There is much more to Japanese cuisine than sushi and noodles. Be sure to try as many of the dishes in this section as you can while you are in Japan!
Sushi is probably the most famous Japanese dish outside of Japan. People often think that “sushi” refers to the seafood (or other) topping, but it actually refers to rice which has been prepared with sushi vinegar. “Nigiri” - a bite-size square ball of vinegared rice topped with a small piece of seafood - is probably what springs to mind for most people when they think of “sushi”. However, there are actually many different kinds of sushi.
Other types of sushi include maki-zushi (sushi rolls that are served in slices; “maki” means “roll”), gunkan-maki (small “boats” of nori seaweed and rice topped with various ingredients; “gunkan” means “battleship”), chirashi-zushi (sushi rice topped with various ingredients, a bit like a sushi pizza), te-maki (cones of nori seaweed filled with sushi rice and other ingredients), and vegetarian-friendly inari-zushi (deep-fried pouches of tofu containing sushi rice).
Sashimi is sliced raw food eaten dipped in soy sauce. Seafood is the most common type, but beef, deer, horse, and tofu skin) can also all be served sashimi-style, although they are much less common.
Popular types of sashimi include tuna, salmon, sea bream, bonito (also known as skipjack tuna), squid, scallop, octopus, and sweet shrimp. People often confuse sashimi with sushi, but the difference is that sashimi has no rice.
Tempura are lightly battered, deep-fried pieces of seasonal seafood and vegetables. The technique for frying was introduced to Japan by the Portuguese in Nagasaki in the 16th century and has since become extremely popular.
Tempura is commonly served as a side dish in a Japanese-style meal or as a topping to noodles or donburi (rice bowls) (called tendon). Some of the most popular ingredients are prawns, aubergine, Japanese pumpkin, mushrooms, squid, bell pepper, green beans, okra, lotus root, and sweet potato.
Yakitori are charcoal-grilled chicken skewers using bite-sized morsels from all different parts of the chicken, both inside and outside. They can be found on the menu at specialized yakitori restaurants (called yakitori-ya; “ya” means “shop”) as well as izakaya (Japanese pubs) and food stalls at festivals.
Popular meaty varieties include “momo” (thigh meat), “tebasaki” (chicken wings), “tsukune” (meatballs), “negima” (alternate pieces of thigh meat and leek), “torikawa” (crispy chicken skin), and “reba” (liver). However, many places also offer vegetable varieties, including shiitake mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, leeks, green peppers, okra, and aubergine.
In many places, yakitori is sold by the stick or the set of two sticks, each costing a few hundred Yen per stick. You will often be given the choice of seasoning between salt (shio) and sticky sauce (tare). Since yakitori are usually cooked to order and served fresh from the grill, it is usual to order them in small batches and eat them accompanied by beer.
Tonkatsu (literally meaning “pork cutlets”) are thick slices of pork that have been rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried, similar to German schnitzel. You can usually choose between filet (hire), which is leaner and tenderer, and loin (rosu) which is fattier and chewier.
Despite the name, there also also varieties of katsu made with other meats, such as beef (gyu-katsu), chicken (chikin-katsu), mincemeat (menchi-katsu), and ham (hamu-katsu), although tonkatsu is by far the most popular variety.
Popular dishes involving tonkatsu include tonkatsu teishoku (set meal of katsu and rice, miso soup, shredded cabbage and pickles), katsu-kare (Japanese curry topped with katsu), katsu-don (donburi rice bowl topped with katsu, egg and sliced onions), and katsu-sando (katsu sandwich, often also containing finely shredded cabbage and mustard).
Soba is a type of Japanese noodles. They are made from buckwheat flour, have a brownish-grey colour, a nutty texture, and are about the same thickness as spaghetti. They are served either in a broth or dipped in sauce and are available in hundreds of delicious variations, both hot and cold.
Some common kinds are kake-soba (hot; served in a bowl of clear broth), zaru-soba (cold; topped with nori seaweed shavings and served with a dipping sauce of chilled dipping sauce), tanuki soba (hot/cold; topped with crunchy bits of leftover fried tempura batter), kitsune soba (hot/cold; topped with thin slices of fried tofu), sansai soba (hot; topped with wild mountain vegetables), nanban soba (hot; in a broth with leek and duck or chicken).
Udon is another type of Japanese noodles. They are made from wheat flour, have a pasty white colour, a glutinous chewy texture, and are about half a centimetre in thickness. They are served either in a broth or dipped in sauce and are available in hundreds of delicious variations, both hot and cold.
Some common kinds are kake-soba (hot; served in a bowl of clear broth and topped with sliced green onions), zaru-soba (cold; topped with nori seaweed shavings and served with a dipping sauce of chilled dipping sauce), tanuki soba (hot/cold; topped with crunchy bits of leftover fried tempura batter), kitsune soba (hot/cold; topped with thin slices of fried tofu), curry udon (hot; served in Japanese curry sauce).
KaraageKaraage usually refers to chicken karaage, Japanese-style fried chicken, although it properly refers to a Japanese cooking technique in which food is optionally marinated in a sauce before being lightly coated in seasoned wheat flour and deep-fried in a light oil. Although chicken is by far the most popular variety, other meat and fish can also receive the same treatment.
Gyoza are Japanese dumplings - bite-size amounts of mincemeat and vegetables wrapped in a thin skin and cooked. Also known as pot stickers, gyoza originally came from China, but have now evolved to become a very popular Japanese dish.
The traditional filling is pork mincemeat, onion, cabbage, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, and sesame oil, but you will also come across rarer varieties such as shrimp, mushroom or cheese. The three types of gyoza are yaki-gyoza (pan-fried - soft and juicy on top with a crispy bottom), sui-gyoza (boiled - chewy and soft) and age-gyoza (deep-fried until crispy).
Shabu-shabu is a Japanese hotpot dish consisting of pieces of tender, thinly sliced meat (usually beef, but sometimes pork) and seasonal vegetables cooked by being plunged into a steaming pot of water or broth.
Diners cook the ingredients in shabu-shabu for themselves at the table. Each diner selects the pieces they want to eat and adds them to the large communal pot of broth on the table. Since all the ingredients, from the meat to the vegetables, are sliced wafer-thin, they all cook in a matter of seconds (the meat) or a few minutes (harder vegetables such as carrot).
After cooking, the piping hot pieces of food are dipped in a sauce (yuzu citrus sauce and sesame sauce are two common varieties) before being eaten. Bonus fact: the name comes from the sound made when the slices of meat are swished around in the boiling broth by the diners.
Ramen is a hot soup noodle dish that originally came from China, but has evolved into many distinct Japanese varieties over the years. It has gained massive popularity outside of Japan in recent years. In Japan, a bowl of ramen is very cheap, making it an ideal option for a hot, filling meal for budget travellers.
Ramen varieties are usually categorized according to the standout ingredient in the broth. The most common varieties are soy sauce (shoyu), salt (shio), miso, tonkotsu (pork broth).
While the broth is the base of any good ramen dish, the topping it what makes it come alive. Common toppings include chashu (fatty slices of braised pork), chopped leeks or green onion (negi), preserved bamboo shoots (menma), egg (tamago), bean sprouts (moyashi), and seaweed.
Kaiseki ryori is traditional multi-course Japanese haute cuisine. Its origins lie centuries ago in the simple meals served to accompany the tea ceremony, but over time it evolved into an elaborate dining experience popular among aristocrats and nobility.
Consisting mainly of vegetables and fish with a seasoning base of seaweed and mushrooms, the dishes are characterized by their refined flavour. Kaiseki meals follow a prescribed order of dishes from start to finish, with each dish designed to showcase a traditional Japanese cooking technique. They typically include a selection of boiled, grilled, deep-fried, steamed, and vinegared dishes as well as set items such as sake, rice, miso soup, and pickles.
Kaiseki ryori is regarded as Japan's most exquisite culinary achievement. It is served in specialized restaurants such as ryotei (traditional restaurants), as well as ryokan and minshuku (traditional inns).