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11 dishes that define Japan

Crisp batter, the freshest raw fish and a bucket-load of umami — Japan is home to one of the world’s most distinctive cuisines. From global favourites such as sushi to lesser-known delicacies like takoyaki, here’s our pick of the most memorable dishes.

By Tim Anderson, Nancy Singleton Hachisu, Joel Porter
Published 9 Aug 2019, 06:00 BST

Yakitori, one of Japan’s most straightforward yet best-loved dishes.

Photograph by Getty Images

With its long history, staggering variety and global reach, there are few food cultures to rival Japan’s. From world-conquering dishes such as sushi and ramen to prized ingredients like Wagyu beef and fugu (blowfish), this is a country whose cuisine is revered, and discussed, like no other. 

While its variety is a defining feature, there are a few common threads that run through Japanese food: the emphasis on simplicity and seasonal, fresh ingredients, for example. While this is a relatively recent trend in the Western world, it’s been a hallmark of Japanese cooking for centuries, particularly in the traditional, multi-course kaiseki meal, which was a huge influence on the concept of the tasting menu in French fine dining. 

Japan has been happy to borrow from other cultures too, such as dumplings and noodles from China, and dishes such as Austrian schnitzel, which the Japanese reinvented as tonkatsu. There’s so much to discover that you could spend weeks eating your way around the country and barely scratch the surface, but as a starting point, here are 11 dishes that every visitor should seek out. 

1. Yakitori

A cheap, simple snack of grilled chicken skewers, yakitori is one of Japan’s most straightforward yet best-loved dishes. A typical yakitori menu will have skewers made from all parts of the chicken, including liver and skin, alongside tsukune (meatballs). Most places will also offer vegetarian options such as tofu or mushroom. Cooked to order on a robata (charcoal grill), the juicy, lightly charred skewers are typically seasoned with either salt or a sweet yakitori sauce (tare) and eaten hot, straight off the stick.

Where to start
Found all over the country, any izakaya worth its salt will offer yakitori — and they’re always best paired with a cold beer. In Tokyo, Michelin-starred yakitori-ya Bird Land uses chicken of such high quality they even serve it raw. JP

2. Ramen

Psychedelic drug users often describe a feeling of detachment from the physical world around them as they head off on a mental voyage into strange and mesmerising new sensory planes. This is how I feel when I eat ramen.

The first time I had really good ramen, the outside world faded into soft focus and the background chatter dropped to an indistinct murmur as the bowl in front of me became my entire world. I was spellbound by its heady, meaty aroma and the tremblingly soft pork belly and heavenly broth — as warming and indulgent as a bubble bath, silken with fat, yet sticky with collagen. There were sparks of freshness and crunch from pickled ginger, spring onions and beansprouts, perfectly punctuating the sprightly bite of the noodles themselves, so that every mouthful was a little different from the one before. It commanded my attention until the very last slurp.

My first ‘ramen moment’ sparked an obsession with the dish and a drive to learn more. I discovered regional variations, such as Hokkaido’s miso ramen topped with butter and corn, and the Tokyo version, an umami-rich broth flavoured with dried sardines and soy sauce, topped with droplets of chicken fat that glisten on the surface. I learned about new trends, such as broth that’s flambéed with hot fat, turning it charcoal-black and infusing it with a bittersweet, smoky flavour.

I also discovered that ramen’s origins lie with Chinese immigrants, who introduced it to Japan in the late 19th century. And while there are certain rules to making it, those rules are constantly broken. Innovation and idiosyncrasy are hallmarks of ramen culture, which is why any given ramen shop is as singular as a snowflake. 

Where to start
In Tokyo, try Harukiya in Ogikubo, Kissou in Kiba and Fuunji in Shinjuku. TA

3. Tonkatsu

Most people are familiar with chicken katsu, but in Japan the pork version, tonkatsu, is king. A thick, fatty pork chop is deep-fried in golden panko breadcrumbs and served sliced with shredded cabbage, rice, a dollop of mustard and best of all, a tangy katsu sauce that’s like a thickened Worcestershire sauce. While this is the most common way to eat it, it can also be served with curry sauce, or as a katsu sando — sandwiched between thin slices of white bread with katsu sauce and mayonnaise.

Where to start
While many restaurants will offer tonkatsu as part of a broader menu, it’s better to head to a specialist such as Butagumi, in Tokyo, to experience the dish at its best. JP

Tonkatsu is a thick, fatty pork chop is deep-fried in golden panko breadcrumbs.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Gyoza

One of the country’s most popular snacks are gyoza — dumplings, usually filled with minced pork, cabbage, spring onion and ginger, that have been grilled on a teppanyaki (flat-top grill). Glistening with fat on the top and a crisp, golden brown on the bottom, gyoza are simply served with a soy-and-vinegar dipping sauce and chilli oil. Much like yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), these juicy, meaty dumplings are perfect with beer.

Where to start
Gyoza are found all over the country, especially at izakaya (a type of informal Japanese pub) and at ramen bars, where they’re served as a starter or side. There are a number of gyoza specialist, too — typically, small late-night bars with just a few seats. JP

5. Unagi

‘Unagi’ is the word for freshwater eel, one of Japan’s finest delicacies; in Tokyo alone there are three Michelin-starred unagi-ya that specialise in it. The most common style of serving it is known as kabayaki, in which the eel is filleted and covered in a sticky, sweet soy sauce, then grilled until glistening and golden brown with a slightly crisp skin. Traditionally served over rice in a black-and-red lacquer box, eel fillets have a rich fat content, making them the fish equivalent of Kobe beef, with a buttery soft texture and a serious punch of flavour. Due to a decline in the number of eels, as well as the long preparation time involved, unagi is one of Japan’s more expensive dishes, with the coveted glass eel commanding the highest prices.

Where to start
You get what you pay for when it comes to unagi and it’s worth splashing out on a meal at one of Japan’s Michelin-starred restaurants, such as the very traditional Nodaiwa, in Tokyo, which has been run by the same family since 1850. JP

Sushi. While the first thing that comes to mind is raw fish, the word sushi actually translates as ‘vinegared rice’.

Photograph by Getty Images

6. Sushi

If there’s one food Japan is known for globally, it’s sushi. While the first thing that comes to mind is raw fish, the word sushi actually translates as ‘vinegared rice’, which is the foundation (and some would say the most important part) of all the varieties. Nigiri sushi is the most common, consisting of a small oblong of vinegared rice with a sliver of fish and a dab of wasabi on top. Maki, where the rice and fish are rolled in dried kelp and cut into pieces, is another common type, while in Osaka you can find oshizushi, a traditional way of preserving rice and fish by pressing it into a wooden box.

Where to start
Eating sushi in Japan can involve anything from a supermarket takeaway all the way up to spending hundreds of pounds at one of Tokyo’s Michelin-starred sushi counters such as Sukiyibashi Jiro, made famous by the 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. For dishes from Jiro-trained sushi master Rei Masuda, head to Sushi Masuda, or one of his Sushi Wakon spin-offs. JP

7. Takoyaki

Street food is an interesting notion in Japan. Oxymoronic, even, given that eating in the street is generally frowned upon. Which is why there are comparatively few food stalls, and why some have chairs and tables, or little shelves for leaning on, allowing customers to sate their hunger outdoors without risking a social faux pas.

Walnut-sized takoyaki are made all over Japan but they originated in the port city of Osaka, on the island of Honshu, where they remain the most popular street food.

Across the city, roadside stalls, convenience stores and speciality restaurants dish up these savoury spheres (crispy on the outside, gooey inside), which are scorching hot when served fresh off the griddle. Better, then, to wait a few minutes before plucking one up with the obligatory toothpick and taking your first, tentative bite.

Making takoyaki starts with a batter of flour, eggs, baking powder, dried fish and dashi (seaweed broth). Cast-iron or copper moulds, which look a little like egg boxes, are oiled and heated before a lashing of batter is ladled in.

Next, the filling is scattered across the top: boiled octopus pieces, chopped spring onion, tempura batter crumbs and pickled ginger. More batter is poured across the top and left to cook for a few minutes. The cook then turns the takoyaki, so that any uncooked batter flows into the bottom of the moulds. They’re rotated regularly to create evenly cooked, spheres with a thin, crispy skin and an oozing, bechamel-like centre. Outside of Osaka, however, takoyaki tends to have a thicker skin and batter that’s more firmly set, yet still soft and creamy. 

In Osaka, most shops recommend eating their takoyaki ‘bare’, without sauce — although late at night, after a beer or two, there’s something addictive about the addition of the thick, Worcestershire-like sweet sauce that’s usually offered as an option, along with a squiggle of mayo, a sprinkling of powdered green nori and a large handful of shaved katsuobushi (dried, smoked skipjack tuna).

Most of the best places to find these delicious spheres are in Osaka. Some shops pride themselves on the broth that goes into the batter, while others focus on their cooking style or history. In truth, though, customer loyalty is usually the driving force behind a vendor’s success. Look out for the busier spots, where the cooks churn out fresh takoyaki at a pace, rather than the places with sad, deflated precooked balls waiting for passing trade. You want pride in the product and a sparkle in the eye of the cook. NSH

Takoyaki are made all over Japan but they originated in the port city of Osaka.

Photograph by Getty Images

8. Yakisoba

Quick, cheap, filling and delicious, yakisoba is one of the pillars of Japanese food culture. The name refers to stir-fried wheat noodles, which can be mixed with just about any combination of meat, vegetables and seafood. That said, pork, cabbage and beansprouts topped with a fried egg is the classic. It sounds simple enough but, this being Japan, there’s more to it — the whole thing is elevated by a variety of condiments such as dried seaweed, pickled ginger and a tangy yakisoba sauce. The dish’s popularity has led to a host of variations springing up in Japan, including the yakisoba sandwich, a carb-heavy snack that involves stuffing fried noodles into a buttered hot-dog bun and topping them with mayonnaise.

Where to start
Yakisoba can be found everywhere from train stations and street food stalls to specialist restaurants and outdoor festivals. It’s also very easy to make, so is often eaten at home — as you’ll discover if you’re lucky enough to score yourself a dinner invitation. JP

9. Mochi

The quintessential Japanese dessert, mochi is a sweet, soft rice cake that’s traditionally eaten at New Year but is now an everyday treat. There’s a bewildering number of varieties, from the classic version, stuffed with sweet red bean paste, to a pink type flavoured with sakura (cherry blossom) — and even some that aren’t made with rice at all, such as warabi, a clear jelly made from bracken plant.

Where to start
Japan has several high-end dessert shops selling all kinds of beautiful mochi creations, such as Ginza Akebono and Toraya. They can also be found on restaurant menus and in convenience stores. JP

Tempura is thought to have been brought to Japan by Portuguese traders and missionaries in the 16th century.

Photograph by Laura Edwards

10. Tempura

The technique of coating seafood and vegetables in feather-light, fried batter is thought to have been brought to Japan by Portuguese traders and missionaries in the 16th century. A good batter should be light, crunchy and not greasy, encasing everything from shiitake mushrooms and kabocha (Japanese pumpkin) to prawns and fish.

Where to start
Look for tempura-ya (specialist restaurants) where the chefs fry your food right in front of you. Try compact Tempura Motoyoshi in Tokyo, which has seats around the chef’s counter.

11. Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a jazzed-up savoury pancake that’s found all over Japan but is especially popular in the cities of Osaka and Hiroshima. Ingredients and recipes can vary, but a typical version will include a simple batter (usually flour, nagaimo yam or dashi and eggs) combined with cabbage, noodles, seafood and pork. The mixture is then fried on a teppanyaki grill and topped with mayonnaise and bonito flakes. It’s gooey, greasy and not particularly healthy but it’s delicious and makes for a great late-night meal with a couple of beers.

Where to start
Head for a specialist restaurant, such as Fukutaro in Osaka, to get the quintessential okonomiyaki experience. Here, stools are arranged around the cook’s counter, allowing guests to eat their pancakes hot off the grill. JP


Getting there
British Airways, Japan Airlines and ANA all fly from Heathrow to Tokyo Haneda.

How to do it
In Osaka, Ninja Food Tours offers the Namba Food Crawl Tour for 9,500 yen (£69) per person. Includes tasters of dishes such as kushikatsu, okonomiyaki and takoyaki.

Oishii Food Tours’ Izakaya Tour hits the pubs in Tokyo’s Ebisu area, with the chance to sample yakitori, sashimi, tempura and plenty of beer en route. 15,000 yen (£109) per person.

More info:

Published in the September issue of National Geographic Traveller Food  

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