Food is the gateway to a foreign culture. We usually are familiar with a country’s food before we visit the actual place, and Japan is certainly no exception. It’s difficult to even nominate a most famous food in Japan. Still, we’re going to give it a noble try. So let’s get walking through that food gateway before the food coma sets in!
First, a little note. Some famous food in Japan is going to be just like home. Other times it will be different, but hopefully it will always taste even better than you expect! Different parts of Japan are particularly well known for certain types of food. We’ll be sure to clue you in to those nuances, so take out your chopsticks and let’s finally get our devour on.
Tempura is a bit of heaven on a plate
Quite literally, tempura invokes a bit of heaven. The first character of the word when written in Japanese is “heaven,” so you’d be right of have some expectations teed up. Outside of Japan, tempura is often just one of many items served at a Japanese restaurant. However, in Japan, tempura is best enjoyed at a purpose built establishment. Yes, that’s right, a restaurant that essentially serves nothing but tempura. After all, one of the most famous foods in Japan deserves nothing less!
If you’re in Tokyo, consider giving Tempura Shinjuku Tsunahachi a try. A top caliber tempura restaurant such as this will feature a breading so crisp and light that you will… yes, you’ll be briefly transported to heaven. Like so many Japanese foods, tempura batter is made from just a few deceptively simple ingredients. All you need is water, egg, flour and ice. Temperature management is essential. As is proper flour sifting. We recommend just eating out.
Sushi, but without the giant, sauce slathered rolls
Is sushi the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Japanese food? You’re not alone. A generation ago, the idea of eating raw fish was abhorrent. Now, it’s standard fare for hundreds of millions of people around the world. You may, however, be surprised by the more straight-laced selection that is sushi in Japan. Sure, there are maki (rolls), but they tend to be narrow and only contain maguro (raw bluefin tuna), cucumber, or Japanese pickles. Fat, multi-fish rolls with siracha are not a thing. You may, however, find a California roll once in awhile. It’s a rare, interesting example of a “reverse import.”
There are many rules about eating sushi. We’re not going to ruin your happiness by getting too strict. Let’s just cover a few important ones. The biggest faux paus is using too much shoyu (soy sauce). Just put a very little bit in the dish and dip gingerly. (Note that high end sushi restaurants may pre-apply the condiment, so if you don’t see shoyu on the table, don’t ask.) Most people use chopsticks to eat sushi, but it’s acceptable to use your fingers.
Some serious purists may tell you that drinking sake once eating sushi is no good, since the two rice products detract from each other. Some may tell you to start with white meat fish, or use ponzu sauce on some fish instead of shoyu. Don’t stress over it.
What, When, Wagyu
Wagyu (“wah-gyuu”) simply means Japanese beef, but the word has taken on additional, bliss-inducing meaning for many foodies. There is an official grading for Wagyu. The finest cuts are generally “A4” and “A5,” with the latter being the fattiest. The beef should be evenly marbled, as shown above where it has been sliced thinly for sukiyaki or shabu shabu. Generally, you’re not going to eat more than 100g or so of this beef. It’s delicious, but also pricey, and very rich. A set dinner that includes high-end wagyu will often be buttressed by less rich, but still satisfying side dishes and rice.
Chicken that will take you to new heights
Is white meat chicken more expensive than dark meat in your country? Not in Japan. The Japanese find dark meat to be more flavorful and tender. “Negima” is a popular type of yakitori (literally: grilled chicken), and is simply a small kebab of chicken thigh meat and Japanese green onions. It’s a sublime combination. There are two preparation options: “shio,” which just means salted, and “tare” (say “tah-ray”) which gets you a slightly sweet, soy-based glaze brushed across the surface. For maximum chicken enjoyment, we recommend going with “shio,” but it really is simply a matter of preference.
You can generally order yakitori by the stick, and generally each stick won’t be more than a dollar or two. With practice, many visitors soon determine their optimal yakitori to beer ratio. Let your heart be your guide. And speaking of hearts, chicken hearts make for another lovely variety of yakitori. Then there’s the skin (crispy!), cartilage, liver, and more breadth expanding options for when you’re ready. Or not. Regardless, you’re sure to discover why yakitori is a most famous food in Japan.
Grilled eel is a lot more meaty than you may imagine
Unagi, or freshwater eel, is a popular dish across Japan, but the place to have it is in Nagoya. While other parts of Japan generally call eel on rice “una-don,” the Nagoya style and nomenclature is “hitsumabushi.” Regardless, you will find unagi to be not very fishy at all. It’s rather meaty, in fact, but you can cut through it with a pair of chopsticks. The flavor should be nuanced but with depth, and the charring should come through too.
There’s no way around the fact that unagi is going to force you to part with a bit more cash than other Japanese foods. There’s an art to raising the eels, and preparing them (deboning can be a dastardly debacle). If you see eel priced on the cheap, it’s probably imported from China, and comes already prepared in a not-so-optimal way.
When in Osaka, get your okonomiyaki on
This ain’t your father’s pancake. First of all, it’s savory. Also, the batter has not just flour and water, but also grated Japanese yam. This adds a great consistency, and matches well with the seafood, meat, and vegetables that go in the mix. Traditionally, restaurants top their okonomiyaki with a latticework of mayonnaise, sweet sauce, and then a sprinkling of green onions. However, you can makes changes to this as befits your preference.
You’ll want to cut off small triangles and convey the pancake it chunks to your personal plate, from where you can use your chopsticks. If you’re game, gyuu-suji (beef innards) make for a lovely protein choice of filling. It doesn’t end up being a chewy as you may fear. Okonomiyaki may not be the most famous food in Japan, but it very well may be the most famous in Osaka.
No matter how you slice it ー wait, no, you’ll be using chopsticks
One trait all the most famous food in Japan shares is the eschewing of forks and knives. You’ll want to bone up on your chopstick skills before heading to Japan because some restaurants don’t even have forks to give you. You’ll also want to sign up for one of our super fun night food tours so we can show you so much more of what Japan has to offer!
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