Over the past few decades, Japan has made significant contributions to the culture of the UK and other Western countries.
As well as revolutionising our cars, computers, and cartoon characters; Japan has also broadened our culinary knowledge with the introduction of its delicious and highly unique cuisine. We at Japan Centre live and breathe Japanese cuisine, so we compiled a list of our top 30 recommendations for Japanese foods that everybody needs to try.
Sushi is one of the first foods that spring to mind when we think about Japanese cuisine. This delicacy was one of the first Japanese dishes to be exported to the US after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and since then its popularity has steadily increased year after year. The word ‘sushi’ refers to any dish made with Japanese rice that has been seasoned with rice vinegar. Common varieties of sushi include makizushi (sushi rice and fillings rolled up in nori seaweed), nigiri sushi (shaped, bite-size mounds of sushi rice with single slices of raw fish or similar draped over the top) and inarizushi (sushi rice stuffed inside pockets of inari; a type of seasoned, fried tofu).
One of the three main noodle varieties eaten in Japan; udon noodles are thick, chewy, and traditionally made from wheat flour and brine water. Udon can be served in a number of different ways (mixed into stir fries, added to hot pots, served cold with a tsuyu or tentsuyu soup base on the side for dipping), but are most commonly used in noodle soups, where they are served in a savoury soup broth with different garnishes. Some of the most common udon noodle soup dishes include kitsune udon (‘fox udon’, topped with aburaage fried tofu), tempura udon (topped with tempura battered seafood and vegetables), and chikara udon (‘power udon’, topped with grilled mochi rice cakes).
Although tofu is mainly thought of in Western countries as a health food or vegetarian alternative, in Southeast Asian countries like Japan, tofu (particularly silken tofu) is enjoyed by everybody and is a common part of the traditional diet. To answer the question 'what is tofu?', it is soy milk that has been coagulated, with the resulting curds being pressed into blocks. These blocks come in differing levels of firmness, and can be eaten uncooked (perhaps with a couple of savoury garnishes), boiled in hot pots, or fried into tasty pieces of aburaage and used as a garnish.
If you enjoy crispy fried foods, then you will love tempura. Tempura are pieces or slices of meat, fish, and/or vegetables that have been covered in a special tempura batter and deep fried until they become crunchy and pale gold in colour. Unlike in the UK, where battered foods tend to be made from meats and fish, tempura tends to be made from either small shellfish like prawns, or vegetables like green beans, pumpkin, daikon mooli radish, and sweet potato. Tempura can be eaten by itself (perhaps with a little grated daikon and a small dish of tsuyu for dipping), or served on top of rice bowls or noodle soups.
While we in the UK might pick up a serving of chips or a hot dog during a sports match, the Japanese will pick up some yakitori. With a name literally meaning ‘barbecued chicken’, yakitori are small skewers of bite-size chicken pieces seasoned with salt or brushed with a sauce, or tare, of mirin rice wine, soy sauce, sake alcohol, and sugar. There are many different types of yakitori, but the most common varieties are momo (chicken thigh), negima (chicken and spring onion), and tsukune (chicken meatballs).
Possibly one of the most controversial dishes in all of Japanese cuisine, sashimi is raw fish or meat that has been expertly cut into thin slices and typically comes served with daikon radish, pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce. Sashimi differs from sushi in that all sushi is made with vinegared rice and does not always contain raw fish, while sashimi is almost exclusively raw fish and is never served with rice. The fish used to make sashimi must be as fresh as possible, both in order to minimise the risk of contamination, and because fresher fish makes for tastier sashimi.
Ramen is a noodle soup dish consisting of wheat noodles (also known as 'ramen noodles'), a savoury broth (soy sauce, salt, miso, and tonkotsu pork bone are the four main ramen broth bases) and toppings of meat, protein, and/or vegetables such as sliced pork, nori seaweed, spring onions, bamboo shoots, and others. Ramen is one of present-day Japan’s absolute favourite delicacies, costing very little and being widely available in restaurants and ramen bars (which are on almost every street corner). Indeed, Japanese ramen is so popular that there is a ramen-themed museum/amusement park in Tokyo.
This rice bowl dish is almost as popular as ramen in Japan and a common lunchtime choice among busy Japanese workers. Donburi is made by preparing (normally by simmering or frying) various meat, fish and vegetables and serving over steamed rice in large bowls (also called 'donburi'). While donburi can be made using just about any assortment of ingredients, the most common types include oyakodon (simmered chicken, egg, and green onion), gyudon (sliced beef and onion simmered in a soy sauce soup base), tendon (fried tempura pieces drizzled in tsuyu), and katsudon (breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets, or tonkatsu, simmered in tsuyu with onion and egg).
In the same way that Marmite divides the British nation, so too does natto divide the Japanese. This traditional Japanese food is made by fermenting soy beans in a special type of bacteria that is naturally produced in the human gastrointestinal tract. Natto has a strong smell similar to mouldy cheese, as well as a sticky/slimy texture that many find off-putting. However, many other people love these fermented soy beans for their full-bodied salty and savoury (or umami) flavour and their ample nutritional value. Is natto delicious or disgusting? It is up to you to decide.
No cold Japanese winter would be complete without oden. This winter hot pot dish, or nabemono, is made by taking an assortment of vegetables and proteins (including processed fish cakes, mochi rice cakes, boiled eggs, daikon radish, konjac yam and tofu), and stewing them in a light broth seasoned with soy sauce and dashi (a soup stock made from infusions of bonito fish flakes, kombu kelp seaweed, and/or other savoury ingredients) in a large hot pot at the centre of a table. Diners can then scoop out their favourite pieces and enjoy with karashi mustard and other condiments. As well as being a hearty main meal, the simmering hot pot also serves as a communal heater on cold evenings.
A versatile delicacy that can be enjoyed for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, tamagoyaki (which literally means ‘cooked egg’) is a Japanese omelette made by sequentially cooking and rolling up several layers of beaten egg (sometimes seasoned with soy sauce and/or sugar). A freshly cooked tamagoyaki looks like a rolled up crêpe, which can then be sliced up and eaten by itself (often this is how it is eaten at breakfast) or used a topping or filling in sushi. A tamagoyaki-topped nigiri sushi is often eaten in sushi bars as the final course, as the tamagoyaki has a slight sweetness that makes it almost dessert-like.
Otherwise known as ‘buckwheat noodles’ (‘soba’ is the Japanese word for ‘buckwheat’), soba are one of the three main varieties of noodle most frequently eaten in Japan. Unlike udon and ramen; soba noodles are made partially, if not entirely, from buckwheat flour. This gives them a distinctly earthy and slightly nutty flavour that works well with stronger flavours like garlic and sesame. Soba can be served hot in soups with toppings of spring onions, agetama tempura flakes, kamaboko fish cakes and/or grilled mochi), or cold with a side of tsuyu and garnishes of green onions, shredded nori seaweed, and wasabi.
Tonkatsu pork cutlets are one of the many yoshoku, or ‘western-style’ foods, that were originally introduced to Japan by Europeans. Like most other yoshoku foods, the Japanese took the original tonkatsu and made it their own. Today, tonkatsu is made by coating pork chops in crisp panko breadcrumbs and deep-frying them until they are golden brown in colour. They are normally served drizzled in fruit-and-vegetable based tonkatsu sauce with shredded cabbage and other crisp salad greens on the side. Tonkatsu are also often enjoyed as part of a bento boxed lunch, in a Japanese curry (known as 'katsu curry'), or as a sandwich filling.
The Japanese love a good bread roll as much as the next person, and bakeries line Japan's city streets with almost as much regularity as ramen bars. The word ‘kashipan’ means ‘sweet bread’, and it refers to a range of single-serve bread buns that were originally invented in Japan. Among the most popular of these are melon pan (a bread bun with a cookie dough top), an pan (a bread bun filled with an or anko; a sweet red bean paste), and karee pan or kare pan (a bread bun filled with curry sauce, covered in panko breadcrumbs, and deep-fried). Kashipan are a must-try for bread lovers in particular.
Like oden, sukiyaki is a Japanese nabemono hot pot dish most commonly enjoyed during the winter. Sukiyaki hot pots are prepared by searing beef slices in the hot pot, then adding sukiyaki broth (normally made from soy sauce, sake, mirin rice wine and sugar) and different vegetables, noodles, and proteins. The name ‘sukiyaki’ means ‘cook what you like’, and the joy of sukiyaki comes from being able to prepare the dish with your fellow diners, at the table, using whatever ingredients you desire.
Few Japanese dishes are consumed more often or more consistently than miso soup. Made from a combination of miso paste (a traditional Japanese food made from fermented soy beans) and dashi broth, miso soup is served as a side dish with traditional Japanese-style breakfasts, lunches and dinners. The complex savoury flavours of the soup help to enhance the umami of the main dishes with which it is served. To give the miso soup a little more body, several complementary toppings are normally added to it, such as green onion, wakame seaweed, and firm tofu.
Okonomiyaki is made by mixing together batter, sliced cabbage, and other savoury ingredients; spooning the mixture onto a hot plate; and then pan-frying as you would a pancake. Okonomiyaki originated in Osaka and Hiroshima (where a different, ‘layered’ style of okonomiyaki exists) and its popularity spread to the rest of Japan, where specialised okonomiyaki restaurants are easy to come by. In some of these restaurants you are expected to prepare the okonomiyaki yourself, which makes for a delightfully fun cooking experience.
Lovers of salty seafood will reach the peak of their desires with mentaiko. This salty delicacy is made by marinating the roe (fish eggs) of pollock and cod in any of a number of salty, savoury, and spicy seasonings. The most basic mentaiko is marinated in a simple salt solution, while mentaiko marinated in spicy chilli pepper (known as 'karashi mentaiko') is becoming increasingly popular. Mentaiko is traditionally eaten as a side dish with steamed rice, as a topping on ramen, or as a filling in onigiri rice balls. In recent decades mentaiko has also been mixed with butter or cream to make a simple savoury or spicy mentaiko pasta sauce.
A flavoursome savoury dish of meat, potatoes and assorted vegetables simmered in soy sauce, sake, mirin and sugar, Nikujaga meat and potato stew is one of a collection of Japanese dishes called 'nimono' (meaning ‘simmered things’). Although nikujaga is available in plenty of Japanese restaurants, it is also considered a homely dish that differs in flavour from household to household. For an authentic Japanese nikujaga experience, therefore, the best thing to do is get invited to a Japanese friend’s house and put in a request with the family chef.
Known in Japanese as kare or kare raisu, Japanese curry is a yoshoku dish that was originally introduced to the Japanese by the British during the Meiji era (1868-1912).Japanese curry differs from the Indian varieties with which the UK is more familiar, in that it is generally sweeter in flavour, thicker in texture, and prepared more like a stew (with meat and vegetables being cooked by boiling in water together). Japanese curry is often prepared in Japanese homes with the help of curry roux; blocks of solidified Japanese curry paste that melt into the ‘stew’ and thicken up to become a flavoursome curry sauce.
‘Unagi’ is the Japanese word for ‘freshwater eel’, and unagi no kabayaki is one popular unagi dish that dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868), when Japanese people customarily ate kabayaki unagi during the summer in order to gain stamina. Unagi no kabayaki is made by brushing prepared eel fillets with a sweetened soy sauce-based kabayaki sauce and broiling them on a grill. The name ‘kabayaki’ refers to this method of cooking, and it can also be done with some other types of fish, including catfish. However, if you are in Japan during the summer, use the opportunity to try the genuine article.
Shabu shabu is a nabemono hot pot dish similar to sukiyaki, made by boiling vegetables, tofu and other ingredients in a mellow broth seasoned with kombu kelp, and then dipping very thin slices of meat into the broth and swishing the meat around until it cooks (normally around 10-20 seconds). This meat is then dipped in a ponzu citrus seasoned soy sauce or sesame sauce before being eaten with some of the other boiled ingredients. The name ‘shabu shabu’ is an onomatopoeia word for the noise the meat slices make as they are swished around.
Like the sandwich could be considered the original portable food of British cuisine, the onigiri rice ball is the original portable food of Japan. Also known as ‘omusubi’, ‘nigirimeshi’, or just ‘rice balls’, onigiri are portions of Japanese rice, normally with a filling in the centre, that have been moulded into triangular or cylindrical shapes before being wrapped in nori seaweed. Onigiri have been enjoyed in Japan for hundreds of years, and most Japanese convenience stores nowadays sell a great range of onigiri for 100-150 yen (£0.75-£1.12) a piece. Popular onigiri fillings include umeboshi pickled plums, seasoned seaweed,tuna mayonnaise, and teriyaki chicken.
Gyoza are savoury moon-shaped dumplings, made from a minced mixture of savoury fillings (pork mince, cabbage, green onion and mushroom is a common combination, but other fillings can be used as well) which are wrapped up in a circular gyoza wrapper and crimped or pleated around the edges to make an iconic half-moon shape. Gyoza dumplings are normally cooked by frying on one side (a process that gives the gyoza a crisp, savoury bottom), and then steaming for 2-3 minutes so that the rest of the rest of the wrapper is smooth and silky, and the filling inside is moist and juicy.
As far as Japanese street vendor foods are concerned, few are more notorious than takoyaki. Also known as 'octopus balls' or 'octopus dumplings', this delicacy is cooked using a special hot plate with rows of half-spherical moulds. Each of the moulds is filled with a savoury batter mixture before a bite-size piece of tako octopus meat is inserted into the middle. The takoyaki are turned with a pick or skewer every minute or so to ensure an evenly-cooked outside and a perfect ball-shaped dumpling in the end. Takoyaki are typically served in lots of six, eight or ten, brushed with a sweet/savoury takoyaki sauce and topped with mayonnaise, aonori seaweed and katsuobushi bonito fish flakes.
If you are hoping to experience the Japanese equivalent of haute cuisine, then you need to try kaiseki ryori. Also known simply as ‘kaiseki’, kaiseki ryori are traditional, multi-course Japanese dinners. A full kaiseki can involve a dozen or more different dishes made with fresh, seasonal, and/or local produce, each prepared in very small servings and in such a way as to enhance the produce’s natural flavour. The courses in kaiseki all demonstrate a different cooking technique, and the complete experience is seen in Japan as an artform as much as a sit-down dinner. Kaiseki can normally be enjoyed in specialised restaurants or at ryokan (Japanese-style inns).
While frequent pub-goers in the UK like to snack on peanuts and pork scratchings with their lagers, the regulars in Japan’s izakaya pubs enjoy freshly prepared edamame. These bright green, immature soy beans, harvested before the beans have hardened, are normally served in the pod after being blanched and lightly salted. As well as boasting a naturally delicious and mellow umami flavour that works beautifully with light salt seasonings, edamame beans also carry a number of health benefits (being naturally high in protein, iron, and calcium). Edamame are often served in pubs and restaurants as a complimentary appetiser.
It is virtually impossible to attend a summer festival in Japan and not come across a yakisoba stand. Yakisoba is a fried noodle dish made by barbecuing or stir-frying a combination of noodles, sliced cabbage, pork, carrot and other vegetables, and a barbecue style yakisoba sauce. During the summer festivals large piles of these ingredients are thrown onto an outdoor hotplate and barbecued, but yakisoba can also easily be made at home using a large frying pan or wok. ‘Yakisoba’ means ‘cooked soba’, but unlike other soba noodles, the noodles used in yakisoba do not contain any buckwheat.
As far as mellow, comforting, and uniquely Japanese dishes are concerned, chawanmushi is one of the best. This steamed, savoury egg custard is made by pouring seasoned, beaten eggs into individual cups already filled with different meats and vegetables (including chicken, mushrooms, gingko nuts, kamaboko fish cakes, and carrots), and then steaming the cups in a pot or steamer until they have solidified and become similar to pudding in texture. Chawanmushi gets its name by combining the words ‘chawan’ (meaning ‘teacup’)and ‘mushi’ (meaning ‘steamed’), so chawanmushi is, literally, ‘steamed in a cup’.
The most authentic way to finish off a Japanese meal or matcha tea ceremony is with wagashi. Wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets, invented during the Edo period and influenced by prevalent Japanese ingredients and flavours. Most wagashi are made using only a handful of select ingredients, including mochi rice cakes, anko paste, kanten (agar; a vegetarian thickener similar to gelatine), chestnuts, and sugar. The most popular wagashi include dango (sweet mochi balls on skewered sticks, often served with sugar syrup), daifuku (mochi rice stuffed with anko), dorayaki (anko sandwiched between two thick pancakes), and yokan (blocks of anko hardened with kanten and sugar).