Japan is all about color, aesthetics and variety when it comes to food. From north to south and from the coast to the interior, each district and region has its own specialties and local products, and continues, day by day, to develop its own food culture.
It would take years to describe all the dishes that are worthwhile, so we’d better focus on the 10 that we’ve collected on a recent trip there – and there are a few already – and that we think you shouldn’t miss out on if you’re lucky enough to visit Japan, or have good Japanese restaurants located in your city.
Nattō It is the dish that generates the most discussions because even among the Japanese there is a duality of opinions: it is said that either you love it or you hate it.
It is the soya fermented by Bacillus natto, which is normally eaten for breakfast with white rice and a little bit of Japanese mustard, although there are many variations.
No one disputes its nutritional and healthy properties for the body (prevention of cerebral infarction, ischemic disease, senile dementia, osteoporosis, its hypotensive effect, etc, etc) but the point is that nattō has an unpleasant smell, is sticky and has a very particular taste – and one could even say hard – for the western palate.
However, if you go to a hotel that includes breakfast, don’t order the Western breakfast, order the washoku and try it, so you can get into a discussion about whether you love it or hate it, and you will earn points with the Japanese.
Karēraisu The ‘curry and rice’ is very popular, very easy to make, cheap and very easy to find (in any combini -convenience store- you can buy it and even with different versions). It is clear that it is not an original dish from Japan, but from India, introduced in Japan by the British, but the Japanese have given it their particular touch.
Usually, curry sauce is combined with white rice cooked in the Japanese way, but there are also many dishes with karē (curry): karēudon (curry and noodles) and kare pan (curry bread).
karēraisu is one of Japan’s spoon-fed dishes. The sauce is a stir-fry of carrots, onion and potato to which cubes of curry concentrate are added. It can be made with chicken, beef, pork or tofu.
Each family has its own style of cooking the sauce because it is allowed to add different ingredients, for example, our friend Maki adds a splash of red wine to make it more Mediterranean.
Kaisengomachazuke The ochazuke, Ocha, tea + tsuke, dip), is a simple dish that consists of pouring green tea, dashi (fish stock) or simple boiling water over the already cooked rice.
It seems too simple and mundane but nothing is simple in Japan and the refinement of the dish is achieved with the quality of the tea poured and the ingredients or toppings added, from pickles to fish, seeds or seaweed.
Tsukemono Any diet in Japan must include pickles, and they are served with virtually any traditional dish. Sometimes they are served separately to be eaten with white rice or miso soup.
There are many ways to pickle them, from the classic salt, vinegar and miso, to soybeans and the hard outer skin of rice, to fermentation with sake, curry etc.
All kinds of vegetables are pickled (carrots, daikon, cucumber, cabbage, ginger…) and some fruits, among which is the most famous pickle: the umeboshi (plum) which has a strong and acidic taste, but serves as a digestive and is like the nattō, you have to try it.
Sometimes, seaweed and other types of seafood are added to the pickles to give them a varied aroma and taste. You can try them in any menu you like, in the obentō (food prepared to take away in little boxes) and in the onigiri (rice balls). The most difficult thing will be to find out what type they are.
Soba, ramen, udon, somen The world of noodles in Japan is more like a galaxy to which we will dedicate an article of our own to put some order among the dozens of varieties that we can find in Japanese restaurants.
To sum up a topic like this – we could survive a long season in Japan only on all kinds of noodles – we can find soba (buckwheat noodles that can be served cold or hot); ramen.
Thin Chinese noodles served in hot broth of pork, beef, bonito…; udon (fatter flour-based noodles usually served hot and in broth, although there are many versions), and somen, thin, white and usually for summer and served cold.
Wagyu The Japanese are almost as proud of their beef as they are of their sushi. Japanese beef is world famous, especially for Kobe beef, but there is also a lot of myth around it.
When we eat wagyu (literally, Japanese cow) we have to take into account especially the meat score, which is at least 3 to 5 (5 is the maximum), and its marbling (intramuscular fat level of the meat) which goes from 1 to 12.
Kobe beef, if authentic, is delicious because it is a meat rated as excellent. But there are other types of Japanese beef from different prefectures in Japan that we recommend you try without any fear because they are delicious.
Hida’s veal, for example, is rated 3 to 5, is more affordable than Kobe’s and is exquisite.
Katsu The fritanga is also very popular in Japan. There are many kinds of fried and breaded foods, and it’s fun to try them, especially if you attend a matsuri (Japanese festival). Each bar will have its own specialty.
Tonkatsu, for example, is the breaded, chopped pork chop, and it is so popular that it even has its day in the Japanese calendar-October 1 is tonkatsu day.
Within the world of Japanese fried foods we also have the menchikatsu, which is a kind of croquette of minced pork and beef, with onions, salt and pepper, and the kushi katsu of meat, vegetables, prawns, scallops, octopus, squid, sausages, candied ginger, etc.
Sushi and sashimi. With the proliferation of Japanese restaurants and the advent of affordable sushi, even in Japan you can eat sushi every day. We know it wouldn’t be necessary to mention it because everyone knows it, but we included it so that you can insist that you let yourself be carried away by the sushi-man of the place you have chosen and try it all.
Okashi If the world of noodles is a galaxy, the world of sweets could be a universe. Wagashi are the sweets normally served with tea. I’m sure many of you have already tried mochi (rice cake) and azuki , the red bean paste.
Be sure to go into a department store (depāto) and go to the grocery area, and you will see how comprehensive the subject is. Then multiply that by every region in Japan. However, we can say to reassure ourselves that some are very appealing visually but then they may be a bit cloying for us.
Sake. Sake has a reputation for being a distillate, and instead is a fermented drink, like wine and beer. It is the so-called rice wine, although by its process we could say that it is perhaps a little more like beer.
Of all the fermented beverages, sake is the one with the highest level of naturally occurring alcohol. And yes! It is also consumed during meals, because the alcohol content is usually reduced from 19-20% to 15-16%.