Whenever I leave Japan, it's the food I miss the most. Sure, there are sushi bars and other Japanese specialty restaurants in many major cities around the world, but they don't offer nearly the variety available in Japan (and often they aren't nearly as good). For just as America has more to offer than hamburgers and steaks and England more than fish and chips, Japan has more than just sushi and teppanyaki. For both the gourmet and the uninitiated, Japan is a treasure-trove of culinary surprises and a foodie's delight.
Altogether, there are more than a dozen different and distinct types of Japanese cuisine, plus countless regional specialties. A good deal of what you eat may be completely new to you as well as completely unidentifiable. Sometimes Japanese themselves don't even know what they're eating, so varied and so wide is the range of available edibles. The rule is simply to enjoy, and enjoyment begins even before you raise your chopsticks to your mouth.
To the Japanese, presentation of food is as important as the food itself, and dishes are designed to appeal not only to the palate but to the eye. In contrast to the American way of piling as much food as possible onto a single plate, Japanese use lots of small plates, each arranged artfully with bite-size morsels of food. After you've seen what can be done with maple leaves, flowers, bits of bamboo, and even pebbles to enhance the appearance of food, your relationship with what you eat may change forever. If there's such a thing as designer cuisine, Japan is its home.
Below are explanations of some of the most common types of Japanese cuisine. Generally, only one type of cuisine is served in a given restaurant -- for example, only raw seafood is served in a sushi bar, whereas tempura is featured at a tempura counter. There are exceptions to this, especially in regards to raw fish, which is served as an appetizer in many restaurants, and set meals, which contain a variety of dishes. In addition, Japanese restaurants in hotels may offer a great variety, and some Japanese drinking establishments (called izakaya or nomiya) offer a wide range of foods from soups to sushi to skewered pieces of chicken known as yakitori.
Fugu -- Known as blowfish, puffer fish, or globefish in English, fugu is one of the most exotic and adventurous foods in Japan: If it's not prepared properly, it means almost certain death for the consumer. Every year a few dozen people are hospitalized from fugu poisoning and a handful die, usually fishermen who tried preparing it at home. The fugu's ovaries and intestines are deadly and must be entirely removed without puncturing them. So why eat fugu if it can kill you? Well, for one thing, it's delicious; for another, fugu chefs are strictly licensed by the government and are greatly skilled in preparing fugu dishes. Ways to order it include fugu-sashi (raw), when it's sliced paper thin and dipped into soy sauce with bitter orange and chives; in fugu-chiri (stew) cooked with vegetables at your table; and as fugu-zosui (rice porridge). The season for fresh fugu is October or November through March, but some restaurants serve it throughout the year.
Kaiseki -- The king of Japanese cuisine, kaiseki is the epitome of delicately and exquisitely arranged food, the ultimate in Japanese aesthetic appeal. It's also among the most expensive meals you can eat and can cost ¥25,000 or more per person; some restaurants, however, do offer more affordable mini-kaiseki courses. In addition, the better Japanese inns serve kaiseki, a reason for their high cost. Kaiseki, which is not a specific dish but rather a complete meal, is expensive because much time and skill are involved in preparing each of the many dishes, with the ingredients cooked to preserve natural flavors. Even the plates are chosen with great care to enhance the color, texture, and shape of each piece of food.
Kaiseki cuisine is based on the four seasons, with the selection of ingredients and their presentation dependent on the time of the year. In fact, so strongly does a kaiseki preparation convey the mood of a particular season, the kaiseki gourmet could tell what season it is just by looking at a meal.
A kaiseki meal is usually a lengthy affair with various dishes appearing in set order. First come the appetizer, clear broth, and one uncooked dish. These are followed by boiled, broiled, fried, steamed, heated, and vinegary dishes and finally by another soup, rice, pickled vegetables, and fruit. Although meals vary greatly depending upon the region and what's fresh, common dishes include some type of sashimi, tempura, cooked seasonal fish, and bite-size pieces of various vegetables. Because kaiseki is always a set meal, there's no problem in ordering. Let your budget be your guide.
Kushiage -- Kushiage foods are breaded and deep-fried on skewers and include chicken, beef, seafood, and lots of seasonal vegetables (snow peas, green pepper, gingko nuts, lotus root, and the like). They're served with a slice of lemon and usually a specialty sauce. The result is delicious, and I highly recommend trying it. You'll find it at shops called kushiage-ya (ya means "shop"), which are often open only at night. Ordering the set meal is easiest, and what you get is often determined by both the chef and the season.
Okonomiyaki -- Okonomiyaki, which originated in Osaka after World War II and literally means "as you like it," is often referred to as Japanese pizza. To me, it's more like a pancake to which meat or fish, shredded cabbage, and vegetables are added, topped with Worcestershire sauce. Because it's a popular offering of street vendors, restaurants specializing in this type of cuisine are very reasonably priced. At some places the cook makes it for you, but at other places it's do-it-yourself, which can be quite fun if you're with a group. Yakisoba (fried Chinese noodles with cabbage) is also usually offered at okonomiyaki restaurants.
Rice -- As in other Asian countries, rice has been a Japanese staple for about 2,000 years. In fact, rice is so important to the Japanese diet that gohan means both "rice" and "meal." There are no problems here -- everyone is familiar with rice. The difference, however, is that in Japan it's quite sticky, making it easier to pick up with chopsticks. It's also just plain white rice -- no salt, no butter, no soy sauce (it's thought to be rather uncouth to dump a lot of sauces in your rice) -- though trendy restaurants may sprinkle rice bowls with black sesame seeds, plum powder, or other seasoning. In the old days, not everyone could afford the expensive white kind, which was grown primarily to pay taxes or rent to the feudal lord; peasants had to be satisfied with a mixture of brown rice, millet, and greens. Today, some Japanese still eat rice three times a day, although they're now just as apt to have bread and coffee for breakfast. Restaurants specializing in organic foods often offer genmai (unpolished brown rice).
Robatayaki -- Robatayaki refers to restaurants in which seafood and vegetables are cooked over an open charcoal grill. In the olden days, an robata (open fireplace) in the middle of an old Japanese house was the center of activity for cooking, eating, socializing, and simply keeping warm. Therefore, today's robatayaki restaurants are like nostalgia trips back into Japan's past and are often decorated in rustic farmhouse style with the staff dressed in traditional clothing. Robatayaki restaurants -- mostly open only in the evening -- are popular among office workers for both eating and drinking.
There's no special menu in a robatayaki restaurant -- rather, it includes just about everything eaten in Japan. The difference is that most of the food will be grilled. Favorites of mine include ginnan (gingko nuts), asparagus wrapped in bacon, piman (a type of green pepper), mushrooms (various kinds), jagabataa (potatoes), and just about any kind of fish. You can usually get skewers of beef or chicken as well as nikujaga (a stew of meat and potatoes) -- delicious during cold winter months. Because ordering is often a la carte, you'll just have to look and point.
Sashimi & Sushi -- It's estimated that the average Japanese eats 38 kilograms (84 lb.) of seafood a year -- that's six times the average American consumption. Although this seafood may be served in any number of ways from grilled to boiled, a great deal of it is eaten raw.
Sashimi is simply raw seafood, usually served as an appetizer and eaten alone (that is, without rice). If you've never eaten it, a good choice to start out with is maguro, or lean tuna, which doesn't taste fishy at all and is so delicate in texture that it almost melts in your mouth. The way to eat sashimi is to first put wasabi (pungent green horseradish) into a small dish of soy sauce and then dip the raw fish in the sauce using your chopsticks (some purists maintain that wasabi and soy sauce shouldn't be mixed, but that's what my Japanese friends do).
Sushi, which is raw fish with vinegared rice, comes in many varieties. The best known is nigiri-zushi: raw fish, seafood, or vegetables placed on top of vinegared rice with just a touch of wasabi. It's also dipped in soy sauce. Use chopsticks or your fingers to eat sushi; remember you're supposed to eat each piece in one bite -- quite a mouthful, but about the only way to keep it from falling apart. Another trick is to turn it upside down when you dip it in the sauce, to keep the rice from crumbling.
Also popular is maki-zushi, which consists of seafood, vegetables, or pickles rolled with rice inside a sheet of nori seaweed. Inari-zushi is vinegared rice and chopped vegetables inside a pouch of fried tofu bean curd.
Typical sushi includes maguro (tuna), hirame (flounder), tai (sea bream), ika (squid), tako (octopus), ebi (shrimp), anago (sea eel), and tamago (omelet). Ordering is easy because you usually sit at a counter where you can see all the food in a refrigerated glass case in front of you. You also get to see the sushi chefs at work. The typical meal begins with sashimi and is followed by sushi, but if you don't want to order separately, there are always various seto (set meals or courses). Pickled ginger is part of any sushi meal.
By the way, the least expensive sushi is chirashi, which is a selection of fish, seafood, and usually tamago on a large shallow bowl of rice. Because you get more rice, those of you with bigger appetites may want to order chirashi. Another way to enjoy sushi without spending a fortune is at a kaiten sushi shop, in which plates of sushi circulate on a conveyor belt on the counter -- customers reach for the dishes they want and pay for the number of dishes they take.
Shabu-Shabu & Sukiyaki -- Until the Meji Restoration beginning in 1868, which brought foreigners to Japan, Japanese could think of nothing as disgusting as eating the flesh of animals (fish was okay). Meat was considered unclean by Buddhists, and consuming it was banned by the emperor way back in the 7th century. Imagine the horror of Japanese when they discovered that Western "barbarians" ate bloody meat! It wasn't until Emperor Meiji himself announced his intention to eat meat that Japanese accepted the idea. Today, Japanese have become skilled in preparing a number of beef dishes.
Sukiyaki is among Japan's best-known beef dishes and is one many Westerners seem to prefer. Whenever I'm invited to a Japanese home, this is the meal most often served. Like fondue, it's cooked at the table.
Sukiyaki is thinly sliced beef cooked in a broth of soy sauce, stock, and sake along with scallions, spinach, mushrooms, tofu, bamboo shoots, and other vegetables. All diners serve themselves from the simmering pot and then dip their morsels into their own bowl of raw egg. You can skip the raw egg if you want (most Westerners do), but it adds to the taste and also cools the food down enough so that it doesn't burn.
Shabu-shabu is also prepared at your table and consists of thinly sliced beef cooked in a broth with vegetables in a kind of Japanese fondue. (It's named for the swishing sound the beef supposedly makes when cooking.) The main difference between the two dishes is the broth: Whereas in sukiyaki it consists of stock flavored with soy sauce and sake and is slightly sweet, in shabu-shabu it's relatively clear and has little taste of its own. The pots used are also different.
Using their chopsticks, shabu diners submerge pieces of meat in the watery broth until they're cooked. This usually takes only a few seconds. Vegetables are left in longer to swim around until fished out. For dipping, there's either sesame sauce with diced green onions or a more bitter fish stock sauce. Restaurants serving sukiyaki usually serve shabu-shabu as well, and they're usually happy to show you the right way to prepare and eat it.
Shojin Ryori -- Shojin Ryori is the ultimate vegetarian meal, created centuries ago to serve the needs of Zen Buddhist priests and pilgrims. Dishes may include yudofu (simmered tofu) and an array of local vegetables. Kyoto is the best place to experience this type of cuisine.
Soba & Udon Noodles -- Japanese love eating noodles, but I suspect at least part of the fascination stems from the way they eat them -- they slurp, sucking in the noodles with gravity-defying speed. What's more, slurping noodles is considered proper etiquette. Fearing it would stick with me forever, however, slurping is a technique I've never quite mastered.
There are many different kinds of noodles, and it seems like almost every region of Japan has its own special style or kind -- some are eaten plain, some in combination with other foods such as shrimp tempura, some served hot, some served cold. Soba, made from unbleached buckwheat flour and enjoyed for its nutty flavor and high nutritional value, is eaten hot (kake-soba) or cold (zaru-soba). Udon is a thick white wheat noodle originally from Osaka; it's usually served hot. Somen is a fine white noodle eaten cold in the summer and dunked in a cold sauce. Establishments serving noodles range from stand-up eateries to more refined noodle restaurants with tatami seating. Regardless of where you eat them, noodles are among the least expensive dishes in Japan.
Tempura -- Today a well-known Japanese food, tempura was actually introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Tempura is fish and vegetables coated in a batter of egg, water, and wheat flour and then deep-fried; it's served piping hot. To eat it, dip it in a sauce of soy, fish stock, daikon (radish), and grated ginger; in some restaurants, only some salt, powdered green tea, or a lemon wedge is provided as an accompaniment. Various tempura specialties may include nasu (eggplant), shiitake (mushroom), satsumaimo (sweet potato), shishito (small green pepper), renkon (sliced lotus root), ebi (shrimp), ika (squid), shisho (lemon-mint leaf), and many kinds of fish. Again, the easiest thing to do is to order the teishoku (set meal).
Teppanyaki -- A teppanyaki restaurant is a Japanese steakhouse. As in the famous Benihana restaurants in many U.S. cities, the chef slices, dices, and cooks your meal of tenderloin or sirloin steak and vegetables on a smooth, hot grill right in front of you -- though with much less fanfare than his U.S. counterpart. Because beef is relatively new in Japanese cooking, some people categorize teppanyaki restaurants as "Western." However, I consider this style of cooking and presentation special enough to be referred to as Japanese. Teppanyaki restaurants also tend to be expensive, simply because of the price of beef in Japan, with Kobe beef the most prized.
Tofu -- Originally from China, tofu, or bean curd, is made from soy milk. It has little flavor of its own and is served cold in summer and yudofu (boiled) in winter. A byproduct of tofu is yuba, thin sheets rich in protein.
Tonkatsu -- Tonkatsu is the Japanese word for "pork cutlet," made by dredging pork in wheat flour, moistening it with egg and water, dipping it in bread crumbs, and deep-frying it in vegetable oil. Because tonkatsu restaurants are generally inexpensive, they're popular with office workers and families. It's easiest to order the teishoku, which usually features either the hirekatsu (pork filet) or the rosukatsu (pork loin). In any case, tonkatsu is served on a bed of shredded cabbage, and one or two different sauces will be at your table, a Worcestershire sauce and perhaps a specialty sauce. If you order the teishoku, it will come with rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables. Pork cutlet served on a bowl of rice is katsudon.
Unagi -- I'll bet that if you eat unagi without knowing what it is, you'll find it very tasty -- and you'll probably be very surprised to find out you've just eaten eel. Popular as a health food because of its rich protein and high vitamin A content, eel is supposed to help you fight fatigue during hot summer months but is eaten year-round. Kabayaki (broiled eel) is prepared by grilling filet strips over a charcoal fire; the eel is repeatedly dipped in a sweetened barbecue soy sauce while cooking. A favorite way to eat broiled eel is on top of rice, in which case it's called unaju or unagi donburi. Do yourself a favor and try it.
Yakitori -- Yakitori is chunks of chicken or chicken parts basted in a sweet soy sauce and grilled over a charcoal fire on thin skewers. Places that specialize in yakitori (yakitori-ya, often identifiable by a red paper lantern outside the front door) are technically not restaurants but drinking establishments; they usually don't open until 5 or 6pm. Most yakitori-ya are popular with workers as inexpensive places to drink, eat, and be merry.
The cheapest way to dine on yakitori is to order a set course, which will often include various parts of the chicken including the skin, heart, and liver. If this isn't entirely to your taste, you may wish to order a la carte, which is more expensive but gets you exactly what you want. In addition to chicken, other skewered, charcoaled delicacies are usually offered (called kushi-yaki). If you're ordering by the stick, you might want to try sasami (chicken breast), tsukune (chicken meatballs), piman (green peppers), negima (chicken and leeks), shiitake (mushrooms), or ginnan (gingko nuts).
Other Cuisines -- During your travels you might also run into these types of Japanese cuisine: Kamameshi is a rice casserole served in individual-size cast-iron pots with different toppings that might include seafood, meat, or vegetables. Donburi is also a rice dish, topped with tempura, eggs, and meat such as chicken or pork. Nabe, a stew cooked in an earthenware pot at your table, consists of chicken, sliced beef, pork, or seafood; noodles; and vegetables. Oden is a broth with fish cakes, tofu, eggs, and vegetables, served with hot mustard. If a restaurant advertises that it specializes in Kyodo-Ryori, it serves local specialties for which the region is famous and is often very rustic in decor. A more recent trend is crossover fusion cuisine -- creative dishes inspired by ingredients from both sides of the Pacific. Upmarket izakaya may also serve nouvelle dishes.
Although technically considered Chinese fast-food restaurants, ramen shops are a big part of dining in Japan. Serving what I consider to be generic Chinese noodles, soups, and other dishes, ramen shops can be found everywhere; they're easily recognizable by red signs and often pictures of various dishes displayed right by the front door. Many are stand-up affairs -- just a high counter to rest your bowl on. In addition to ramen (noodle and vegetable soup), you can also get such things as yakisoba (fried noodles) or -- my favorite -- gyoza (fried pork dumplings). What these places lack in atmosphere is made up for in price: Dishes average less than ¥700, making them some of the cheapest places in Japan for a meal.
All Japanese restaurants serve complimentary green tea with meals. If that's too weak, you might want to try sake (also known as nihonshu), an alcoholic beverage made from rice and served either hot or cold. It goes well with most forms of Japanese cuisine. Produced since about the 3rd century, sake varies by region, production method, alcoholic content, color, aroma, and taste. There are more than 1,800 sake brewers in Japan producing about 10,000 varieties. Miyabi is a prized classic sake; other brands are Gekkeikan, Koshinokanbai, Hakutsuru (meaning White Crane), and Ozeki. A good place to try a good variety of sake is at a Japanese-style pub, an izakaya.
Japanese beer is also very popular. The biggest sellers are Kirin, Sapporo, Asahi, and Suntory, with each brand offering a bewildering variety of brews. They enjoyed exclusive brewing rights until deregulation in the 1990s opened the gates to competition; now microbreweries are found everywhere in Japan. Businessmen are fond of whiskey, which they usually drink with ice and water. Popular in recent years is shochu, a clear, distilled spirit usually made from rice but sometimes from wheat, sweet potatoes, barley, or sugar cane. It used to be considered a drink of the lower classes, but sales have increased so much that it's threatening the sake and whiskey businesses. A clear liquid comparable, perhaps, to vodka, it can be consumed straight but is often combined with soda water in a drink called chuhai. My personal favorite is ume-shu, a plum-flavored shochu. But watch out -- the stuff can be deadly. Wine, usually available only at restaurants serving Western food, has gained in popularity in recent years, with both domestic and imported brands available. Although cocktails are available in dance clubs, hotel lounges, and fancier bars at rather inflated prices, most Japanese stick with beer, wine, sake, shochu, or whiskey.