10 Foods You Should Eat in Japan (That Aren’t Sushi)
Man cannot live on eel alone. Sushi may be the country’s most famous export, but Japan’s culinary ecosystem span stellar street food, artful tasting menus, rib-sticking bar snacks and noodle soups that inspire Beatles- (or Bieber-) level devotion. Contributor Emily Saladino explores traditional delicacies beyond the sushi bar. Douzo meshiagare!
The origin story of this cult noodle soup is surprisingly complex, with links to Chinese-Japanese immigration and mid-century American wheat production. Today, ramen is a national obsession that inspire hours-long lines, international chefs’ acclaim and, most recently, a Michelin star. The category is vast, but most bowls start with pork-, chicken-, miso-, salt-based broth atop a spoonful of tare, or potent flavor bomb. Soup contents span pork belly, alkali noodles, soft-boiled eggs, nori, preserved vegetables and, in the case of Hokkaido in northern Japan, butter and corn. (Seriously.) Wherever you sit, slurping is expected and encouraged.
A bento box fixture, onigiri are starchy snacks made from plain white rice and pretty much anything else the cook has on hand. Grains of rice are shaped into a ball, lightly salted and either filled or decorated (smiley faces are both popular and prevalent) with bits of vegetables, broiled fish, seasoned seaweed or pickled plum. As far as austerity eating goes, it doesn’t get much more clever or crowd-pleasing than this.
For noodle fans seeking a healthy, elegant complement to bowls of chewy udon or alkali ramen, the buckwheat stops here. Soba noodles have a similar circumference to spaghetti, and can be served cold, as a noodle salad accompanied by a broth-based dipping sauce (called mori or zaru soba), within a hot bowl of duck-based broth dappled with stewed leeks (kamo nanban soba), or as a simple side to a plate of tempura.
According to the mochi trade (it’s a thing), Japanese diners consume an average of 1 kg of mochi per year, mostly in January. The sticky, chewy delicacy is a New Year tradition, and it is served at family homes and New Year’s parties toasted and drizzled with sweetened soy, wrapped in dried seaweed or coated with sesame seeds. Though Western diners may associate mochi with marshmallows, gummy candies or other sweets, it is actually made from pounded rice cakes. Delicious and occasionally deadly, mochi is best consumed in small portions, with a tall glass of sake within arm's reach.
Americans may use this term to describe a type of frying preparation (as in, “Try the tempura-battered shrimp!”), but, in Japan, tempura is a dish unto itself. Seafood, vegetables or a holy alliance of the two are coated in a crisp batter typically made from flour, sesame oil and ice water, and then deep-fried to a shade of golden deliciousness that would make Colonel Sanders blush. The crisp, crunchy fare is frequently served alongside soba noodles, dipping sauces and shredded cabbage, the cole slaw of the East.
Kyoto’s elegant tasting menus will knock you off your counter stool. Kaiseki is a style of dining in which delicately plated, simply prepared foods are presented slowly, carefully and artfully. Courses might consist of a lobster hot pot, seasonal sashimi, or simply a perfect, sliced peach on hand-crafted pottery.
Tempura’s porky cousin is filling, affordable and fairly ubiquitous. Cutlet-sized pork loin or tenderloin is deep-fried and served at counters, train station kiosks and comfort food restaurants across the country, frequently as part of a “set meal” with rice, miso soup, shredded cabbage (natch) and pickles. Variations abound, and include katsu-kare, or cutlets atop curry (more on that later); katsudon, a rice bowl topped with pork, egg and onions; and katsu sandon, the fried pork cutlet sandwich of your dreams.
An excellent option for travelers who have had their fill of fish, and the counterargument to anyone who feels there aren’t enough meats on sticks, yakitori consists of skewered chicken grilled over an open flame. Served at casual counters and convivial standing bars, yakitori, like Spanish tapas, is drinking food done right. Nearly every part of the chicken is used, and local favorites include negima, or nuggets of thigh meat skewered with tender leeks; reba, or liver; and torikawa, the addictively crispy grilled skin. Pork cracklings, we hardly knew ye.
The Meiji era, a period of modernization in late 19th and early 20th century Japan, brought a number of foreign imports to Japanese soil. Among them were British curries, or rice dishes spiked with prefab curry powders. Called kare raisu, Japanese curries are often hearty, homey affairs combining seasoned short-grain rice with stewed potatoes and onions, sliced chicken, seafood or tonkatsu, plus a sprinkling of pickled radish, shallot or cucumber.
Despite sundry regional variations, okonomiyaki are synonymous with Osaka, the hard-partying, big-eating university town approximately 250 miles southwest of Tokyo. There, the savory pancakes sustain long nights of sipping beer, shooting sake and sustaining spirited conversations. Made with eggs, cabbage and green onions, okonomiyaki are griddled into flat spheres, served hot and topped with a gleeful drizzle of Japan’s beloved Kewpie mayonnaise. As with any great bar snack, proprietors customize their creations, adding shrimp, tempura batter and shredded pork to the mix.