Translated by Takuya Erik Watanabe
10 Must-Try Traditional Japanese Dishes
Written by OsawaKimie
When you go to Japan, be sure to eat these 10 traditional Japanese dishes. In this article, find out what to dine on to enjoy Japan's rich washoku food culture fully, from sushi to miso soup, unagi eel, tempura, soba, udon, and rice balls.
Traditional Japanese Food - The Must-Try Dishes!
When visiting Japan, you'll, of course, want to taste Japanese cuisine. There are many types of dishes and local specialties you can choose from, but if we were to pick up ten traditional dishes that we highly recommend, they would be the ones introduced below.
Sushi is one of the best known Japanese foods around the world. It is offered in various ways and prices, from the entertaining kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi), where visitors can enjoy sushi for a reasonable price of about 100 yen per plate, to high-end, long-established, traditional Edomae sushi (Edo-style sushi) where you will sit at a quiet counter to eat as the sushi is prepared right before your eyes.
Sushi usually refers to a dish of pressed vinegared rice with a piece of raw fish or shellfish, called a neta, on top. Sushi is generally eaten with soy sauce and wasabi, but those who aren't too fond of wasabi can ask for "sabi-nuki" (meaning "without wasabi").
Sushi can be eaten with chopsticks or directly with your hand. However, there's one thing you should be careful about. When dipping the sushi in soy sauce, you should turn it over and apply the soy sauce to the neta, rather than the rice itself. This is to prevent the rice from sucking up too much soy sauce and erasing the original taste of the "neta" itself.
Sashimi is another must-try food. Similar to sushi but without the rice, sashimi is raw fish sliced into easy-to-eat pieces. The high-quality of the fish caught in all regions of Japan makes it a great choice no matter if you are visiting Tokyo, Kyoto, or anywhere else.
Just like sushi, diners can enjoy dozens of varieties of sashimi. Some of the most common and popular varieties are maguro and other tuna varieties, salmon, mackerel, and sea bream. You can also try clams, uni, or sea urchin, and salmon roe. Find out what fish and seafood you like the best by ordering a variety.
Sashimi is typically eaten with soy sauce for flavoring. You can also add a dot of wasabi to the top of the sashimi for extra heat, but it is not required. Certain varieties, like horse mackerel, will be served with ginger instead of wasabi.
3. Unagi - Grilled Eel
Unagi, or eel, is a fish known to be found mainly in rivers. In Japan, it is a delicacy typical in high-class Japanese dining. There are also many casual restaurants that specialize in unagi dishes. At unagi restaurants, you will be able to enjoy kabayaki, where the unagi is put on skewers and grilled with a special sauce containing soy sauce, mirin, sugar, and sake. Unadon, a dish of kabayaki on top of white rice, is also offered at these establishments.
Hitsumabushi, a specialty dish from Nagoya, is another must-try traditional dish. Its appearance may surprise people––cut-up kabayaki on top of white rice––but it can be eaten in several ways, such as with condiments like green onion and wasabi, or as ochazuke by pouring warm green tea or broth over it. Unagi is also loved as a health food to prevent summer heat weariness for its protein and because it is good for digestion.
Tempura is a dish involving ingredients like seafood, meat, and vegetables covered in batter and deep-fried in oil. The batter usually contains flour and egg. Tempura is generally dipped in a special sauce called tentsuyu before eating. Tentsuyu is a sauce made of broth from kombu or dried bonito, mirin, and soy sauce mixed at a ratio of 4:1:1 and cooked. You can add ginger or grated radish to your liking for a more refreshing taste.
4. Soba - Buckwheat Noodles
Soba is a noodle dish made from buckwheat flour with water and flour, thinly spread and cut into noodles with widths of 1cm-2cm. After boiling the noodles in hot water, it is eaten dipped in cold soup, or by pouring hot soup over it. The soba broth (tsuyu) is typically made from kombu or dried bonito broth, seasoned with soy sauce and mirin, and is crucial for having a delicious soba experience.
Soba is enjoyed hot or cold, making it an ideal dish year-round.
5. Udon - Hearty Wheat Noodles
Udon is a unique dish known for its thick noodles, and is a very popular and traditional Japanese dish. The dough is made from flour and salt water that is well-kneaded and cut into noodles. After udon noodles are boiled in hot water, udon is enjoyed in seafood broth soup, or by pouring soup and toppings like tempura on top of it. Like soba, you can savor udon hot or cold. There is no one designated way to eat udon.
6. Onigiri - Rice Balls
You may have heard of onigiri, or rice balls, before. Onigiri, also called omusubi, may just look like plain rice, but they often have a savory filling inside and are wrapped with a salty sheet of nori seaweed. They are made in bento lunches by families and often seen sold in convenience stores and supermarkets. This is a classic choice for a snack or light meal.
Common flavors for onigiri include kelp, pickled plum (umeboshi), salmon, and bonito flakes. There are also many other flavors--go into a convenience store or supermarket to see what you can find.
Although you can make onigiri yourself and buy it inexpensively, there are restaurants offering onigiri you can enjoy at a sit-down meal, made by hand by chefs with high-quality ingredients. Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku in Tokyo is one restaurant that has received a Michelin star for its exquisite rice balls.
7. Yakitori - Grilled Chicken Skewers
Picture from Ginza's Bird Land: A Michelin-starred Yakitori Restaurant
Yakitori is a popular food where chicken is cut into small pieces, then placed on bamboo skewers and grilled. It is often found on the menus of izakaya and casual restaurants, making it a good option for a night out in Japan with friends. It is especially delicious when paired with alcohol. Also, if you go to a Japanese festival, there is a good chance that food stalls will be selling this classic dish.
Yakitori is ordered at restaurants by the part of the chicken. You will also find other types of meat and vegetables on skewers, too. It is usually seasoned lightly with salt when it comes, so take the first bite without adding extra condiments. You can eat right off the skewer.
Picture from Warm Up Inside And Out - Japan's Favorite Winter Dishes
Sukiyaki is cooked in a shallow iron pan, traditionally enjoyed in the fall and winter in Japan. It became popular in Japan around the 19th century. Made both in homes and available on menus at restaurants, it is a dish you will want to try when you're craving something hearty.
Sukiyaki is made with several different ingredients, like thin slices of beef, green onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, and tofu. Diners prepare the dish themselves by grilling the ingredients in the pan after pouring a few drops of sukiyaki sauce. After the ingredients are cooked thoroughly, to eat sukiyaki in its conventional way, you dip the meat or vegetable into a bowl of beaten egg.
The result is a delicious and satisfying dish that goes great with rice and will warm you from the inside out during chilly days.
9. Oden - Simmered Ingredients
Picture from Asakusa Oden Otafuku – Traditional Dining With A Tokyo Skytree View
Oden is dish of various ingredients simmered in broth. The ingredients are meant to bring out the flavor of the dashi (consisting usually of a mixture of seafood and kelp) and have a savory, salty taste. Oden has been eaten for a long time in Japan and is thought to have been first made during the Muromachi period (1336 – 1573).
Mild-tasting vegetables, tofu, and fish are common ingredients in oden. Daikon radish, a thick root vegetable, can be found at most shops with oden. Another popular choice is ganmodoki, a hearty mixture of tofu and vegetables made into a circular shape.
Restaurants, food stalls sell oden, and you can even see it at convenience stores in the fall and winter months. In Akihabara, Tokyo, there are even vending machines where you can buy oden in cans. Be sure to try this iconic dish when you are in Japan!
10. Miso Soup
Picture from Miso Soup - Japanese Encyclopedia
Miso soup is another famous Japanese food, renowned for its great taste and health benefits. This soup is conventionally drunk accompanied by other side and main dishes. A traditional Japanese diet generally includes drinking miso soup daily.
Miso soup is made simply, with the fermented miso base, which has a flavorful taste full of depth, added to Japanese dashi (conventionally mixture of bonito and kelp). There are hundreds of regional varieties on miso soup, from simple soups with just seaweed and tofu to ones with crab and a variety of vegetables.
Miso paste itself comes in different types, from white, which has a sweet flavor, to a darker, saltier red. Be sure to enjoy authentic miso soup when you are in Japan. It is served at most Japanese restaurants in all price ranges; you will find miso soup with teishoku set meals as well as high-end kaiseki cuisine, and everything in between.
Bring Home Japanese Flavors with Cooking Classes
It can be difficult to leave Japan after sampling such delicious and authentic food. For those not near good Japanese food, we recommend honing your cooking skills and learning the recipes for yourself!
airKitchen is a cooking class platform that allows visitors to easily take classes and learn how to make classic dishes, from miso soup to ramen, to soba and sushi.
With locals as hosts, class participants can learn up-close and personal what goes into making the distinct Japanese flavors so delicious. Classes are held throughout Japan, with the most available in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hokkaido, and Fukuoka (the link below shows Tokyo availability).
Hosts can provide support in English and, in some cases, other languages. Most teachers will allow modifications for vegetarian, vegan, halal, and gluten-free needs; be sure to input your dietary needs when making a reservation.
Savor Traditional Japanese Food!
What do you think of our selection? Take the first opportunity to taste these dishes when visiting Japan. Japanese restaurants tend to be specialized in one type of cuisine, and we recommend that you try these traditional dishes at specialty stores.
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