There’s more to eating in Japan than sushi, tempura and teriyaki (delicious though they are). For travellers seeking to immerse themselves more fully into Japanese cuisine, enjoy our in-depth guide and learn about all the fantastic food and drink to be enjoyed in Japanese cuisine.
Amazake | Azuki Beans (Anko) | Bakery (Bread, Patisserie and Doughnuts) | Beer | Burgers | Chawanmushi | Chukuman | Coffee | Dashi | Dofu | Donburi | Dorayaki | Ekiben & Bento | Fruits | Furikake | Gyoza | Honey & Jam | Ice Cream | Kaiseki Ryori | Kakigori | Kamaboko | Katsu | Katsuobushi | Karaage | Kare | Kushiage | Matcha | Miso | Mochi & Dango | Mushrooms | Nabemono | Noodles | Ocha | Okonomiyaki | Omu Raisu | Ramen | Rice | Sake | Sashimi | Sashimi | Shichimi Togarashi | Shirasu & Niboshi | Shojin Ryori | Sushi | Taiyaki | Takoyaki | Tea | Tempura | Tofu | Tonkatsu | Tsukumen | Wagashi | Wagyu | Yakiniku | Yakitori | Yudofu | Yuba
You may already be familiar with sake – a Japanese alcohol made by fermenting rice. Amazake is a sweet drink traditionally made by monks and nuns from leftover sake lees and once served to weary travellers making pilgrimages to shrines and temples. Though often referred to as non-alcoholic, be aware that some recipes are mildly alcoholic. Amazake can be enjoyed thick and hot, commonly served with fresh grated ginger to stir in to taste, or order it cold with ice. Naturally sweet – the fermentation of rice breaks carbohydrates down into sugars – it has a delicious, fruity flavour.
- For an in-depth guide to sake, read our comprehensive sake guide.
Azuki Beans & Anko
Sweetened azuki (aka adzuki) beans are one of the most popular ingredients for sweet fillings and desserts, particularly traditional ones such as zenzai (also known as oshiruko) – a dessert soup made from azuki beans with toasted mochi pieces added to serve.
When boiled with sugar and water, azuki beans are called anko. There are variations defined by whether the beans are left whole or mashed, and whether the skins are removed. Anko is alternatively described in English as red bean paste and red bean jam.
It is the classic filling for dorayaki and taiyaki, and a popular topping for kakigori.
(See also Dorayaki, Taiyaki and Kakigori)
Bakery (Bread, Patisserie and Doughnuts)
Japan has embraced European-style baked goods – particularly breads, patisseries and doughnuts. As is common in Japan, the strive for perfection and attention to detail of artisan makers means that the best in Japan rival the best in France, Italy and other bastions of Western-style pastries.
Local bakeries and cafes offer a wide range of European classics such as choux buns and eclairs, delicate tarts and mille-feuilles, cakes, croissants, bread and brioche, macarons and more. Department store foodhalls also offer top quality cakes and pastries.
Alongside these you will often find a range of Japanese creations such as an pan (an anko-filled bun), melon pan (an unfilled bun with a crunchy sugar dough surface that is said to resemble the surface of a melon), kare pan (curry-filled bun, often bread-crumbed and deep-fried), soseiji pan (a sausage baked inside an enriched dough bun), shokupan (sweet and fluffy white bread, sold in a loaf shape), Japanese cheesecakes, souffle pancakes, matcha croissants, and cheese custard tarts (a speciality of Hokkaido).
Doughnuts are enormously popular and American chain Mister Donut is a hugely successful franchise across Japan. As well as classic American favourites, they always sell a wide range of Japanese flavours, and calendar events (such as local festivals and Halloween) are a great excuse for seasonal variations.
You will also find independent sellers such as the soy doughnuts stall in Kyoto’s Nishiki market, and sata andagi Okinawan doughnuts in Southern Japan.
Try these recipes:
Japan’s big beer brands – Asahi, Kirin, Suntory and Sapporo – have been known outside of Japan for many years and it’s fun to visit them for a tour, if you are interested. But for those looking for something a little more varied, the craft beer scene in Japan is huge and still growing. Small and medium local breweries offer a range of beer styles, right across the country.
Many breweries have dedicated tap rooms (sometimes more than one), plus there are plenty of bars specialising in craft beer, some of which have bottle shops on the premises for take out. In addition, you’ll find local beers in supermarkets and grocery shops.
What? Burgers are American, not Japanese! Sure, but it’s well worth burger fans seeking out a burger or two during your trip as the Japanese have their own takes and twists on this classic sandwich.
Try MOS Burger and Freshness Burger for two Japanese chains we particularly love, and check out Japan-only specials in global chain Burger King, such as the kuro ninja burger we tried during our first trip to Japan.
Chawanmushi is a steamed savoury custard, usually served in a little lidded pot as one course in a meal of many dishes.
The egg is usually beaten with soy or dashi and usually has one or more ingredients such as prawns, mushrooms or gingko nuts.
Chazuke, sometimes written as cha-tsuke, is a simple dish of rice with green tea, dashi (stock), or hot water poured over it.
Often, extra toppings are added. Popular toppings include pickles (tsukemono), seasonings (like furikake or nori), fish roe (like mentaiko or tarako), garnishes (such as spring onions or wasabi), and salted fish or meat.
Yeast-leavened steamed buns with a variety of fillings originated in China but have long been popular in Japan too where they are known as chukaman. Those with a pork (or other type of meat) filling are called nikuman, though they also go by other names in different regions of Japan.
Fillings are really varied and include sweet bean paste, chocolate cream, cheese, curry sauce, and many more.
The Japanese adore coffee and if you’re a coffee aficionado you’ll be very well catered for.
Look (or ask for help to find) old kissaten, charming old-school coffee places with the most wonderful retro vibe. These are lovely places to sit and enjoy coffee, often made by true aficionados using beautifully maintained specialist equipment.
There are, of course, a great many modern coffee shops (including many stylish hipster ones), as well as large chains (including global franchises), especially in the cities.
Also worth trying is vending machine coffee, sold in tins that can be enjoyed hot or cold. Yes, that’s right, some of the vending machines in Japan give you the option to have the can heated up before it’s dropped out of the machine for you, alongside the more common chilled option.
Canned coffee comes black and white, sweet and unsweetened so you should find at least one to your taste. You’ll quickly discover your favourite brands and styles, and hopefully enjoy seeking out new ones to try.
Dashi is a simple fish stock used widely in Japanese cuisine. It forms the base for many simmered dishes, sauces and soups and features in many other recipes.
It’s most commonly made by simmering kombu (edible kelp seaweed) with shavings of katsuobushi (see below), both of which provide rich umami flavour. In some cases, niboshi (dried infant sardines) are also added.
These days, powdered, granulated and liquid concentrate versions of dashi are available in supermarkets for speed and convenience. You can also buy dashi stock sachets which contain pre-measured kombu and katsuobushi ready to be simmered in water.
Donburi is the collective name for a rice-bowl dish that is a popular and filling meal, either served on its own or as part of a set (with miso soup, pickles and other such sides). Over the rice is a topping of fish, meat, vegetables, or tofu. Often, the main ingredient has been simmered in its own sauce, but you will also come across other Japanese classics such as tempura and katsu served in this way.
Some of the most popular variations have specific names to describe them:
Butadon is topped with pork, usually simmered in a sweet cooking liquid that thickens into its own sauce.
Chirashi don is a bowl of rice topped with mixed sashimi (see Sushi).
Gyudon is a bowl of rice topped with beef.
Karedon is most likely a riff on kare udon (or soba) and is simply a thick Japanese-style curry sauce over rice.
In Katsudon the rice is topped with katsu (fried and breaded cutlets of meat) stir-fried with onion and beaten egg.
Ikuradon is topped with ikura (salmon roe).
Oyakodon consists of simmered chicken, egg, and onions over rice – the name means ‘mother and child’ and refers to the combination of both chicken and egg.
Tamagodon is an easy one to make at home by topping the rice with slightly sweetened scrambled egg and onions.
Tendon is topped with tempura (the name is an abbreviation of tempura don).
Dorayaki are thick, wheat-based pancakes traditionally filled with anko, but these days you can also find them filled with European-styled custards and creams in many different flavours.
Ekiben & Bento
Bento are the convenience food of Japan – home-made or shop-bought meals in a box, often divided into compartments to separate protein, rice, pickles and vegetables. They are still one of the most popular lunch options for both adults and children alike.
Ekiben are a hugely popular subset of bento, sold at train stations (eki) to be eaten on the journey or at your destination. Many ekiben stores offer regional specialities and you can also find beautiful and unusual box designs.
Japan has a global reputation for extremely expensive fruit and you’ll certainly find plenty at eye-wateringly high prices. Premium quality fruit is considered not only a delicacy but a cherished gift to give when you wish to impress someone or express deep gratitude. High-end kaiseki meals often end with carefully selected, perfectly ripe fruit rather than rich desserts.
Farmers of premium fruit go to extraordinary lengths to ensure their produce is flawless, and are able to achieve high prices as a result. Often, this highly prized fruit is sold in beautiful gift packaging ready to give to the recipient.
But of course, there is plenty of fruit that is sold at prices that are far more reasonable, grown for the mass market rather than the luxury one. You’ll find these not only in supermarkets and small grocery shops but also at food markets, and sometimes at make-shift stalls outside farms and private homes.
Persimmon, known as kaki in Japan is a popular fruit in Japan and one I particularly enjoy fresh if its in season during our visit. It’s also popular dried, so look out for that if it’s not in season when you travel.
I love finding fruits I’ve never encountered (or even heard of) before, so I was captivated to discover akebi on our first visit to Kyoto in 2012. Until relatively recently, akebi was a fruit more commonly found growing wild in the Tohoku region but is now cultivated for sale. When ripe it has a bright purple, velvet-like skin and a pale white, gelatinous flesh full of small dark seeds. The taste is extremely mild, and not particularly sweet but the seeds are bitter so it’s best to spit those out or swallow them without biting into them.
Essentially a dry condiment, furikake is a delicious way to garnish rice and chips (fries) but can be added to many foods including meat, fish and vegetables. It’s commonly used to add flavour to onigiri (see Sushi).
The mixture is usually made of a selection of ingredients such as sesame seeds, dried dish, dried seaweed, sugar, salt, and MSG, but other flavourings such as herbs, spices, powdered miso and vegetables can also be added. We came across furikake we particularly enjoyed during a kaiseki meal and learned from staff that it featured dried plums as one of its key ingredients.
Gyoza are a Japanese adaptation of a Chinese dish, jiaozi (dumplings) which has many variations across East and South East Asia. Indeed the Japanese name gyoza came from the Jilu Mandarin reading of 餃子 which is pronounced giǎoze rather than jiaozi. The recipe likely came home with Japanese soldiers returning from Japanese-controlled Manchuria in the 1930s and 1940s.
Meat, fish or vegetables are folded and sealed within thin dough wrappers and steamed or fried to cook. Japanese gyoza tend to have a punchier garlic flavour and the use of thin, machine-made wrappers is more common.
In Utsonomiya, the gyoza capital of Japan, gyoza are served in a range of different ways; steamed with dipping sauce, steamed and served in a broth, or pan-fried to crisp the surface before being steamed to cook through and soften. We visited the city during our last trip to Japan specifically to seek out gyoza!
We also enjoyed gyoza deep-fried, a method we noticed was popular in several ramen restaurants we visited in Kyoto that offered gyoza as a side dish.
Try these recipes:
Honey & Jam
It may seem strange to list honey and jam in a guide to Japanese food but I’m doing so because it’s so worthwhile seeking out locally-made honey and jams if you visit Japan.
Jams are usually of exceptionally good quality and often feature flavours that are uniquely Japanese, such as sakura (cherry blossom) or yuzu (a citrus fruit). Local specialities often feature in local food products such as ham, which is a great way to bring those flavours home with you.
There is a huge reverence for regional and local foods in Japan so small-batch honey made by local bee-keepers is prized. These honeys can seem pricey, but that’s only in comparison with mass-produced honeys, especially the cheapest ones where a small amount of real honey is bulked with sugar syrup. For pure, high-quality pure honey, prices are reasonable. We found specialist honey shops in Kyoto and Tokyo that stocked a wide range of honeys from across Japan, and were able to taste before choosing which to buy.
Ice cream is really popular in Japan and you’ll find vendors all over, especially at tourist attractions, in festivals, and in shopping districts.
The range of flavours is often huge, with many that are unfamiliar outside Japan. Flavours such as matcha, black sesame and brown sugar have become popular in other countries but look out too for flavours such as azuki bean, hojicha (roasted black tea), sweet potato, tofu, miso, soy sauce, wasabi, and kinako (roasted soybean flour). Fruit flavours such as melon, grape, mango, peach, plum, strawberry and many others are always wonderful. And of course you’ll find global favourites like vanilla, chocolate, caramel as well.
Tubs and cones are common but some vendors also sell ice cream sandwiched between monaka wafers.
Kaiseki ryori is a traditional multi-course meal consisting of a succession of seasonal, local and beautifully presented little dishes. Although its origins are in the simple dishes served as part of a traditional tea ceremony, it has evolved over centuries into a more elaborate dining style now served in ryokan and specialised restaurants.
Such meals usually have a prescribed order to what is served, though each chef takes pride in designing and presenting their own menus based on local delicacies, seasonal ingredients and traditional techniques combined with their personal style. You can expect a selection of starters, sushi or sashimi, a stew of seafood, meat or vegetables, grilled fish or meat, deep fried items, steamed items, rice with miso soup and one or more pickles, and fresh fruit or sweets.
In ryokans meals are often served in guests’ rooms, at the low tables provided, in this case, most of the courses are served together in an extensive spread of dishes. After the meal, ryokan staff push the tables aside and make up the futon beds in their place, though some of the larger guest rooms have separate areas for dining and sleeping.
In kaiseki restaurants, the seating is more varied but often Western style tables and chairs are available.
Shaved ice is a popular dessert in many East and South East Asian countries. In Japan, you’ll find kakigori served with traditional toppings such as azuki beans and matcha syrup, as well as more internationally-familiar flavours like chocolate, caramel and coffee. Fruit toppings such as strawberry, mango, melon are very popular; you may also spot seasonal specials such as sakura, rose and pumpkin.
Kamaboko is a type of surimi fishcake from Japan. Surimi is made by creating a paste of pureed white fish that is flavoured, formed into different shapes and steamed to cook. In Japan there are many surimi products which are sold both fresh and dried for consumers to add to soups, hotpots and other dishes. You may already be familiar with one surimi product that is consumed around the world – imitation crabsticks, made from coloured and flavoured fish paste.
Kamaboko can be cooked whole, most commonly by steaming, but it can also be sliced before cooking, and fried, grilled or poached. It us usually served sliced, either on its own or within other dishes.
You may also have come across narutomaki, a specific type of kakaboko that is often served in thin slices in ramen and other soup and broth dishes; it’s usually cylindrical in shape with jagged frills around the outside and features a pink swirl against white.
Read about our visit to The Suzuhiro Kamaboko Museum.
In Japan, foods are classified into washoku (traditional Japanese) and yōshoku (western food). In reality, Japanese versions are seldom exact copycats of western inspirations, and personally we think that’s a very good thing!
The most popular type of katsu is pork, known as tonkatsu. This breaded, deep-fried pork resembles the Austrian-German schnitzels, French escalopes and Italian scaloppines from which it descended, but Japanese panko (breadcrumbs) are lighter, larger and crisper.
Most tonkatsu restaurants offer a choice of hire (lean fillet) or rosu (fattier loin). Usually served with shredded cabbage, freshly ground sesame seeds and tonkatsu sauce (a Japanese version of Worcestershire sauce).
Tip: Take care not to confuse with tonkatsu (breaded fried pork) with tonkotsu (pork bone broth ramen)
You can also find other meats, vegetables and cheese cooked as katsu. Markets often have vendors selling individual pieces of katsu to takeaway.
Another popular way of enjoying katsu is katsu kare raisu (kare raisu is a phonetic representation of ‘curry rice’ in English), where the shredded cabbage and sesame are replaced with Japanese curry sauce and rice, and katsu sando, katsu in a sandwich.
Try these recipes:
Made by smoke-drying skipjack tuna (also known as bonito), katsuoboshi is both a key ingredient in Japanese cooking and a common garnish served on top of many dishes such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki and many others.
Because they are so thin, the shavings often curl and flutter for a few moments in the heat of the hot food they are placed on to; a beautiful dance to watch.
The dried fish is usually sliced into thin shavings using a specialised plane featuring a well-sharpened blade. You can buy it ready sliced but most restaurants and many home cooks will instead buy a piece of smoke-dried bonito and shave it when needed.
Katsuobushi is one of the key ingredients in dashi, a light stock that is an element of many Japanese recipes.
Although karaage refers to a cooking method in which different meats or fish are deep fried, it’s most commonly used on chicken. Karaage differs from tempura in that items aren’t coated in a batter, but instead dusted in a light coat of flour, corn starch or potato starch, before they are fried. Extra flavour is added by marinating the meat beforehand, usually in a mixture of sake, soy sauce, ginger, and garlic.
The dish is often served on its own, or with shredded cabbage. It’s widely enjoyed as a snack or as a side dish with other items on a menu. You may also find it served as with kare raisu (curry sauce and rice) or as addition to dishes like omu raisu (omelette and rice).
Karaage is not a long-standing dish in Japan – it’s thought to have originated following World War II, and was popularised in the 1920s by a Beppy restaurant called Toyoken.
- Try this recipe for Karaage chicken.
The Japanese word kare comes from “curry”, and has a surprising origin story in Japan. You might think that curry travelled to Japan from South Asia, but actually it was introduced to Japan by officers of the British Royal Navy in the late 19th / early 20th century – the British had absorbed curry into their diets as a result of the British colonisation of India, and the navy introduced British ready made curry powder (which is a blend of several spices) to Japan.
The Japanese developed a roux-based method to make a sauce using curry powder. This was later adapted into ready-made curry roux. These days Japanese curry roux is available in block and powder forms.
You’ll often come across dishes featuring kare, including kare raisu, kare udon and kare pan.
Like yakitori, kushiage (also known as kushikatsu) is cooked and served on skewers, but in this case the food is breaded and deep-fried!
Kushiage is a popular speciality in Osaka. We particularly loved Osaka’s DIY kushiage restaurants with tables featuring embedded deep fat fryers, allowing diners to fry their own skewers. Breadcrumbs are provided at the table, as well as a range of dips and condiments.
You can also buy kushiage already cooked, which is popular as a fast-food and takeaway option.
Miso is a seasoning made by fermenting soybeans, salt and additional grains such as rice or barley with a mould fungus known in Japanese as kōji-kin. The result is a thick, salty and intensely savoury paste used as a seasoning throughout Japanese cooking.
There are many different varieties available in Japan, often broadly divided by their colour. The most common miso types are red and white, made with soybeans and rice. White has a higher percentage of rice than its red counterpart and is the mildest and sweetest. Red, aged for longer, is stronger, saltier and darkens with age from red to brown. Some vintage misos are almost black in colour.
There are other types of miso that are made with different grains such as barley, buckwheat, rye or millet.
Regional differences also play a part; in Sendai the locals prefer their miso slightly chunkier, so the soybeans are coarsely mashed rather than ground; in parts of Chubu and Kansai there’s a preference for darker, saltier and more astringent miso. In Eastern Japan, mild and sweet pale misos are the favourites.
In Japan, miso is obviously a key ingredient in miso soup (for which it is combined with dashi stock) but it also features in sauces, marinades, pickles and dressings. It is even used in sweet dishes; miso mochi – chewy dumplings made from rice flour – offer a delightful balance of sweet, salty and savoury.
Try these delicious Japanese miso recipes:
- Aubergine and Beef cooked in Miso
- Stir-Fried Negi with Miso and Pork
- Tofu, sesame and miso dressing for green bean salad
- Japanese-Style Miso Cod
Mochi & Dango
Mochi is a chewy rice cake or dough made with glutinous rice, and is enjoyed in both sweet and savoury dishes.
White glutinous rice is steamed to cook and then pounded together to create a smooth paste which is moulded into the desired shape. Other ingredients such as water and sugar are sometimes added to adjust texture and taste, and sometimes additional ingredients are mixed in once the paste is ready (such as azuki beans, gingko nuts, small potatoes or yams, or local herbs).
Mochi is also often made without flavouring ingredients, and flavour is instead added to the finished dish by way of glazes, sauces or even soups.
Dango is similar but is made using mochiko (rice flour) mixed with water into a smooth consistency. It’s usually formed into balls and served on skewers, and it’s common to see flavourings added to the dango dough directly, as well as by way of glazes and sauces.
A personal favourite is mitarashi dango, a popular street snack of sweet glutinous rice dumplings basted in a sweet soy glaze.
(See also, Rice, and Wagashi)
As a mushroom lover, I appreciate the Japanese fondness for funghi, which is cooked and served in a great many ways and dishes.
Some of the popular mushroom varieties you may have heard of include shiitake (also known as the black forest mushroom), enoki (a gilled variety that grows and is harvested in clumps, and is prized for it’s very slender long shape) and eringi (which is known as the king trumpet in Europe).
Other varieties that you’ll see on sale and on menus in Japan include maitake (known as hen-of-the-woods and as sheep’s head mushroom in the UK), hiratake (oyster mushrooms. of which there are multiple kinds), shimeji (clam shell mushrooms, of which there are also multiple kinds), and the highly prized matsutake (also known as Armillaria ponderosa or the pine mushroom for its growing habitat).
As the Japanese eat and shop seasonally, popular varieties that have a more limited season can demand high prices, and are celebrated on menus when available.
Often abbreviated to nabe, nabemono are the ultimate one pot meal. Meat, seafood, vegetables and mushrooms are traditionally cooked in liquid inside shallow clay or cast iron pots. Popular for communal meals, the stock pot (also known as a hot pot) is served to the table alongside raw ingredients which diners cook themselves in the broth.
Lighter stocks are favoured for tofu, fish, chicken and vegetables, with dipping sauces provided for extra flavour. Rich stocks – with soy, miso or dashi – flavour the food as it cooks; I particularly love shabu shabu and sukiyaki nabe – the first is savoury, the second savoury sweet.
If you order a hot pot at a restaurant, they will often provide noodles or rice to add in to the remaining stock at the end, once its flavour has been further enriched by all the ingredients cooked in it.
Oden (a variety of items including seafood, meat, tofu, vegetables that are stewed in a light dashi broth) is classified as nimono (煮物, simmered dish) as well as nabe.
One of the pleasures of a trip to Japan is seeking out specialist restaurants that serve just one thing, made with enormous care and skill. This is especially true when it comes to noodles.
Ramen are thin, firm wheat noodles made with kansui (alkaline water); where kansui is not available, egg is sometimes added to give the traditional yellow colour. Like the soup they are traditionally served in, ramen noodles vary regionally in shape and length.
(See also, Ramen)
Soba noodles are made from buckwheat flour which gives them a distinctive brown colour. Served with or without a broth, hot or cold; in summer, cold soba with a dipping sauce is particularly popular.
Udon noodles, made from wheat flour; are thick and white with a distinctive chewy texture. Like soba, they can be served with or without a broth, hot or cold.
Somen are thin wheat flour noodles which are stretched during making. In summer, nagashi- sōmen restaurants serve customers by way of bamboo flumes of cold running water; customers pluck noodles from the water, dipping them in tsuyu sauce (made from bonito flakes, kombu and soy sauce).
Shirataki (also known as glass noodles) are made from the konjac yam and are translucent, slippery and somewhat gelatinous in texture. Ito-konnyaku are similar, but thicker than shirataki. Konjac noodles are a key ingredient in several Japanese dishes such as sukiyaki hotpot. They are also popular with those on a gluten-free diet, or seeking low-calorie ingredients.
If you like Chinese-style stir fried noodles, look for yakisoba, which translates as fried noodles. The name is a slight misnomer – these days the dish typically features wheat flour rather than soba noodles that are fried with a few vegetables in a thick, savoury sauce.
If you’re a fan of pot noodles you are already enjoying something invented in Japan. There are cup noodle museums dedicated to this invention in Osaka and Yokohama.
The Japanese are big tea (ocha) lovers, and there are many varieties and types of tea enjoyed in Japan. It would be too long an entry to list every type of tea, but a few of my favourites are sencha, gyokuro, hojicha, genmaicha, and matcha.
Sencha and gyokuro are both green teas and the leaves are rolled and steamed before being dried. The key difference is that for gyokuro, the tea bushes are grown under shade or covered to provide shade for at least 20 days before being harvested. This slows down growth and triggers an increase in chlorophyll levels, resulting in higher levels of L-theanine (an amino acid which is believed to reduce stress, sharpen cognitive performance and improve mood) and caffeine, and creates a distinctively umami flavour profile in the finished tea.
Hojicha is a green tea that is roasted after being steamed, creating a nutty, toasted flavour. The tea leaves are usually golden brown in colour.
Genmaicha is a blend of green tea leaves and toasted brown rice. The sugar and starch from the rice contribute to the flavour which is a wonderful combination of grassy green tea and nuttiness from the rice.
Matcha – powdered green tea – is made from tea that is shaded before harvest in the same way as gyokuro. In this case, the tea leaves are not rolled before they are steamed, and are dried flat. Before being powdered, this leaves are known as tencha, but once de-veined, de-stemmed and finely stone-ground, they become matcha. Matcha is popular not only as a drink but also as an ingredient in many sweet dishes.
To learn more about matcha, check out our handy guide to matcha. If you’d like to gain a more comprehensive understanding of Japanese tea, you may like A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Tea by Per Oscar Brekell.
Try these recipes:
Translating to “what you like, grilled” okonomiyaki is sometimes described as a pancake, sometimes as a pizza – it’s difficult to pin down in translation as there’s nothing quite like it in European cuisine.
A large thick fritter cooked on a hot plate, often in front of or by the diners on a table-top hot plate, it consists of shredded cabbage mixed into a wheat flour batter with ingredients such as pork, seafood and vegetables added. Once ready, the fritter is topped with bonito flakes and generous zig-zags of mayonnaise and a thick brown sauce that is sweet, sharp and tangy.
If you’re at a cook-it-yourself restaurant, each diner is given a metal spatula to cut and serve pieces of okonomiyaki to their plates, thus leaving the rest of it on the hot plate where it remains nice and hot.
Regional variations of okonomiyaki abound across Japan; Kansai style, described here, is the most prevalent but Hiroshima style with fried noodles, known as modanyaki, is also popular, as is monjayaki, a Tokyo variant with a sloppier texture.
- Try this okonomiyaki recipe.
Omu raisu (omelette rice) is another hugely popular dish with many variations. Omelettes are usually cooked to be what the French call baveuse – juicy and soft, a little runny, and undercooked, and served with rice, often carefully balanced on top of a shaped mound of rice and sliced open to cascade down the sides of the rice.
Sauces such as curry sauce, Italian-style tomato sauce, bechamel, cheese sauce, thick and shiny gravy, ring the changes.
Ramen is a noodle soup dish with Chinese origins. The Japanese made it their own and today it’s hugely popular across the whole of Japan, with several different styles not to mention many regional specialities. At its core, ramen is simply a bowl of noodles served in a flavoursome broth with toppings such as chasu (sliced barbeque pork), nori (dried seaweed), menma (fermented bamboo shoots), and negi (spring onions). Often a seasoned soft-boiled egg is added too – ajitsuke tamago (ramen eggs) are marinated for a couple of days in a sweet soy-based liquid, which adds flavour to the surface and gives time for the yolk to become jammy in texture.
The main styles of broth are tonkotsu (pork bone), miso (made with miso paste), shoyu (soy sauce), and shio (salty) but there are several others. Additionally you may come across tsukemen, for which the ramen noodles and toppings are served dry alongside a bowl of sauce in which to plunge each mouthful before eating.
Ramen noodles are made from wheat flour, plus water, salt and kansui (an alkali salt that changes the pH of dough, improving bond formation and resulting in a chewier, springier noodle). The noodles vary between thick and thin, and can be straight or wriggly.
- Try this recipe to learn how to make ramen noodles at home from scratch.
In Japan, ramen is very regional. Sapporo is known for its miso ramen topped with sweetcorn, butter, beansprouts, garlic and chopped pork. Hakodate prefers a salty chicken and pork broth ramen. In Asahikawa, soy-flavoured ramen is popular. In Kitikata, ramen eaters enjoy thick and curly noodles in a pork and niboshi (dried fish) broth. In Tokyo, noodles are curly but thinner and commonly served in a chicken and soy broth. Hakata ramen features a rich, slow-cooked tonkotsu (pork bone) broth and thin, straight noodles.
Rice is a staple in the Japanese diet, as it is across much of East and South East Asia.
Japanese rice cultivars are predominantly short-grain, and broadly divided into uruchimai and mochigome. For everyday eating, uruchimai (Japonica rice) is favoured, its grains a little stickier when cooked than long grain rice varieties, thus well-suited for eating with chopsticks and for sushi rice.
Mochigome rice is glutinous rice; its short, fat grains are opaque, and far stickier than ordinary rice once cooked. Despite its label, glutinous rice does not contain gluten. Mochigome is used to make mochi and dango.
(See also, Donburi, and Mochi & Dango, and Sushi)
Made from rice, sake is a traditional Japanese alcohol with a history going back at least two thousand years, and is firmly embedded in the culture and cuisine of Japan. It is made by using koji (Aspergillus oryzae mould) to turn rice starches into sugar, then sake yeast to ferment those sugars into alcohol.
For an indepth guide to sake, read our comprehensive sake guide.
Although sashimi is often listed as a type of sushi, it’s not, though it is often served alongside, and in the same restaurants. Sushi must have rice in it, whereas sashimi is raw fish or meat cut into thin, even slices served without rice.
Usually served chilled, and sometimes over rice, the key condiment is soy sauce. Sometimes the head and tail of the fish are presented with the sliced sashimi between them, to showcase how fresh the fish is, and which species is being served.
Senbei are Japanese rice crackers, a very popular snack. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and flavours, most of which are savoury but occasionally sweet. Made by pounding glutinous rice into a dough, the crackers are grilled (traditionally over charcoal) till they are cooked through and crunchy. Often, a soy-based sauce is brushed onto the surface while they cook. Additional flavourings may be added once cooked.
Shichimi togarashi (often shortened to shichimi) is a Japanese spice blend, which traditionally features seven spices, the main one of which is togarashi (red pepper). These days, blends may have more than seven spices such as sansho (Japanese pepper), orange or yuzu peel, black and white sesame seeds, ground ginger, nori (dried seaweed), hemp seeds, poppy seeds, rapeseed and shiso.
Many cooks in Japan buy ready-mixed shichimi available in supermarkets, but you can still find spice blend vendors in traditional food markets, who will blend mixes to their customers’ preferences.
Shirasu & Niboshi
Shirasu refers to very small (infant) fish of a variety of species including sardines, herrings, conger eels and others. Available in varying sizes, these are most commonly sold boiled or dried and are used as snacks, seasoning or garnish, and an ingredient.
Niboshi are specifically (infant) sardines and are sometimes used in dashi (stock) alongside kombu and katsuobushi.
(See also Dashi)
Shojin ryori is the plant-based diet followed by Buddhist monks in Japan. Shojin describes devotion, or the pursuit of purification; ryori simply means cuisine, cooking or food. The tenets of shojin ryori were established in the 12th century by Dogen Zenji who founded the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Much of this was based on existing practices in China, and bought to Japan by monks and other travellers.
First and foremost, shojin ryori eschews all meat, fish, and related products including dairy and eggs. In addition, the cuisine avoids gokun – ingredients that are thought to stimulate “wordly desires”, which includes garlic, onions, shallots, spring onions (scallions), and chives, also sometimes referred to as the pungent vegetables. There is also a belief that such ingredients can provoke lust and anger, which is echoed by the tenets of ayurvedic texts, which inform diet practises for Hindus in India.
Followers of shojin ryori also practice mindfulness in their way of cooking and eating. Consideration is given by the cook to those who will be eating the food. Those eating the food are mindful of the efforts of those who have grown, prepared and provided it.
You can experience shojin ryori by participating in a temple stay, such as our visit and stay in a temple on Mount Koya. There are also dedicated restaurants that serve the cuisine, many of which are associated with a temple but don’t require an overnight stay.
Although people often think immediately of raw fish, the key ingredient of sushi is rice. Sushi-meshi (often shorted to sumeshi) is prepared by mixing Japanese white short-grain rice with vinegar, and a little sugar and salt. The sumeshi is then combined with fillings or toppings.
Those fillings or toppings can be fish and seafood (raw or cooked), vegetables, eggs, and even meat.
Sometimes grated wasabi (Japanese horseradish) is added to the sushi; sometimes it’s served on the side, along with soy sauce, for the diner to apply as they wish. Pickled ginger is also provided, as a palate cleanser between morsels of sushi.
Note that the spelling of sushi changes to zushi when used to describe a particular type of sushi, as here. The meaning is the same, but the pronunciation changes.
Nigiri-zushi (in which hand-pressed blocks of sushi rice are topped with seafood), was invented in the 1820s, and is one of the most popular forms of sushi enjoyed today, and raw fish remains a very popular topping and filling for many types of sushi. My favourite toppings include uni (sea urchin roe), all kinds of raw fish, especially otoro (fatty tuna) and salmon, tamago (rolled omelette, sliced), and unagi (eel, glazed in a sweet sauce).
Temari-zushi is similar to nigiri in that it’s morsels of rice topped with other ingredients. However temari are shaped into neat balls and the toppings are usually arranged in beautiful patterns, pressed firmly around the sumeshi.
Maki-zushi is another style of sushi that’s become very popular. Here, a range of fillings are wrapped inside sumeshi, which itself is wrapped inside a sheet of nori (dried seaweed), and rolled into a cylinder. The cylinder is then sliced into rounds, to create individual morsels to eat.
Hoso-maki describes thinner rolls which have only one kind of filling such as salmon, cucumber or pickle, and futo-maki is used for thicker ones which usually have a mix of fillings.
Uramaki (which translates to inside out roll) is formed in a similar way to maki rolls but as the name implies, in this case the rice is on the outside, and the nori is inside with the other fillings. The rice is often given a coating of sesame seeds, poppy seeds, or tobiko (flying fish eggs).
Gunkan-maki are a different style of maki in which the nori wrapping around a block of rice extends up past the rice to create a handy receptable for looser sushi toppings such as ikura (salmon eggs) to be placed. It’s named for its visual resemblance to gunkan (battleships).
Temaki hand rolls are individual pieces of sushi shaped into a cone shape, with the rice and fillings wrapped again in a sheet of nori.
Inari-zushi is a simple type of sushi in that it is made by stuffing sumeshi into inari-age (a pocket of deep-fried tofu). The inari-age is seasoned by cooking in a sweetened dashi broth. Inari-zushi don’t have other fillings alongside the rice. They are sweet and juicy! The name of this kind of sushi is said to come from the goddess Inari whose foxes are believed to love fried tofu, with the pointed corners of the tofu pouches thought to resemble the ears of a fox.
Chirashi-zushi is a great option for a quick lunch and is often an affordable way to enjoy a sushi meal. Here, a bowl of sumeshi is covered in a range of toppings. The name means ‘scattered’, but as is common in Japanese cuisine, the toppings are usually beautifully and neatly arranged over the rice. Tokyo style features raw fish and seafood toppings, whereas Osaka style uses cooked ingredients and is especially decorative in presentation.
Onigiri are a very portable form of sushi in which the fillings are in the centre of a ball of sumeshi. The rice is often shaped into a triangle, with a sheet or nori used to provide partial wrapping. Popular fillings include pickles such as umeboshi (ume is a Japanese stone fruit), mustard greens, salted salmon, cooked tuna and other such ingredients that last well. If ever you want a snack, grab some onigiri from the nearest konbini (convenience store).
You may also have come across California rolls, Dragon rolls and Dynamite rolls. These are American sushi creations. California rolls often have avocado as one of the fillings, and they don’t include raw fish. Instead, vegetables, cooked fish or chicken may feature. Dragon rolls are a variation on maki rolls, but arranged on the plate in a sinuous line with a pretty topping added along the “spine” of the dragon. Dynamite rolls are essentially maki or uramaki garnished with sauces such as sriracha and mayo.
Sushi is easy to find across Japan. A favourite Tokyo-based chain of mine is Zanmai, which offers delicious sushi and other seafood dishes at an affordable price point. I also love kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi) restaurants.
(See also Sashimi)
A favourite street-food snack, taiyaki is a fish-shaped sweet made in the shape of a fish. It’s cake-like texture is made by cooking batter in specialist moulds which allow for a filling inside the sweet. The most traditional filling is anko (a sweet paste made from azuki beans), but these days other filligs such as custard, chocolate, and sweet potato are also offered.
(See also Azuki Beans)
Takoyaki (which translates to fried octopus) are a ball-shaped Japanese street food that originated less than a 100 years ago in Osaka, though they can be now found all over the country. A wheat flour batter is cooked in special takoyaki pans – do seek out and watch a skilful vendor add batter, drop in a filling of octopus and greens (or one of the other fillings now available), and deftly rotate the cooking batter to form a spherical shell around the filling.
Takoyaki is best enjoyed hot and fresh topped with seaweed, bonito flakes, takoyaki brown sauce and mayonnaise
Tempura refers to a wide variety of ingredients that have been lightly battered and fried. Seafood and vegetable tempura are most popular, though meat sometimes features too. The origins of tempura lie in the fritter cooking techniques introduced to Nagaski by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
Good tempura has a light and crisp batter and the ingredients inside are perfectly cooked. There are many restaurants that specialise in tempura, their chefs train for years to master this form of cooking. You can also find tempura in many other restaurants, where it may be served on top of rice bowls (tendon), noodle soups and as a side dish.
Look out for kakiage, a type of tempura in which ingredients such as shredded vegetables, small shrimps and scallops (or larger ones chopped up) are mixed with the batter and fried in a clump.
(See also Donburi)
Made by coagulating soy milk then straining and pressing the resulting curd, tofu originated in China two millennia ago and spread to neighbouring East Asian countries in the centuries to follow. In Japan, where it’s known as dofu, it became an important source of protein for Buddhist vegetarians and an integral part of the culinary landscape.
Specialist restaurants serve an array of delicious dishes based around its subtle flavours and textures;
Look for yudofu, a nabe dish in which fresh tofu is simmered in dashi stock.
Another personal favourite is yuba, the layer of skin that forms, custard-like, on soy milk as it is simmered to make tofu. Carefully lifted away from the liquid, fresh yuba is a treat served simply with a splash of soy, and dried yuba features in a range of dishes.
Ganmodoki is another food to look out, a fried patty or ball of tofu in which vegetables such as greens, lotus root, burdock, and gingko nuts are mixed. These can be served as they are, or in a soup. The name means ‘pseudo-goose’ as ganmodoki was considered a substitute meat item, thought to taste like goose.
To learn more about tofu, head over to our full guide to tofu.
Try these delicious Japanese tofu recipes:
- Agedashi Tofu
- Home-made Atsuage (fried tofu) with Cherry Tomatoes
- Saya Ingen Shira-ae (green beans with tofu, miso and sesame dressing)
- Japanese-Style Mabo Dofu
You may also like to read about our discovery of a traditional yuba maker in Kyoto.
Wagashi is the banner name for traditional Japanese confectionery, many of which make use of mochi and dango.
Typical flavourings and fillings include anko (sweet azuki bean paste), black sesame, matcha, sakura (cherry blossom petals), imo (sweet potato) and a variety of fruits. These same flavours are also widely used in Japanese takes on European-style patisseries.
One of my favourite traditional wagashi is warabi-mochi, sweet dumplings made from bracken fern starch and coated with nutty kinako (roasted soybean flour). Also look out for mitarashi dango, a popular street snack of glutinous rice flour dumplings basted in a sweet soy glaze, and zenzai, a dessert of sweet azuki bean syrup topped with chargrilled rice cakes.
(See also Mochi & Dango and Dorayaki).
Wagyu, which translates to ‘Japanese beef’, is famous around the world. Known for the tender, very marbled nature of the beef, there are many prefectures across Japan recognised for their wagyu.
There are four wagyu cattle breeds including Kuroge (Japanese Black, of which Tajima is a sub-species), Akage (Japanese brown), Nihon Tankaku (Japanese Shorthorn), and Mukaku (Japanese Polled, of which there are very few today). Beef that is not from these breeds of cattle is not considered wagyu.
Like many specialist products, there are strict rules about how cattle are bred, and what they are fed. There are many stories told about farmers massaging their cattle and giving them beer; it’s true tht the cattle are sometimes stroked with stiff brushes that increase blood circulation and relieve stress, but they are not routinely given beer to drink! That said, farmers do work very hard to ensure stress-free environments for their animals. To ensure quality control and traceability, all wagyu sold can be traced back to the farmer, and even the individual animal.
Wagyu is graded on two factors – yield and meat quality. Yield looks at the final meat ratio of the carcass, and is marked as A for above average, B for average and C for below average. Meat quality assesses marbling, colour, texture and the quality and lustre of the fat; the marks for quality are 1-5 with 5 being the highest. You will see wagyu sold as A5 (the highest certification), or B3, or C1 for example. You may also come across a rating for the marbling content, from BMS1 (average) up to BMS12 (exceptional).
Internationally, wagyu from Kobe is probably the best known, but it’s well worth seeking out other brands from across Japan such as Matsusaka, Saga, Yonezawa , Omi, Hida and others. We had some truly wonderful Hida wagyu when visiting Takayama.
Wagyu can be enjoyed in many ways, but it’s often grilled and eaten without adornment, so that the flavour and texture of the meat can be fully appreciated. Wagyu sashimi is also popular. The high fat content means wagyu very rich, so it’s common for only small amounts to be eaten at a time, and the high price factors into that too!
You could try this recipe for Japanese Pepper Steak with Garlic Soy Sauce Butter with wagyu but you may prefer to serve wagyu plain to enjoy the flavour, in which case try this with non-wagyu steaks.
In China, Taiwan and North America, yakinuku (grilled meat) is often referred to as Japanese barbeque but in Japan, it’s very much considered a Korean import. DIY dining at its best, diners gather around a charcoal or wood burner in the centre of the table and cook their own meat-centric meal, piece by piece and at their own pace.
Many specialist restaurants have yakiniku grills built into the tables; clever extractor systems whip away smoke and smells. Others bring portable barbeques to the table, quickly replacing them should the coals die down mid meal.
Most commonly, thin slivers of raw meat are ordered according to animal and cut, some served plain and others marinated in a tasty tare (marinade/ sauce). A selection of sides are available, spicy pickles and Korean dishes being most popular.
Want to know more about Yakiniku?
Although Yakitori translates literally to fried or grilled poultry, in practice yakitori is far more varied and includes a variety of meat, fish and vegetables skewers cooked over charcoal. These are sometimes pre-marinated and usually basted with sauces during cooking to add flavour.
My favourites include tsukune (minced chicken kebab dipped into an egg yolk to eat), and quail eggs wrapped in bacon.