Let’s just get this out of the way. If you go to Japan, you are required to try sushi. You can go ahead and indulge in really expensive sushi, but you should also try to milk the fact that it’s even POSSIBLE to get cheap sushi in Japan (unlike in the States). Go to a kaitenzushi restaurant, a restaurant that serves cheap sushi on a conveyor belt. I ate at one called Kappazushi, and I could fill myself up easily on only 1000 yen, or roughly $13 at the time. You’re charged by the plate depending on the plate’s color. Some kinds of sushi are cheaper, like tuna nigiri, whereas others are more expensive. It tasted amazing, especially to my untrained American, land-locked taste buds. If you eat fancy sushi from Hawaii all the time, it might not be up to snuff, but to the average person it’s just as good. Besides, pulling them off the conveyor belt is a lot of fun, especially the orders that come to you via things like mini old fashioned trains or futuristic bullet trains (shinkansen).
Sukiyaki is my favorite Japanese dish by far. Most people haven’t heard of it, and if they’ve had it in the United States it might not have been served right. I often have it where it comes out in one big hot pot, but sukiyaki is actually kind of like non-cheese fondue. It’s a special occasion meal in Japan, where a big ceramic or cast iron pot is set on a hot plate in the center of a table. The pot is filled with savory-sweet dark broth made form a mix of dashi (the fish stock base in miso soup), soy sauce, mirin, and sugar, which is brought to a boil. Side plates are loaded with various noodles, vegetables, tofu, and meat. The meat is high quality pork or beef, thinly sliced. Then all these ingredients are thrown in, either all at once or in whatever order you prefer. The meat cooks fast, soaking up the flavorful liquid. You spoon out the cooked food into single serving bowls, sometimes filled with rice. In Japan, they enjoy dipping the meat and other ingredients into raw egg, but my American evasion to raw egg kept me from trying it. If you do want to try it, rest assured that eggs used raw in Japan are carefully regulated to ensure you won’t get sick.
Sukiyaki is heart and stomach warming, delicious, and a lot of fun to cook. Careful, though, udon noodles can be pretty hard to hold on to! Sukiyaki is often cooked at home, but restaurants usually serve this dish up buffet style, where you pay in the beginning and can either go back for more, or ask your server to bring out seconds, thirds, fourths, until you are stuffed.
If you’ve read my post about my host family then you are already familiar with this dish. Kiritanpo is the specialty of Akita prefecture in northern Japan. The kiritanpo themselves are made from slightly mushed rice molded around a wood stick to form hollow tubes. These tubes are grilled and then can either be eaten on their own, or put into a special stew hot pot (nabe) made with chicken and vegetables. The kiritanpo soak up the warm broth and have a wonderful chewy texture. I’ve also had just the kititanpo covered in salty, nutty miso paste, which was absolutely heavenly.
Okonomiyaki is often called a Japanese pancake, or a Japanese pizza. Pancake is kind of close, but still doesn’t convey the unique nature of okonomiyaki. Like sukiyaki, okonomiyaki is something you usually cook at your own table at restaurants. You order a variety of ingredients you want included, such as vegetables, meat, shrimp, pickled ginger, etc. They then bring you out a bowl of the batter, which is light and airy, and the ingredients you ordered. Mix them together, and then spill it onto the hot griddle in the middle of your table. According to my Japanese friend who we were eating with, it takes skill to know exactly when to flip okonomiyaki. When you feel like one side is done enough, flip it over to cook the other side. Top the facing side with delicious sauces like Japanese mayonnaise and tonkatsu sauce (a savory-sweet brown condiment). It is also usually topped with bonito flakes, which are fluttery shavings from dried fish.
So, you’ve probably heard this before, but real ramen is nothing like the instant stuff you buy in the packets or Styrofoam cups at the grocery store for less than a dollar. It’s a big bowl of steaming, delicious broth with hefty, golden noodles. There are many kinds of ramen, though the most popular is called tonkotsu, which has slices of marbled pork (called chashu), green onions, and pickled ginger. The soup usually comes with a hardboiled egg floating in the broth, sometimes cooked in soy-sauce to give it a brown color. The egg is my favorite part.
It is polite in Japan to make loud slurping noises while eating ramen, to show the chef that you think it’s delicious. It also helps to draw up the liquid clinging to the noodles, as well as keep the hot broth from burning your tongue. This is surprisingly hard to pull off after years of training yourself not to do it. I recommend giving it a shot, although no one will fault you for just eating quietly, especially if you’re a woman. Ramen shops are often itty bitty inside, with only a few seats, so try to eat quickly to let someone else get in. By the way, instant ramen in Japan tastes so much better than American instant ramen. They make midnight study sessions actually bearable.
Taiyaki are a popular festival food. They are little fish shaped cakes most commonly filled with either a sweet red bean (azuki) paste or creamy yellow vanilla custard. The bean paste one sits a little heavier in your stomach, but it is more traditional. The custard filling is lighter, but still rich. The bread around the filling is similar to the consistency of a crepe. These treats are really adorable, and since there are usually made at an outdoor stand, it’s fun to watch them cook, too. Go ahead; make your little fish swim through the air before chomping his tail off. We won’t judge.
The Japanese love curry, though they have their own kind of curry that is different from Indian or Thai curries. It’s thick like Indian curry, but it usually doesn’t have as much of the spice, and it has a different taste. A popular way to eat curry is in a dish called curry rice (karei raisu), where a big pile of white rice is paired with vegetables covered in curry sauce. Sometimes, sautéed chicken is added. But to me, the king of all Japanese curry dishes will always be katsu curry (katsu karei). Instead of sautéed chicken, the curry is placed next to delicious panko-covered fried chicken or pork, which is sliced into strips. The combination of the crispy, salty meat dipped into the spicy sauce is mouthwatering. The rice brings out a bright sweetness to the curry, and offers a light contrast to the succulent meat. It might not be the healthiest Japanese dish, but damn is it good!
I think my love for Japanese bakeries stems from the fact that the United States is so devoid of real bakeries. All our bread and cakes are bought from a big-box grocery store, with the rare exception here and there. This is not the case in Japan. There are real bakeries everywhere, and even the ones in the grocery stores feel like little neighborhood businesses. As such, most of Japan’s baking related foods are amazing, from the melon flavored sweet bread to the dainty sandwiches of fluffy white bread. The most impressive baked goods, however, are the beautiful, delicious cakes. Japan takes cake decorating very seriously. If you read my post about convenience in Japan, I mentioned the cake specialty shop, Fujiya. They serve individual slices of cake as well as whole cakes. Each slice is delicately decorated, with frosting that has just the right amount of sweetness. (I can’t stand the sugar laden, instant tooth-rotting icing found commonly in the States.) The strawberry shortcake pieces are the prettiest and tastiest in my opinion, but all of them are beautiful. I also went to a cake buffet! Yes you read that right; a cake buffet, as in a place where you just eat cake and sweets and go back for more. They’re called keiki baikingu, which translates as “cake Viking.” For some reason “Viking” is the word for buffet in Japan. I could only manage a couple trips before I was overloaded on sugar, but it was so much fun and so delicious.
One of the most fascinating parts of my dining experience in Japan was seeing how they did food from other countries differently than in the United States. Obviously there are Americanized versions of Chinese food, Italian food, and Japanese food. But it was really interesting to see Japanized versions of Chinese food, Italian food, and American food. Restaurants like McDonalds, Starbucks, and Denny’s are adjusted to better suit Japanese tastes. Subway has items like shrimp and other fish beside the ham slices.The Denny’s I ate at had amazing hamburger-based meals, though not always in a bun. You might criticize me for eating at a Denny’s at all, but I don’t regret it. It was delicious, way better than any American Denny’s I’ve eaten at, and the difference in the menu was amazing. I had teriyaki burgers at a little café, which were delicious but tiny. The closest thing to Mexican food there was called “taco rice.” It was essentially ground beef, lettuce, tomatoes, avocado, and Dorito-like chips mixed into white rice. (The Doritos were probably in lieu of cheese. Cheese is very expensive in Japan.) Surprisingly, it was very tasty! Italian food was terrible, though. I went to an Italian food buffet, and their sauces on the noodles were just not nearly as flavorful as I was used to. Fair warning, tomato sauce in Japan basically tastes like chunky ketchup. Even though I didn’t like it, I was happy to see how different the Japanese version of Italian food was compared to back home. So, even though you’re not eating Japanese food, trying food from a different nationality in Japan reveals a lot more about Japanese culture than you might think.
Okay, so this isn’t a food, it’s a drink, but it was like crack to me while I was in Japan, and probably the taste I remember best. It’s great cold, but amazing hot. It’s basically just a really sweet version of black tea with milk, served in a dense steel can. Don’t be deceived by its simplicity. One taste of this and you’ll find yourself shoving your 100yen coins into the vending machines so fast, you’ll wonder why you’re broke all of a sudden. My roommate, knowing my love for this beverage, was kind enough to buy me the powdered kind so I could mix my own at home. Sadly that mix is now a faraway, delicious memory. If you ever go to Japan, please try this amazing drink. See if you can find the cans (not plastic) that are thinner at the top; those were my favorite.
What are some of your favorite foods eaten abroad? What are your favorite Japanese foods? Any weird food stories? Let me know in the comments below!
**Added Note About Vegetarianism/Veganism in Japan: Being a vegetarian is very difficult in Japan! It's probably easy if you cook your own food, but if you're visiting and you're vegetarian or vegan, it will be very difficult to find accommodation in restaurants. It may be easier in big cities like Tokyo or Kyoto, but if you're in the smaller areas be prepared to either make your own food or make exceptions to your diet for the visit. When I was there, they thought vegetarian either meant you ate chicken instead of beef, or you only ate cabbage salads. The good thing is that if you DO manage to find a vegetarian meal at a restaurant, it will probably be vegan as well, since Japan isn't big on cow products, and egg is only in so many things. My honest advice is to find a hotel that has a kitchen, and try out the grocery stores in Japan. That can be a lot of fun, too, and some of their produce is amazing! (I had the juiciest, sweetest strawberries EVER from a grocery store in Japan.) So in general, don't expect to find vegetarian/vegan food in smaller places, and be prepared to do a lot of research to find it in the big cities.