Japanese food, or washoku, has become popular around the world. In fact, the washoku cuisine of Japan has the honor of being designated as a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) world heritage, being registered on December 4, 2013 as a distinctive food culture under the category of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
One of the amazing phenomenon from Japanese food’s growing popularity is how people from all over the world no longer hesitate to eat “raw fish”, i.e., sashimi and sushi, for example. Eating raw fish was something that was unheard of and even unimaginable by non-Japanese 20 or 30 years before. This shows that people’s tastes have changed significantly over the years and that they are now more open to eating and trying new foods.
Another example resulting from the popularity of Japanese food is the increasing amount of Japanese “food words” that have become commonly used globally. Examples are ramen, tofu, edamame, wasabi, izakaya, yakitori, umami, bento, and many others.
While other articles on food focus their content on one type of food or highlight in depth one place or several places for eating a certain food, this article provides a list of food, somewhat like a glossary, of the many kinds of Japanese foods that are popular. Each food item is given a short introduction so you know what it is, as well as how and where to eat it. Some are available at high-class restaurants, while others can be eaten at every-day izakaya (eating/drinking establishments for everyone), and others can be bought at food stalls, convenience stores, and supermarkets for takeout. In addition, a bonus provided here is an explanation about the myriad types of Japanese sauces and condiments that accommodate the many foods, and how they are used, so you know what to do with them.
There are so many aspects that constitute “washoku”, that the following is just an introduction to the common food items enjoyed by all. While some items listed below might be familiar to you already, there might be others that are new to you and sound tempting and even good enough for you to try.
Yakitori (Grilled chicken meat and parts, vegetables on skewers)
Yakitori literally means “grilled chicken”. In the traditional sense, the original food known as yakitori consisted of small pieces of chicken that were put on thin bamboo skewers and grilled. The chicken when being grilled can be flavored with salt only, or first dipped in a teriyaki-type sauce and then grilled. You can choose either all salt or all sauce, or a combination of your choice. After being cooked, you can eat them as they are or you can sprinkle a little bit of shichimi (7-spice chili powder) for a little heat to your liking. One very popular variation is negima, which consists of chicken pieces and green onions that have been placed alternately along the bamboo skewer.
The term “yakitori” nowadays has a broad meaning that goes way beyond the original chicken meat. First is yakitori that consists of chicken parts such as the chicken meat itself, and then also liver, gizzard, heart, skin, tail, breast-bone cartilage, chicken wing, chicken breast covered with either wasabi or umeboshi paste, and minced chicken (tsukune). However, furthermore, the concept of yakitori takes a huge leap from the traditional chicken and goes on to include a variety of vegetables grilled on skewers: shitake mushrooms, mild chili peppers, green peppers, asparagus, cherry tomatoes, green onions, and ginkgo nuts, which also fall under the label of “yakitori”. Furthermore, more modern approaches to yakitori are chunks of cheese, or asparagus, or cherry tomatoes wrapped in bacon or pork belly. The types of yakitori are actually endless nowadays, with the only limitation being the creativity and imagination of the chefs.
There are restaurants and street stalls that specialize in yakitori. In addition, supermarkets, convenient stores, and department stores sell yakitori to go. Yakitoriya, meaning restaurants that specialize in yakitori, can be found throughout Japan, especially near stations and busy shopping streets. Your nose and eyes will guide you to them because you can smell and see billowing smoke coming from yakitori being grilled. Yakitori is a drinking snack for the most part and not a main dish in the traditional sense. So, expect to be asked to order something to drink. You don’t need to drink alcohol, but traditionally a cold, draft beer is the best way to start your yakitori experience. And don’t expect to find a yakitori set-meal on the menu. Order whatever you want. If you are hungry, you can continue to order as much as you want again and again!
Unagi Kabayaki (Grilled eel)
To many people, the thought of eating eel might be too exotic or adventurous or even sickening since it’s not one of the more common or appealing proteins on the menu in other countries. One has to admit that the image of a whole eel as a food is unappealing. However, rid your mind of any preconceptions or images of eels, because once you taste this exquisite delicacy, which has been portioned into flayed and cut slices that look like grilled fish, and which is cooked with and then brushed with the most glorious tasting of Japanese teriyaki-like sauces (kabayaki sauce to be specific), you will be hooked for life. On a bed of white rice, unagi Kabayaki is a special meal for special occasions because the best doesn’t come cheap.
There are many restaurants that specialize in unagi, some well over 200 years old, are still serving unagi to this day. The most typical dish is “unaju”, which is “una” (short for “unagi” and “ju” a container shaped like a box that comes with a lid. So your “unaju” will arrived on a tray, with the box covered. You will take off the lid of the box and admire the simple but beautifully arranged and golden-brown unagi. Before eating, it is customary to sprinkle on a little sansho, which is often called Szechuan pepper. The Chinese version in fact does just that. It numbs your whole mouth, tongue and lips included. Japanese sansho, however, is much milder with a delicate aroma that gives a little punch of flavor that perfectly matches the unagi, sauce, and rice.
Yakizakana (Grilled fish)
The word “yakizakana” literally means “grilled fish”. On its own, it is a very broad term because the “fish” in yakizakana can be any kind, and there are so many such as salmon, sea bream, sword fish, etc. However, among all the fish in the sea, the three that most frequently become yakizakana are mackerel (saba), Okhostk atka mackerel (hokkei) and Pacific saury (sanma). Regardless of the fish, the basic cooking method is simply grilling the fish after it has been lightly salted. That’s it. No sauces or additional seasonings are put on the fish. Once the fish has been cooked, you can eat it as is. Some fish come with a small pile of grated radish and maybe a slice of lemon. When eating these fish, you may add a drop or two of soy sauce on top of the grated radish if you want. Most of the fish are cut into neat portions, and some with the bones removed. Others, such as mackerel will come with the bones. And the long, skinny Pacific mackerel will come not only with the bones, but with the head, eyes, tail, and even the innards still intact. This fish needs more care when being eaten because diners need to carefully maneuver their chopsticks in order to avoid eating the innards. But more importantly, people squeamish to eat an entire fish including the innards, need to prepare themselves for the experience. For the Japanese, the Pacific saury that are come into season in autumn, and which are consumed eagerly as yakizakana, are a real treat anxiously awaited every year.
Yakizakana is served at izakaya and drinking establishments as a single item as a snack to be nibbled, so you will find it on the menu in many places. At lunch time, it is usually served a part of a teishoku (set meal) served along with rice, pickles, and soup. It is a common and popular lunch item, but you need to check what kinds of fish are being served that day. If you like fish, then you will most probably like any of the fresh-caught and grilled fish of the day.
Japanese love noodles, enjoying each and every shape and texture and ingredient involved with noodles that come in either bowls or plates. It is no surprise that Japanese love not only their own, traditional types of noodles but also many kinds coming from other countries, especially pasta from Italy. Below are five typical, Japanese noodle dishes. You can eat them at specialty restaurants, as well as buy packaged, pre-cooked, boxed noodles at supermarkets, department stores, and convenience stores. There are also stand-up noodle bars that serve soba and udon.
Soba refers to noodles that contain buckwheat flour, with some containing 100% buckwheat while others have varying ratios of buckwheat flour and wheat flour. Soba, along with udon (see below) are eaten either hot, being placed in a hot broth; or cold, being placed on a bamboo tray and then dipped in a cold sauce (mentsuyu) made from soy sauce, mirin (sweet cooking sake), sake, and dashi (fish/kelp/mushroom broth). Both ways of eating soba are very popular, i.e., cold or hot, but it seems that these days, eating soba cold is the more popular, even in winter.
Cold soba noodles will come on either a square or round bamboo tray, and either plain from the pot or sprinkled with small strips of seaweed. There are various names for cold soba, but the biggest difference is whether the soba is served as is or sprinkled with seaweed. Mori soba is usually plain while zaru soba is usually sprinkled with seaweed. The dipping sauce for all of these cold soba noodles is the same. It is served on the side in a little pot and poured into the dipping bowl. There is seiro soba, which is similar to mori and zaru soba. The difference is the soba noodles are served hot from the pot and the mentsuyu is hot. In addition, two basic condiments are wasabi and green onions that are put into the dipping bowel for extra flavor. And depending on the soba shop, toasted sesame seeds might also accompany a tray of soba.
Hot soba noodles in their simplest form come served in a bowl of hot broth and usually slices of green onion depending on the soba shop. This soba dish is called kake soba. The hot broth can contain various ingredients to flavor it, such as kombu (dried kelp), katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). shiitake mushrooms, dried anchovies, and soy sauce. In fact, in eastern/northern Japan, a lot of soy sauce is added to the broth. While in western/southern Japan, very little soy sauce is added so the color of the broth is light brown, looking like consume soup. On the other hand, because the broth in eastern/northern Japan has so much soy sauce, people from western Japan say that it looks as if the soba is soaking in black coffee! In addition, there is one difference when eating hot soba, when compared to eating cold soba. It is customary to sprinkle a small amount of shichimi togarashi (7-spice chili pepper) on top. The longer the shichimi mixes with the broth, the spicier the broth becomes, so maybe start with a little sprinkle first and add more if you want. The toppings are what distinguish one soba dish from another. There are various names depending on the topping(s), and they are described below.
Kitsune soba literally means “fox soba”. It refers to color of the fox, which is a dark tan or golden brown, because the topping on this soba is abura-age, which is a thin slice of tofu that has been deep-fried until it becomes a golden brown like the color of the fur of a fox.
Tsukimi Soba literally means “moon-watching soba”. It refers to the raw, egg-yolk topping that in a broad sense is considered to resemble the moon.
Tempura Soba is exactly what its name implies. It is a bowl of hot soba in hot broth topped with various kinds of tempura such as shrimp, horse mackerel, and squid along with pieces of squash, green pepper, eggplant, green bean, sweet potato and the like, depending on the soba shop and what is in season.
Tanuki Soba literally means “racoon-dog soba". Why “racoon-dog”, which some people mistakenly call a racoon or badger? Folklore about racoon-dogs claims that racoon-dogs are very good at playing tricks and cheating. This “tricking” here refers to the small bits of fried tempura batter that become the topping on kake soba. In other words, while the tempura bits might trick people into believing that there is a lot of real tempura on top of the soba, they are only a façade, since there is no tempura goodies like shrimp, squid, and vegetables in the soba noodles—only the deep-fried crumbs.
Tororo Soba is named after the grated tororo that is the topping for this soba dish. Tororo is grated yamaimo (literally “mountain yam”), which is a long root vegetable that becomes quite thick and sticky when grated. Usually, tororo is more than just mountain yam, as other ingredients such as other potatoes and egg white are added so the tororo keeps its white color and consistency.
Nanban Soba is a bowl of soba topped with slices of duck traditionally (more likely chicken these days) and green onions. It is in reference to the “Nanban people”, i.e., “Southern barbarians”, meaning people who came from countries south of Japan, who were rumored to have liked duck and green onions.
Cold udon topped with egg
Udon are long noodles made from wheat flour, just like pasta in a sense. However, udon are much, much fatter/thicker than Italian pasta such as spaghetti, linguine, and fettucine. Like soba, udon is eaten either hot or cold, basically in the exact same manner as soba, including in the form of all of the above-named hot-noodle variations. The difference in eating udon or soba is actually the noodles themselves, meaning either the fat, wheat-flour udon noodles or versus the thin, buckwheat-flour soba . It’s known that people in western/Japan overwhelmingly prefer to eat udon, while the majority of people in eastern Japan prefer soba much more than udon. In fact, Kagawa Prefecture on Shikoku Island in western Japan is famous for its udon, called sanuki udon, which are named after an area in the prefecture. Sanuki udon will always be served with the western-Japan type of light-tasting and light-colored broth. With various Sanuki udon franchise chains opening udon shops all over Japan, udon have grown in popularity recently.
Since udon is made from wheat flour, there are more variations in terms of broths and cooking styles. That is because the neutral-flavor of wheat-flour udon noodles, compared to buckwheat-soba noodles, match better with more flavors. For example, you can find udon dishes with curry-flavored broth; or combined with vegetables in a salad; or cooked as fried noodles mixed with meat, cabbage, onions, and Japanese-style Worcestershire sauce. Soba noodles, due to their particular buckwheat taste, aren’t suited to being fried, or covered with curry, or put into salads. (Although nowadays, there are advent guard chefs who dare cover soba with Thai green curry, or stir-fry soba with beef and broccoli, or mix soba with salad greens and slices of steak.)
Yakisoba (fried noodles): One of the favorite ways to enjoy a simple but tasty meal is to order a dish of yakisoba (fried noodles). Japanese yakisoba typically include small slices of pork and chopped cabbage, but can include thin slices of carrots, onions, or green onions too. The distinctive flavor of Japanese style fried noodles is the unique sauce. It is based on English Worcestershire sauce, with more ingredients such as grated apples, tomatoes, and onions that give it a sweeter taste compared to Worcestershire sauce. When eating yakisoba, it is customary to add a small amount of red pickled-ginger and sprinkle seaweed flakes on top.
Somen and Kishimen: These are two noodle variations. Somen are long and extremely thin noodles made from wheat flour. They are so thin that they cook in only two minutes. In western terms, they are the Japanese equivalent of angel-hair pasta. Somen are one of the most popular lunch-time meals in summer, since they are mostly eaten cold (like soba and udon). Somen are usually placed in a bowl of ice water to keep them cold during the meal. You dip them in tentsuyu, the soy-sauce-based dipping sauce, the same as those used to dip soba and udon. The traditional condiments are sliced green onions or chives, and wasabi.
Deep-fried foods are very popular in Japan. In fact, there are so many more items that are deep-fried in Japan, compared to in the USA where the basic deep-fried foods are chicken, potatoes, and shrimp. Japanese deep-fry chicken and shrimp, of course, but also pork chops; pork tenderloin; beef; hamburger patties, boneless chicken thighs; small pieces of boneless deep-fried chicken (karaage) that are seasoned in a mixture of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and sake. Except for karaage, all the other types of deep-fried foods such as pork cutlets are breaded with panko bread crumbs, after being sprinkled with flour and dipped in beaten eggs first. Real tonkatsu, meaning pork cutlets served at specialty tonkatsu restaurants, have become another culinary art in Japan. The chefs aim for perfection, making sure the temperature of the oil is perfect, the amount of panko is exact, and the meat is cooked just right but still juicy. In addition, each of their own home-made tonkatsu sauces are secret recipes. No smiles and small talk from chefs at tonkatsu restaurants. They take their cooking as seriously as chefs cooking at three-star restaurants.
Tonkatsu, which is a deep-fried pork cutlet, is the leading favorite among deep-fried food. The word tonkatsu means “ton=pork” and “katsu=cutlet”. Ton is one way in Japanese to mean pork. “Katsu” is how the Japanese abbreviate “cutlet”. However, the Japanese call many other common, deep-fried foods “katsu”. For example “hire katsu” (pork fillet cutlet); “kushi katsu” (a piece of pork, etc. put on a skewer (the kushi) , which are then breaded and deep-fried); “chicken katsu” (panko-breaded deep-fried chicken breast or thigh); and “menchi katsu” (minced meat in the shape of a hamburger that is breaded and deep fried). Tonkatsu restaurants are plentiful in Japan. It is easy to find one near a station, or a shopping area, or at an under-ground shopping arcade. When you eat tonkatsu and all deep-fried food, be sure to pour tonkatsu sauce on top of the katsu. After that squeeze the slice of lemon that comes with the meal and sprinkle the juice over the katsu, and then use your chopsticks to put on a small amount of hot mustard. After that, you will be ready to enjoy a truly delicious bite of tonkatsu. Tonkatsu and other deep-fried foods can be bought at super markets, convenience stores, and department stores for takeout. However, to truly enjoy tonkatsu as it should be, you should go to a specialty restaurant and eat it piping hot from the fryer.
Katsudon: One of the derivatives of tonkatsu is “katsudon”, which is a bowl filled with rice and topped with a tonkatsu that has been cooked in a small frying pan together with some mentsuyu (noodle sauce), onions, and beaten egg. This mixture is then placed on top of the bowl of rice and a few stems of Japanese parsley (mitsuba) are added for flavor and aroma.
Kushiage (kushikatsu) literally means “skewers deep-fried”. There are many kinds of kushiage, which is simply small pieces of pork, fish, squid, shrimp, squash, sweet potato, eggplant, green pepper, asparagus, and other vegetables in season, each put on individual skewers, breaded, and deep-fried. Kushiage restaurants are popular. When you go, you can choose each kushiage separately, or select a set course, or order “chef’s choice” and let the chef decide the menu that can consist of 10 or 12 or 15 or so pieces. Kushiage is somewhat a specialty of Osaka, but it takes some getting used to when eating out. In other areas of the country, the kushiage is served along with your own, personal bowl of dipping sauce. In Osaka, guests sit around a counter and the cooks deep-fry the Kushiage that you order. However, the dipping sauce is in big trays placed around the counter, and everyone dips their Kushiage into the trays. That is why the following phrase has become famous in Japan: Dipping twice is forbidden!
Kushiage accmodates a wide range of tastes to your preference
Karaage is basically “nothing more” than Japanese-style fried chicken, but that “nothing more than fried chicken” is in a whole other league from just salt-and-pepper “fried chicken”. It’s not whole pieces of chicken like legs, thighs, and breasts. Karaage are boneless, bite-size chicken pieces that have been marinated in soy sauce, sake, and grated ginger and garlic first. Before being deep-fried, they are coated in katakuriko (a potato starch) and maybe flour. When eaten, it is common to squeeze lemon juice on top and add a bit of hot mustard if wanted. Karaage are so popular, that they are sold at karaage specialty shops, supermarkets, convenience stores, izakaya dining pubs, and department store food floors. Karaage are one of the most popular drinking snacks served at izakaya in the evening. People love to eat karaage with their beers and classes of wine, sake, shochu, and highballs. Karaage are undoubtedly one of the all-time favorite lunch items, eaten as a set meal with rice, pickles, and other side dishes such as salad and boiled vegetables. They are also one of the most reasonable foods served at lunch time. A set meal can be as inexpensive as \500-\600. Sometimes you can ask for a few more pieces and pay extra. The savory taste of the soy sauce, ginger, and garlic is undeniably delicious and definitely a different taste from American-type fried chicken.
People of all ages love karaage
Tempura Of all the deep-fried foods in the world, and among all of the myriad kinds of Japanese food, tempura is undeniably one of the more famous, popular, loved, and delicious Japanese foods. Who doesn’t like a succulent, juicy, lightly battered, deep-fried, and piping-hot from the pot, sizzling prawn, asparagus, or piece of thick-cut sweet potato? The usual seafood used for tempura include squid, prawns, and horse mackerel. However, regular fish such as tuna, sword fish, and mackerel are not used because of their heavy, fishy taste.
Tempura in Japan is one of the most popular food items found on menus, and while it is a go-to food item, it is also one of the hardest things to cook just right. How is that? Well, excellent, and we are talking about an item that is the product of a superb mastery of cooking, must be lightly breaded (not thickly coated), cooked until golden brown (not pale or brunette), piping hot and crisp (not cold and soggy). In order to eat such impeccable tempura, you have to go to a high-class tempura restaurant, sit in front of the chef who masterfully coats, cooks, and serves each perfectly cooked piece to you one at a time. The chef never keeps piling up tempura. You eat the piece in front of you, and wait for the next one to come from the sizzling oil. You are offered different types of condiments for the tempura. The standard is a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, fish broth, sake, mirin, and sweet sake, into which grated radish and sometimes grated ginger are added. In addition, a couple of other condiments in which you can dip your tempura, are salt, curry powder, and matcha tea powder. This type of tempura dining is the ultimate experience, nothing less than perfection; however, it comes at a high price. Many up-scale tempura restaurants at hotels, for example, will charge in the range of \10,000 for a complete tempura meal that includes sashimi, a few side dishes of vegetables, along with rice, miso soup, pickles, and a small dessert. The ingredients deep-fried as tempura are not your own choice to choose, but are choice of the chef who knows what are the freshest items in season to serve. So, while this is a wonderful dining experience, this type of place might be beyond your budget.
Rest assured that they are reasonably priced fast-food restaurants that serve tempura that comes piled on a dish. At these places, the tempura is usually cooked to order, so it is hot at least. However, the first ones out of the pot, which have to wait for the other kinds of tempura too to cook, can start to lose their crispness.
Tempura is a popular item sold at supermarkets, department-store food-floors, and convenience stores. In this places, the tempura has not come directly from the sizzling pot of oil. Instead, it has been prepared ahead in big batches and placed in display cases or in plastic trays and sold as sets.
Nowadays, cafeteria-style noodle shops let you choose which type of and as many pieces of tempura that you want as topping for your noodles. While the tempura toppings look like “tempura”, they are not gourmet in any means. They are usually cooked in batches and set in big trays along the cafeteria line. They tend to get cold. In addition, the tempura at these places are heavily coated with batter, so while they look big, the actual “tempura part” inside is not so big.
Tempura is eaten in different ways. It can be eat alone as a set meal with rice, pickles, and soup. It makes a perfect topping on a bowl of rice, which is called “tendon” (tempura bowl). The sauce poured on to the tendon is slightly sweeter than regular tempura dipping sauce, and it has been cooked or reduced until it becomes a little thick. Once this sauce is poured on top of the tempura, that ordinarily seeming simple “tempura bowl” becomes a culinary experience not to be missed. And if you can afford it, get the biggest size of tendon so you can enjoy all kinds of deep-friend tempura items and feel satisfied. Finally, tempura is the most common topping placed on “toshikoshi soba”, which translated as the “passing into the new-year soba noodles”. Practically speaking, every household in Japan would never think of greeting in the New Year without having eaten a hearty bowl of toshikoshi soba on New Year’s Eve.