the main differences to keep in mind is between soba (thin buckwheat noodles, which usually have that greyish color) and udon (thick wheat flour noodles). Yakisoba instead are wheat flour noodles, cooked with a soy based sauce, similar to oyster sauce.
4. Tempura – is how Japanese fry their food, and I personally love it! You can find all sorts of vegetables and seafood, which are covered in a batter of cold water and soft wheat flour (the reason why tempura frying is lighter than our western deep fried food). The mixture is made lumpy on purpose in order for it to achieve that uneven, fluffy texture. The vegetables and fish are dipped in the batter and deep-fried briefly with vedgetable oil (traditionally sesame oil).
3. Yakitori – are skewered pieces of chicken, grilled on charcoal, with tare sauce (dipping sauce, usually made from soy sauce and thickened or sweetened to the chef’s taste). Personally I love chicken and therefore I tried quite a variety of these skewers, you can find: chicken thigs, meatballs (my favorite!), chicken skin, wings, tails, heart, liver, breast, and they might also add spring onions or other vegetables.
You can find yakitori in small stores, food stands or also in restaurants. Close to where I stayed was a restaurant specialized in chicken, which served the best mega yakitoris. They are the ideal food to take with you on the go!
2. Okonomiyaki and monjayaki – this delicacy might not be as famous in the western world, and extremely hard to find in our cities. It is often defined as a Japanese pancake, but it very different from pancakes. First of all it is a savory dish, and as all the plates I’m describing here there are many variations to his dish based on preferred toppings. The main ingredients for the batter are: flour, grated yam, water or dashi, eggs and shredded cabbage. Other ingredients are then added to taste, such as: spring onions, meat like pork, octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, cheese and more (I loved the addition of thinly grated ginger). Finally it is topped with okonomiyaki sauce (an amazing sauce that kind of resembles Worchester sauce), seaweed or dried fish flakes, and Japanese mayonnaise.
The fun part is eating this in the traditional teppan restaurants, where you can actually cook it yourself. If you’ve never seen them doing it then I’d recommend you have the waiters prepare it for you (which the usually do when they see foreigners). Try it, it’s really worth it!
But in Teppanyaki restaurants food is cooked in front of you on an iron grill. And you can cook all sorts of foods on it other than okonomiyaki, from yakisoba, to fried rice, meats, vedgetables and anything you’d like.
1. Tonkatsu – everytime I tried tonkatsu in Japan I was marvelled by how good it was and how each seemed to be better than the one I’d tried before!
It usually is a deep-fried, breaded, pork cutlet which is served with rice and shredded cabbage, and a lovely sweet sauce that you make yourself by pressing sesame seeds and adding a thick Worcestershire like sauce.
A lot of variations on this traditional plate exist, for example chicken, menchi-katsu, katsu curry, etc. Just try it in all of its forms, it’s amazing.
Unfortunately I didn’t get to try Kobe beef, which I’m certain would’ve been a whole food experience in itself (and definitely extremely expensive as an experience). I also would’ve liked to try a traditional Japanese Tea Ceremony (chanoyu) during which they prepare the typical and esteemed matcha tea.
With Matcha tea in Japan you can find many types of sweets and snacks, and Japanese sweets aren’t bad at all. For example you have to try mochi and sakura mochi. Of course in order to really enjoy them you have to forget the western idea of sweets and try not to be influenced by the fact that they use a lot of azuki bean paste (personally I love it, but I think it’s because I’ve been eating it for many years with ice cream and I’m used to its taste).
Other interesting cooking experiences in Japan depend on the type of cooking involved, for example: Shabu-Shabu where instead to boil your choice of vegetables, fish and meat in water, and Yakiniku, where you can barbecue your choice of meat.
The choice is overwhelming and I don’t know what to recommend more, so just try everything you can find!