Prior to arriving in Japan I was excited about the bright lights, overzealous yet slightly disturbing nerd culture, and sushi. And, in the area of food, sushi was pretty much all I was really looking forward to. Mostly since I was completely ignorant about how extensive Japanese cuisine is beyond just raw fish on rice. Part of it may have been due to shock but I left Japan embracing it as one of my favorite countries to eat in and these are just 7 of the dishes why.
1. Takoyaki – Octopus Dumplings
I had little idea about what to expect when I looked inside the small eatery, Mokuchi, in Tokyo, aside from the animated octopus splayed above the entrance. Takoyaki is originally an Osaka street food, whose fried wheat stuffed with octopus and a mayonnaise-butter sauce (called “takoyaki” surprisingly) has become popular all over the country. Takoyaki is all about the sauce – that’s what distinguishes the variety among the dumplings – and in my particular case a split plate with plain dumplings on the left, and spicy ones on the right topped with shrimp.
2. Sukiyaki – Fried Beef And Noodles With Raw Egg
My description above doesn’t quite capture the experience that sukiyaki is. Beef, onion, tofu, mushrooms, along with several cabbage varieties are fried one at a time in a hot pan; you dip each in a cracked raw egg as it’s finished cooking. But first a soup to start – miso is a good choice – and tea to finish, clearing your palate of the tender beef you just ate. Those of you visiting Tokyo and want an excellent sukiyaki experience with your own personal cook should not miss Rangetsu.
3. Kobe Beef – Which Is Really Tajima Beef
Japan’s fifth-largest city, Kobe, is quite famous for its beef which you may have had in other parts of the world…except that you haven’t. You see, Kobe beef isn’t really Kobe beef at first – the cattle are actually raised in the nearby Tajima district. The tender, tender meat doesn’t get to be called “Kobe” unless it passes all of the strict standards of the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. One of which is that the cows must be raised in the Hyogo Prefecture (of which Kobe is the capital). Additionally, the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association doesn’t allow Kobe beef to be exported outside of Japan, except to Macau and Hong Kong with some other rare exceptions.
So that stuff you may have tried elsewhere may have been labeled “Kobe beef” but it almost certainly wasn’t, even if it did cost $50 for 200 grams of meat. [Thanks Kokoro for the references.]
4. Miso Soup
Nothing of a surprise for many of you or myself but it seems every bowl of miso soup I was served was prepared differently. Kelp, tiny clams, tofu, and all of the other incarnations made me appreciate this simple but loyal Japanese table staple.
5. Tempura And Tonkatsu
My appetite often reacts faster than my barely functioning memory, so I’m lacking the photos (aside from empty plates) of the next two foods that are similar but not traditionally eaten together. Tempura is vegetables or seafood that are deep fried so they barely resemble their original form whereas tonkatsu is breaded, deep fried pork. The latter, like so many Japanese dishes, is usually served with an accompaniment of foods to complete a balanced meal. Rice, miso soup, and steamed spinach or cabbage are most common. (Most places, like Tonkatsu Wako, typically offer unlimited rice and soup for a fried pork meal.)
6. Soba Noodles
Made from buckwheat, these thin noodles are generally fried and can be eaten hot or cold, found in a broth or alternatively lathered in a sweetened soy sauce. They’re almost slimy…in a good way.
7. Chicken Karaage
Chicken deep fried in (if you’re lucky) peanut oil and potato starch with garlic, soy sauce, some sake (one for you, one for me please), ginger, lemon, and a few other ingredients that vary or I’m forgetting. Typically served as is – sides of rice are optional.
Balanced Meals In A Wide Cultural Kitchen
Japanese dishes by and large seem designed to hit your entire palate in calculated caloric strikes, making sure your appetite as well as your nutritional requirements are met in modest entirety. Every food seems to have its place and every meal an order to be eaten in for the experience to be a complete one. Strangely, as fast as Japanese people tend to eat during the day, time seemed to slow down with every bite for me. Move too fast and you might miss a subtle taste – and pass over Japan’s cuisine, and you might miss a potent experience.