10 Foods to Try in Japan (That Aren’t Sushi or Ramen)
Get ready to chow down on these lesser-known Japanese foods to try as you travel.
Sushi and ramen have already made culinary waves around the world and, of course, you’ll want to check out the real deal while you’re here. But the fact that this list was so hard to narrow down (and caused a whole lotta’ debate here at GaijinPot) is proof that when it comes to food in Japan, the choice is pretty much endless. So put on those stretchy pants and let’s go!
1. Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu
Order plates of your favorite raw meats, cook them in a big pot in the middle with seasonal vegetables in broth and dip them into a sauce of your choosing. Polish it off with some delicious white rice. The main difference between the two is that sukiyaki is cooked in a sweet and salty broth with a strong flavor while shabu shabu is meat boiled in a clear, seaweed-based broth. Both are pretty classy meals here (especially shabu-shabu) – mainly because of the amount of meat consumed – so watch your wallet as things can get pricey.
Try it:The Kanto and Kansai regions have their own competing versions of sukiyaki which vary in ingredients and cooking processes, but you can find it almost everywhere in Japan. While the first ever shabu-shabu restaurant was in Osaka, again you can find a huge range of places offering it across the country from inexpensive chain stops to Michelin-starred options like Imafuku in Tokyo.
At first sight, katsudon is not the most appealing of dishes aesthetically-speaking but it sure is tasty. Made with a solid helping of rice, onions, deep-fried pork cutlet (tonkatsu) and eggs poured over the top; this is the ultimate Japanese comfort food. It’s also become a tradition for Japanese students to eat it the night before taking an exam since “katsu” also means to win. Recently, katsudon has become more familiar to western audiences because of the popularity of the figure-skating anime, Yuri on Ice, and its main character’s obsession with the dish.
Try it: Tonkatsu-speciality restaurants almost always offer up a variety of katsudon as well as the regular tonkatsu dish (the cutlet served with shredded cabbage and a barbecue-style sauce). Katsuya is a popular fast-food chain where you order via a ticket machine and wolf it all down at a counter lined with businessmen doing the same.
How can eggs and rice be so darn satisfying? Omurice (an abridged katakana version of “omelet and rice”) is usually mixed with ketchup, stuffed with chicken, rice and vegetables and held in a smooth embrace by a simple egg omelet. Although usually homemade fare, there are plenty of restaurants that feature omurice on their menus or specialise in this most versatile of meals. Favorite variations include demi-glace sauce instead of ketchup, the Okinawan kind with taco rice, or including fried hot dog or spam.
Try it: You’ll spot omurice on most all-rounder restaurant menus, and it’s also a popular breakfast feature in retro Japanese cafes or kissaten. It’s basically the crowd-pleasing equivalent of spaghetti and meatballs. Yoshokuya Eat, Eat is responsible for the obscenely delicious take seen above.
4. Unagi (Eel)
Rest assured, this yummy seafood is nowhere near as slippery on your plate as the creature is while alive. For those who aren’t a huge fan of seafood but don’t want to miss out on Japan’s fishy cuisine, unagi is perfect as its texture and smell has more in common with meat than your typical seafood. Unadon is grilled eel in a kind of teriyaki sauce laid on top of steaming rice – a good introduction for the sceptics.
5. Chicken karaage
KFC has absolutely nothing on Japan’s version of fried chicken. Technically called tori no karaage, the basic recipe involves boneless, tender chicken thigh marinated in a soy sauce mixture and deep-fried in a crispy batter. It’s absolutely adored by Japanese people; almost everybody knows how to make it at home, yet they’ll almost always order it when drinking in an izakaya (Japanese pub). Sort of like a chicken nugget, but a million times better, there are tons of ways to stuff yourself with karaage. You should tell your stomach to make room for them all.
Try it: Chicken nanban is the sunny southern version of karaage, served with a tartare sauce. It’s available across the country but you wanted to visit Kyushu anyway, right?
Why the incredibly delicious efficiency of onigiri hasn’t swept the entire planet is a mystery (though they are getting more popular overseas) – you cannot leave Japan without sampling one of these. A cornerstone of Japanese lunch/snack/late-night eating, the humble rice ball is a simple concoction of rice filled with some kind of filling and shaped into a triangle. More often than not they’re wrapped in seaweed which adds a nice, healthy crunch.
Try it: It’s great fun to do onigiri roulette in the convenience store and pick up a random rice ball from the shelf. You could hit the jackpot with tuna mayonnaise or lose with a super sour umeboshi (or vice versa!) There are also dedicated onigiri restaurants like Bongo (above) which serve giant, handmade rice balls with a choice of fresh fillings.
Very roughly translated as a “rice cake”, mochi is hard to describe. Made from a glutinous rice which is traditionally pounded with a large and very heavy hammer into sticky submission (see above), mochi is about as traditional as it gets in terms of Japanese food. There are lots of ways to eat mochi: in soup, grilled, or stuffed with anko, wrapped in an edible leaf for cherry blossom season and dubbed sakura mochi. Daifuku is a mochi cake usually stuffed with a sweet filling. Not only are these little guys adorable to look at (those pale colours and squishy texture are just too much), they’re also one of the most delicious of the mochi-variants.
Try it: If you want the best of the best, you’ve gotta try strawberry-stuffed daifuku. Head to a food shopping court in the basement of a high-end department store, known as a depachika, for top-quality-guaranteed.
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A unique Japanese bakery item, melonpan (lit. “melon bread”), is a sugary, cookie dough-coated bun in the shape of a cantaloupe melon that doesn’t actually taste anything like melon (unless you choose the right flavor.) Variants can be found throughout the country that include chocolate chip, caramel or custard filling.
Try it: Melonpan can be picked up anywhere from fancy cafes to your local 7/11 convenience store. Kagetsudo close to the historic Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa is famed for its jumbo versions which can be scoffed while strolling the surrounding streets.
9. Anything Anko (Red Bean)
Like lots of ingredients used in making traditional Japanese sweets, anko (or red/adzuki bean paste) isn’t that sweet and its texture can sometimes be off-putting to foreigners. But for those who can get over their initial reservations, there is a whole new world of related goodies for you to try. Take Doraemon’s namesake, dorayaki, for example. These mini pancakes are filled with pure bean-y goodness and rated by top pastry chefs like Dominique Ansel (see above). How about trying taiyaki next? These cute little fishies come with not only the traditional anko-filling but also chocolate, custard and matcha. Anmitsu, made of agar jelly, topped with anko and lots of fruit is a classic Japanese dessert beloved by grandpas and grandmas out for an afternoon coffee and a sweet.
Try it: From supermarket cans to artisan vendors it’s highly likely that you’ll come across anko in some form or another on your travels. If you’re in Tokyo, Ginza is a reliable place to seek out traditional Japanese wagashi (sweets) in a bubble economy-era setting.
10. Seasonal Food
Did you know that Japan has four seasons?! If you didn’t, every person here will inform you of this fact, and if not, food advertisements will. Take cherry blossom season – everything from mid-February until the beginning of April is sakura-themed. Early summer is the time for everything mango and cherry. Scorching August? Cool down with a peach frappuccino. Christmas? Gotta eat all those strawberries on the Christmas cake. Valentines? Stuff yourself with chocolate! White Day? Stuff yourself with even more chocolate!
Try it: Basically, there is always a seasonal food of some kind being flogged left, right and center in Japan. Once their season is over, this product will disappear completely until the next year so stock up while you can!
For more regional foods, check out our “5 Famous Foods” series highlighting Japan’s stellar and unique food culture.