Japanese food culture evolved through close to 2500 years of history, but the most fascinating part of the story is how a lot of the dishes and ingredients that we view as integral to modern Japanese cuisines were added by foreigners, many of them as little as a couple hundred years back.
It is also the case that the Westernized version of Japanese cuisine differs significantly from common customs in Japan – all in all, Japan is a case study of how a variety of social, imperial, cultural and religious influences dictated the course through which eating habits evolved and stabilized on the islands.
Table of Contents
- The Evolution of Japanese Food Culture – Origins, Influences and Traditions
- Traditional Italian Food Culture is Driven by Geography and Regional Cuisine Influences
- Japanese Food Influences/Imports from Other Cultures
- Food for Major Japanese Holidays and Special Occasions
- List of 10 Popular Japanese Cooking Styles, Customs and Preparations
- List of 18 Japanese Spices, Ingredients, Sauces, and Condiments You May Need
- List of 25 Popular Japanese Dishes Around the World
- 1. Sushi (Fish with Rice)
- 2. Sashimi (Raw Fish)
- 3. Tamagoyaki (Omelette)
- 4. Edamame (Immature Soybean Pods)
- 5. Miso Soup (Bean Soup with Seaweed)
- 6. Gyoza (Pot Stickers)
- 7. Takoyaki (Octopus Balls or Octopus Dumplings)
- 8. Oden (Winter Hot Pot)
- 9. Shabu shabu (Hot Pot)
- 10. Mentaiko (Salty Fish Roe)
- 11. Udon (Long Wheat Noodles)
- 12. Ramen (Wheat Noodles)
- 13. Soba (Buckwheat Noodles)
- 14. Yakisoba (Cooked Soba)
- 15. Tempura (Crispy Fried Meat or Vegetables)
- 16. Jingisukan (Genghis Khan)
- 17. Unagi na Kabayaki (Grilled Freshwater Eel)
- 18. Yakitori (Barbecued chicken)
- 19. Sukiyaki (Beef Hotpot)
- 20. Onigiri (Rice Ball)
- 21. Donburi (Rice Bowl)
- 22. Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pancakes)
- 23. Kare Raisu (Japanese Curry Rice)
- 24. Chawanmushi (Steamed in a Cup)
- 25. Wagashi (Japanese Sweet Balls)
- The Verdict … Japanese Food Culture is Truly One of a Kind!
The Evolution of Japanese Food Culture – Origins, Influences and Traditions
The original inhabitants of Japan were the Ainus, a white race whose descendants are still found sporadically, mostly in the mountains. The major influences in Japanese cuisine as we know it came from across the sea, when various generations of Chinese people came onto the islands, bringing with them cooking styles and ingredients.
The trend has continued through subsequent generations, with Chinese, Koreans, Portuguese, Germans and Americans, among others, making contributions towards signature dishes and ingredients. The culinary history of Japan can thus be traced through the following periods of history:
- Pre-Neolithic Era (Jomon Period): During the pre-Neolithic period, the Japanese were still hunters and gatherers. The main inhabitants were the Caucasian race of Ainus – long bearded and light skinned. They still exist in small numbers, mostly mixed in with other races.
- The Asiatic Migration, circa 2400 B.C, towards the end of the Jomon Period.: The Asians came over from the mainland, bringing with them the cultivation of rice and the use of metal tools – sparking a change to a life of agriculture. Interestingly, the rice introduced then was the sticky, sweet, short-grained variety, a tradition that continues to this very day. The Japanese do not have much use for long-grained rice.
- The Middle Ages (Kofun Period, Soga Clan): The Kofun period (3rd to 7th Century AD) was not known for major record keeping food habit wise. The Soga Clan came in with Buddhist ideals, which led to enforcing a taboo on eating meat among townspeople, though occasional indulgences were common. Records were not well kept during the Helen Period either, so much of the Middle Ages are shrouded in mystery as far as Japanese cuisine was concerned.
- Heian Period (794 to 1185 A.D), Kamakura Period (1192 to 1334 A.D), Edo Period (15th Century) & Later Middle Ages: During the thousand plus years, Japan had a number of periods where deprivation and lack of raw materials such as meat and rice led to imperial edicts and local innovations on cuisine. The one constant was seafood, which was freely available but sometimes needed to be preserved for sustenance during hard times. Sushi became a popular snack, and then a main entree – during the Edo Period, sushi without fermentation was introduced. The style persisted till the 18th century, when hand-rolled and nigiri style sushi was invented. In the middle of these different culinary periods, there was the advent of Buddhism, which caused the cessation of meat-based diets in a broad section of the population. There were growing interactions with foreigners over the latter part of this period, including the Portuguese, who in fact introduced one of the significant Japanese dishes, tempura, described later.
- Meiji Restoration of 1868: In the latter half of the 19th century, Japan began to trade freely with the Western world, culminating with the Meiji Restoration period beginning in 1868. Emperor Meiji began to work closely with Britain and other European powers and changed a significant amount of taboos – for example, meat could now be consumed in public, a move that created a significant backlash from the Buddhist population before it slowly got accepted.
- Modernity, Post WWII and Now: Japan went through a significant period of deprivation post WWII, when food was rationed, and ingredients were difficult to come by. Over the past 30 years or so, Japanese cuisine has come back into its own – with the advent of fresh thinking and big-name chefs and restaurants who have made a mark for themselves on the global stage.
The pattern of influences due to a confluence of Asian and European cultures continued. In modern times, Japan has emerged as a culinary powerhouse due to a blend of powerful styles – the number of Michelin starred chefs in Japan is second only to France.
Traditional Italian Food Culture is Driven by Geography and Regional Cuisine Influences
As discussed, Japanese cuisine is a blend of the traditional and the modern. Some of the traditions are region specific, others have been imparted by centuries of influences from Carthage, Greece, Rome and the Moorish people.
Japan’s cluster of islands have distinctive styles and dishes that have developed traditionally due to strong influences from various indigenous people, overseas visitors and local conditions – which includes both topography and weather.
The northern islands are freezing in the winters, with Siberian winds over cold sea water. The southernmost islands, on the other hand, have a balmy Pacific climate. Regional cuisines from Japan are often touted as artisan forms of dishes that have received national and international recognition.
Some of the main cooking regions are listed below:
- Hokkaido: The northernmost island in Japan, Hokkaido brings in a rich bounty of seafood from its cold Northern seas. Hotpots are a local specialty – including Ishikari-nabe, a salmon and vegetables hotpot made from fresh salmon, vegetables, tofu and konnyaku. The Mongol influences were strongest towards the north, which shows in a barbecued dish called Jingisukan (Genghis Khan), described later. Another specialty from Sapporo city (where the beer is brewed) is kaisendon (sashimi rice bowl) – a selection of the best seafood available from the seas of Hokkaido.
- Hokuriku: This cuisine represents the northwestern parts of Honshu, the largest island in Japan. One of the staples is Hotaru Ika, the firefly squid. There are a number of signature dishes, including Jibu-ni, a delicious wild duck soup with traditional vegetables found in Kanazawa from the Ishikawa prefecture.
- Chugoku: The Chugoku region contains the (in)famous city of Hiroshima – which attracts substantial world tourism on an annual basis. Besides the historical significance, there are a number of food related items that are unique to Japanese cuisine – including oysters that some believe are the best in the world and the delicious but dangerous fugu, or puffer fish. Another signature dish is the Japanese Pancake – okonomiyaki – described below.
- Chubu and Tokai: This region sits between the Osaka and Tokyo regions on Honshu. The Shizuoka prefecture is renowned for its eels, while the Aichi prefecture is known for Misokatsu, a deep-fried pork cutlet served with a miso-based sauce. Another specialty from the region is houtou, a noodle like dish similar to udon.
- Kanto: The Kanto region sits right outside Tokyo and is well known for its rich array of seafood. One of the signature expressions is Namerou – popular in Chiba. There are other popular dishes frequently found in Tokyo, including Monja-yaki (a pan-fried batter) and Fukagawa mashi – a rice bowl topped off with shelled clams, leeks and miso.
- Kansai: This region surrounds two big, well known areas – Kyoto and Osaka. The region specializes in many styles of tofu, including boiled tofu (yudofu) in Kyoto and freeze-dried tofu (koyadofu) in Wakayama. Takoyaki or Octopus dumplings, described below, are favorites of the Osaka style of cuisine. One outstandingly different dish is pickled carp – funazushi – a dish that uses similar techniques to aging cheese.
- Tohoku: Sendai, a city in the Tohoku region in Honshu, is famous for sasa kamaboko, a steamed fish paste. One of the signature dishes is Wanko Soba – a dish where the servers throw noodles in mouthful-sized portions at the diner as s/he finishes every portion.
- Shikoku Island: The smallest of Japan’s main islands, this region is famous for dishes with the bonito fish. The Kagawa region is also known for sanuki-udon, a locally made wheat noodle.
- Kyushu Island: Japan’s southernmost island is known for certain fruits and cuisine distinctly different from the rest of the cuisine – by virtue of being the most tropical of Japan’s locales. Among the specialties are golden miyazaki mangoes and bittersweet hyuganatsu – a yellow citrus fruit. There are several seafood dishes from here, including hiyajiru, made by pouring a chilled fish and miso-based soup over a hot bowl of rice. Another dish from Kyushu is the boiled chicken dish – Mizutaki.
- Okinawa: These islands between Japan and the Philippines are known for a number of simple dishes, including Goya Champuru, a dish with bitter melons, pork, tofu and vegetables.
The regional cuisines mentioned above are but a few of the many variations one finds in Japanese cuisines as you go from prefecture to prefecture.
Japanese Food Influences/Imports from Other Cultures
As mentioned before, Japanese cuisine was heavily influenced by the cultures of China, Mongolia, Korea and other Asian countries. In later times, Portuguese, British and American influences also played a big role.
We will be describing Japanese food styles, ingredients and accompaniments in the sections below – but it’s crucial to understand one thing. There are so many Japanese traditions around the proper procedures and presentations, and how the different Japanese regions combine certain ingredients and styles based on how things have been done, but also learned behavior based on outside influences, that many descriptions of dishes, styles or ingredients can only be representative – otherwise the descriptions would run into volumes and volumes of texts.
One prime example being the Meiji Restoration, when the entire civilization seemed to do a hard reset – eschewing certain ancient Asian traditions in favor of Western/Gregorian ones.
The descriptions over the rest of this report are meant to convey a true flavor of what Japanese cuisine is all about, without getting completely bogged down with minutiae.
Food for Major Japanese Holidays and Special Occasions
Every country in the world has traditional foods that are served at festivals such as Christmas, New Years and other special/religious occasions.
One of the interesting facts about Japanese festivals is their deviation from a lunar calendar. During the Meiji Restoration (beginning 1868), Japan adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1873, which means that celebrations held for New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day etc. all switched to the dates used in Western traditions.
Here are some of the best-known food served on Japanese Festival days:
- During Omisoka, or the Japanese end of year (New Year’s Eve) celebration on Dec 31st, people round up their evening celebrations by eating toshikoshi soba or toshikoshi udon an hour before midnight, a tradition based on toshi-koshi, or using long noodles to “cross over from one year to the next”. The noodles can be eaten plain, with scallions, or with tempura. Many families will eat Osechi with their friends and neighbors, including a plethora of Japanese New Year foods that are eaten over the next several days – including Datemaki (sweet rolled omelette mixed with fish paste or mashed shrimp), Kamaboko (dried fish cake), Kazunoko (herring roe), ozone, ebi (skewered prawns cooked with sake and soy sauce) and kombu (seaweed). The meals prepared on New Year’s Eve are often carried forward, to be shared with family, friends and neighbors (respected guests) over the next several days.
- The Japanese New Year, which has been celebrated on January 1 from 1873 onwards, has a variety of traditional food that is eaten. One of the staples used in various dishes is mochi, rice cakes made from mochigome rice (see below) and ozone, a soup made with mochi and other ingredients. Sushi and Sashimi are also eaten.
- During Jinjitsu (Festival of Seven Herbs, January 7), the Japanese have a long-standing tradition of eating Nanakusa-gayu (7-herbs rice porridge). While the specific herbs vary from region to region, one traditional recipe includes daikon, turnip, chickweed, cudweed, nipplewort, Shepherd’s Purse and Chinese celery. As mentioned above, Jinjitsu is often associated with an occasion for people to go back to traditional, simple foods and to literally give their stomachs some rest after the Omisoka and Japanese New Year celebrations, which feature eating many meals of rich food.
- Hanami or Cherry Blossom Festival: One of the most popular festivals in Japan, the whole country stops work and focuses on the blossoming of the cherry trees (or sakura as they are called). There are a number of traditional foods eaten on this occasion, including onigiri, sakura mochi, Bengo meals and other accompaniments such as sake and a combination of organically grown sakura, such as green and black tea.
List of 10 Popular Japanese Cooking Styles, Customs and Preparations
The Japanese are into presentation in a big way, and culinary skills are considered to be an art form – as is evidenced by the large number of Michelin starred chefs that the country churns out. One of the traditional means of serving is Kaiseki Ryori.
This is the Japanese answer to the French haute cuisine – a traditional, multi-course meal set out in royal splendor and served tapas or family style. Only served as select restaurants, the dozen or more dishes are traditionally made from the freshest, often rare, local produce and served in an artistic array.
The main types of food, and styles of presentation, enjoyed by the Japanese include:
- Family Style: Many Japanese dishes can be served family style – such as Sushi or Sashimi boats or an array of soups, appetizers and sides. The Kaiseki Ryori, mentioned above, is the crème de la crème of such presentations.
- Appetizers: Japanese meals are often started with appetizers. The ones that have become popular in the Western World include staples such as edamame and gyoza. In addition, the Japanese themselves enjoy a variety of street foods, such as Takoyaki and Yakitori. All these foods are described below.
- Supus and Nabemonos (Soup and Hotpots): Besides miso, which is a staple, a number of Japanese dishes can be served in broth, soup style and also as hotpots (nabes or one-pots), which are extremely popular in colder Northern climates. This includes several dishes described below, such as Udon, Ramen and Shabu Shabu.
- Seafood: Seafood is the essence of Japanese life. As many of the dishes described below show, different types of seafood and fish – including ahi tuna, eel, salmon, whitefish and a whole host of others, are consumed as part of Japanese dishes.
- Babekyu (Barbecue): Japanese barbecue style cooking and presentation has become a spectacle in Japanese restaurants in the west. One of the most famous dishes is Jingisukan (Genghis Khan), found in the Japanese island of Hokkaido and described below.
- Kudamono and Nattsu (Fruits and Nuts): Japan enjoys an array of fruits and nuts. Cashews, almonds, chestnuts, macadamia nuts and gingko nuts are popular. Among fruits, mandarins, peaches, cherries, ume, persimmons, apples, oranges, lemons, lime, melons, grapes and strawberries are common, along with a wide range of citrus fruits. Spanish Olives have been described in the next section.
- Yasai (Vegetables): A wide variety of vegetables are commonly used in Japanese dishes – including Chinese cabbage, bamboo shoots, carrots, edamame, leeks, daikon and a whole host of others. Vegetables can be used as core ingredients or garnish and be served in the broth or on the side. Fresh salads are also common.
- Sticky Rice: The traditional rice introduced to Japan from the Northern Chinese was glutinous, sweet and sticky. To this day, Japan has very little affinity for long grain rice. One of the classic types is mochigome – a short-grain Japonica glutinous rice that rice cakes called mochi are made out of. Another classic rice dish is Onigiri, described below. Rice bowls are ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine.
- Udon, Ramen and Soba (Noodles): Japanese eat noodles with practically any meal. The three main types of noodles include rice, wheat and buckwheat noodles, all described below. Other noodle dishes, such as Shabu Shabu, are also described.
- Desserts: Traditional Japanese desserts are often a feature of elaborate meals. A signature item, Wagoshi, is described below.
No Japanese meal is complete without a traditional serving of sake or fermented rice wine – which can be served piping hot or cold but should never be poured by the hand of the person who will drink it. Japanese tradition demands that each guest pour for others at the table.
There are other alcoholic beverages, such as plum wine and then the famous Japanese Scotch whisky – one of the finest Scotches found outside Scotland itself. Finally, Japanese have a rich variety of beers, among which are Sapporo and Ichiban.
In addition to the food servings and styles mentioned above, Japan is famous for endless cups of green tea served with every meal.
List of 18 Japanese Spices, Ingredients, Sauces, and Condiments You May Need
As described before, Japanese cuisine evolved with strong influences from China and Korea, followed by its exposure to the rest of the world during the Middle Ages and beyond. Fresh seafood has always been a staple of the Japanese diet, there are many stories about the longevity of the Japanese people being directly tied to their eating raw or semi-cooked fish in large quantities.
Due to the emphasis on freshness, the Japanese often create dishes with very few spices – very similar to the Italians and Spanish regional styles of cooking, perhaps even more so. Added to this is the fact that most of the major spices used in Japanese cooking were actually introduced by their overseas visitors as outlined in the last paragraph.
The other thing to consider is that the Japanese are masters at putting two and two together to make five – a lot of traditional Japanese condiments and sides involve putting two or three simpler ingredients together without elaborate trappings.
The types of raw or mixed ingredients mentioned below represent a small fraction of the permutations and combinations that the Japanese are capable of, especially when you consider regional variations.
As such, they are mostly provided to give a flavor (pun intended) of how the Japanese take raw ingredients and combine them into savory or sweet combinations that enhance their dishes.
- Common Japanese spices, herbs and seasonings used in Japanese cooking include onions, garlic, lemon, lime, Chinese cabbage, cucumber, black pepper or peppercorn, sea-salt, celery, ginger, thyme, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg and turmeric.
- Tofu: While tofu as a whole can be thought of as a health food fad in Western countries, the Asians, especially the Japanese, view it as a staple part of their diet. Tofu is coagulated soy milk, either pressed, boiled or fried – that can be used in a variety of ways in Japanese food. Tofu can be used as main ingredients, or side dishes or soup bases, or as a garnish.
- Kanten (Agar): Kanten is the gelatinous substance made from seaweed, which is known as a healthy ingredient in Japan for over 300 years. It is the freeze-dried and dehydrated form of congealed Tengusa, a type of red algae known as Gelidium. It comes in three forms, flakes, powders and bars, and is used as an ingredient or a garnish in a variety of Japanese preparations.
- Konbu or Kombu (Edible Kelp): Kelp and Seaweed is big in South East Asian cuisine. The Japanese are the biggest consumers of edible kelp, which is used in a multitude of dishes, as wraps for sushi and other uses. Kombu is sold dried (dashi kombu) or pickled in vinegar (su kombu) or as dried shard (e.g., oboro kombu). It can be eaten fresh in sashimi, used to make dashi soup stock, and even had as tea (by infusing kombu with hot water – making kombucha which is popularly found in North America).
- Goya (Okinawan Bitter Melon): This bitter melon from Okinawa, reputed to be the cause of the longevity of the residents of Okinawa, is often served stir-fried with tofu, vegetables and pork.
- Ume (Japanese Plum): This species of apricot or plum is native to Southeast Asia, and grown in Japan, China and South Korea. Umeboshi, or dried ume, are also known as “salted Japanese plums”, a pickled preserve made from fruits that are closer to the apricot than plums that are extremely sour and salty – though sweet varieties also exist. They are served as side dishes or eaten on rice balls.
- Daikon (Radish): Daikon is used extensively in Japanese dishes, both as salad ingredients, raw and boiled vegetables and mixed in with various other ingredients (such as in Momiji-Oroshi) and used as garnish.
- Konnyaku (made from Konjac plant): The konjac plant, found in China, Japan and Indonesia, also known as konnyaku potato, snake palm or elephant yam has an edible corm. When cooked, the corm can be eaten as a yam cake.
- Miso Paste: Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning produced by fermenting soybeans with salt and kojikin (a fungus), sometimes along with other ingredients such as rice and barley. There are variations, such as Shinshu miso or sendai miso.
- Sauce Chazuke (Tea Sauce with Rice): Sometimes compared to milk and cereal, the basic form of the sauce is to pour boiling tea over sticky rice.
- Dashi Sauce: This soup stock, used widely in Japanese cuisine, is usually made from a combination of two or more of the following ingredients: kombu, katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), iriko (dried anchovies/sardines) and shiitake.
- Wasabi (Wasabia japonica): This Japanese version of horseradish is a natural accompaniment of sushi and sashimi, known for its extremely strong and flavorful presence – akin to hot mustard. A lot of the wasabi we find in restaurants is regular horseradish and food coloring.
- Anko (Red Bean Paste): Anko paste is made by boiling azuki or red beans, mashing or grinding them, sometimes drying and later reinfusing them with water, at other times sieved to remove the skins and possibly treated with sugar.
- Momiji-Oroshi (Autumn Leaf Red Grated Daikon): This commonly used spice mix of daikon grated with chili peppers is used as a garnish on a number of dishes.
- Ponzu Sauce (Soy with Citrus Sauce): This sauce is used as a dipping sauce for fried Japanese dishes, as well as for fish. Grated daikon is often mixed in with Dark Soy Sauce, Citrus juices and other ingredients.
- Tsukemono (Japanese pickles): The pickle vegetables could be daikon, ume, Chinese cabbage or cucumbers, pickled in a medium such as saline, brine, soy sauce, miso, vinegar, nuka (rice bran) or sake. These are eaten by themselves, but also mixed in with other ingredients to form a base in rice dishes such as Chakuze.
- Kamaboko (Fish Paste): The use of fish pastes dates back 1,000 years – a time when fish paste was wrapped around bamboo sticks and formed into cylindrical shapes. Fish paste is produced in different forms in modern Japan, including ida-kamaboko (fish paste shaped on a flat plate), saiku-kamaboko (fish paste created with traditional art techniques) and sasa-kamaboko (Sendai specialty prepared fresh and free of additives).
- Cooking Oil: Japanese cooking uses a variety of oils, depending on what is being cooked. Sesame oil – at various levels of maturity – is a favorite, but rapeseed, canola, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, safflower and other oils are also used as the primary cooking medium or in mixes depending on the circumstances. There are also instances of olive or grapeseed oil being used, as well as lard for some specific dishes. Coconut oil is used very occasionally. In general, the Japanese tend to be very health conscious and tend to use oils in limited quantities.
The spices, condiments and sauces mentioned above may be standard for certain types of Japanese cuisines, but there are a great number of variations based on regional and culinary usage. As such, it is perhaps best to consider specific uses of condiments as being dependent on specific use in a specific region, for a specific use – as opposed to a general rule.
List of 25 Popular Japanese Dishes Around the World
There are many regional variations in terms of ingredients and preparation styles, the basic recipes mentioned below are the most commonly found forms of Spanish dishes.
1. Sushi (Fish with Rice)
This preparation was one of the first to be exported to the Western world, especially the US, after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and its popularity seems to skyrocket with every passing year. There are many styles – though the basic dish refers to any dish made with Japanese rice seasoned with rice vinegar. Some common varieties include nigiri sushi – shaped mounds of sushi rice with single slices of raw fish – tuna, salmon or yellow fish are particularly popular – draped over the top; inarizushi (sushi rice stuffed inside pockets of inari (seasoned, fried tofu) and makizushi sushi rice and fillings rolled up in seaweed.
2. Sashimi (Raw Fish)
Sashimi is always raw fish, without exception – unlike sushi, where there may or may not be raw fish. The slices of raw fish are often served with sliced daikon, pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce. Also, unlike sushi, sashimi is never served with rice. Fish used in sashimi must be carefully chosen to avoid any harm.
3. Tamagoyaki (Omelette)
This is somewhere between a traditional omelette and scrambled eggs – the egg mixture is fluffed up in a special pan and then cut into pieces. The Japanese usually have them for breakfast, or on top of a bento box or a nigiri sushi meal.
4. Edamame (Immature Soybean Pods)
Edamame, served freshly blanched and steaming, with sea salt sprinkled on top have become the favorite bar snack for Japan’s izakaya pubs, as well as Japanese restaurants overseas. The pods are harvested before they mature and served fresh as an appetizer or complimentary side.
5. Miso Soup (Bean Soup with Seaweed)
This is a conventional Japanese soup consisting of a dashi stock into which softened miso paste has been added. A number of vegetables, such as tofu or abura-age, could be added. Here’s a recipe.
6. Gyoza (Pot Stickers)
These Japanese dumplings are unique, given that they are both pan-fried and steamed – the dumplings are first pan fried so that the bottoms get seared, then a small amount of water is added to steam the top half. Fillings for the pot stickers can be a variety – including but not limited to pork or beef, Chinese cabbage, chives, aromatics such as garlic and seasonings such as sake, soy sauce, sesame oil, salt and pepper to taste.
7. Takoyaki (Octopus Balls or Octopus Dumplings)
This is a very popular Japanese appetizer made out of wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a special molded pan. It is typically filled with minced or diced octopus (tako), tempura scraps, pickled ginger and scallion. The balls are brushed with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise, sprinkled with green laver and shavings of dried bonito.
8. Oden (Winter Hot Pot)
This one-pot soups recipe is a huge favorite in the wintertime in Japan. The base is usually dashi-flavored broth. Other ingredients often involve hard boiled eggs, tofu, daikon, konjac and fishcakes.
9. Shabu shabu (Hot Pot)
A hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water and served with dipping sauce, the name of the dish derives from the sound emitted when the ingredients are stirred in the cooking pot. It is a savory dish, often made with slices of beef and served with tofu and vegetables. The vegetables used could include Chinese cabbage, kelp, onions, carrots and shitake mushrooms.
10. Mentaiko (Salty Fish Roe)
Mentaiko is a seafood lover’s delight – it consists of marinated pollock and cod roe in salty, savory and spicy seasonings – such as a simple salt marinade or a spicy chili pepper marinade (known as karashi mentaiko). Mentaiko can be eaten as a side dish, or with ramen, or as a filling for onigiri rice balls.
11. Udon (Long Wheat Noodles)
Udon noodles are made from wheat flour and brine water and are one of the three main types of noodles (see the next two entries) that are found in Japan. Udon can be served cold, added to hot pots or to a dipping sauce base – but the most common serving is in a savory soup broth with various garnishes. These dishes are what sell internationally, including kitsune udon (topped with aburaage tofu), tempura udon (topped with tempura battered seafood and vegetables) and chikara or “powered” udon topped with grilled mochi.
12. Ramen (Wheat Noodles)
Ramen refers to wheat noodles, but the dish in general refers to a noodle soup dish which is popular all over the world. It consists of wheat ramen noodles in a savory broth (broths made out of soy sauce, salt, miso and tonkotsu pork bones are the most common base) with toppings of meats, proteins and vegetables. Common ingredients include sliced pork, nori seaweed, bamboo shoots and spring onions. The interpretive dishes involving Ramen are widely popular everywhere in the world including Japan.
13. Soba (Buckwheat Noodles)
Soba refers to thin buckwheat noodles, often served in a noodle soup, even though they could be served chilled with a dipping sauce. Cold soba can be served with seaweed or daikon, among others. Hot soba is served with a variety of options, including tempura, fish cake, shrimp, vegetables, raw egg poached in the hot soup or different meat cuts.
14. Yakisoba (Cooked Soba)
Yakisoba stands are a staple of any outdoor Japanese festival – a heaping big serving of noodles, stir fried and served with pork, sliced cabbage, carrots and other vegetables. A barbecue style yakisoba sauce is typically poured on top. Strangely enough, despite the name, traditional Yakisoba does not have any buckwheat noodles in its base.
15. Tempura (Crispy Fried Meat or Vegetables)
As mentioned before, this popular Japanese food was brought to Japan by Portuguese Jesuit missionaries in the 16th century. Tempura batter is prepared with wheat flour, water and eggs. Slices of vegetables, meat or shrimp are then dipped in the batter, fried and served with grated daikon and tentsuyu (tempura dip).
16. Jingisukan (Genghis Khan)
This grilled mutton dish, popular in Hokkaido and Northern China, is traditionally prepared on a convex metal skillet. It was developed during the period when Hokkaido had the only legal sheep farms in the country. The main ingredient is shredded mutton meat, marinated before being cooked then finished off with Sauce Chazuke spread over it. Typically, mixed vegetables including bean sprouts, Chinese cabbage, daikon and scallions will be sauteed and served with the meat.
17. Unagi na Kabayaki (Grilled Freshwater Eel)
Freshwater eel is cooked kabayaki style, by brushing the eel fillets with a sweetened soy-sauce based sauce and broiling them on a grill. The same sauce and technique can be used with other fishes as well.
18. Yakitori (Barbecued chicken)
Yakitori represents bite-sized chicken pieces seasoned with tare, brushed with salt, soy sauce, sake and sugar. Different varieties include those made with mono (chicken thigh), negima (chicken with scallions) and tsukune (chicken meatballs). Yakitori is a popular street food in Japan.
19. Sukiyaki (Beef Hotpot)
Sukiyaki, like other hotpot dishes, is most often enjoyed during the winter. Beef slices are first seared in the hotpot and the sukiyaki broth is then added – the base is typically made from soy sauce, mirin rice wine, sake and sugar. Different vegetables are added, often at the random request of the guests at the dinner table.
20. Onigiri (Rice Ball)
These traditional Japanese rice balls are made with a filling base such as umeboshi pickled plums, seasoned seaweed, tuna mayonnaise or teriyaki chicken. Triangular or cylindrical mounds of sticky rice, with the center filling, are often wrapped with nori seaweed.
21. Donburi (Rice Bowl)
This rice bowl dish is as popular as a ramen bowl in Japan, a common lunch meal among office workers. The preparation is typically various meat, fish and vegetables steamed and served over rice. Popular variations include oyakodon (simmered chicken, egg and scallion), gyudon (sliced beef and onion simmered in a soy sauce soup base), tendon (fried tempura pieces simmered in tsuyu) and katsudon (breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets, simmered in tsuyu with onion and egg).
22. Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pancakes)
These are savory Japanese pancakes, which are made using a variety of ingredients wheat-flour-based batter. The version found in the Kansai area has a batter made out of flour, grated nagaimo, water or dashi, eggs, shredded cabbage, green onion and proteins such as octopus, squid, shrimp or pork.
23. Kare Raisu (Japanese Curry Rice)
This dish is a legacy of the British influence on Japanese cuisine during the Meiji era. The rice is typically glutinous Japonica, the curry (often made with chunks of meat) are made with dark soy sauce and curry paste, but traditionally made sweeter than Indian curry.
24. Chawanmushi (Steamed in a Cup)
This creation is uniquely Japanese – a steamed, savory egg custard made by pouring seasoned, beaten eggs into individual cups filled with meats and vegetables such as chicken, mushrooms, carrots, gingko nuts and kamaboko fish cakes. The concoction is steamed in a pot or steamer till they meld into a pudding like texture.
25. Wagashi (Japanese Sweet Balls)
Wagashi are made using some select ingredients such as mochi rice cakes, anko, kanten, daifuku (mochi rice stuffed with anko) dorayaki (anko sandwiched between thick pancakes) and yukan (blocks of anko hardened with kanten and sugar).
There are regional variations of many of the dishes outlined above, though most of the major recipes are nationalized if not internationally known by now.
The Verdict … Japanese Food Culture is Truly One of a Kind!
As the discussion above shows, Japanese cuisine is interesting and unique. There are significant influences from all over the world, but for all of it, Japan’s various regions and popular culture has evolved to combine the bounty from the seas around with what can be grown on the islands, combining them in a fashion that has created an unforgettable world cuisine. There are many who would call Japanese cuisine the best in the world, and they would not be far off!