Culinary Odyssey in Japan: Top popular dishes to savor

Dec 07, 2023

Unique and beguiling, Japan is a country of binaries. It embraces both the ultra-modern and traditional, with buzzing cities alongside stunning ancient architecture and breathtaking natural landscapes. So does its cuisine! Japanese dishes are not only unique but also incredibly delicious, versatile, and healthy at the same time. 

Being an island nation, the Japanese diet is heavily influenced by seafood and offers great variety through the use of seasonal ingredients. Always artfully presented and mastered through centuries of history, Japanese cuisine is a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach. Take a look at these typical Japanese dishes to get the belly rumbling. Itadakimasu! 

Sushi

Sushi is well known across the globe, and is commonly associated with Japan.

Sushi is one of the first foods that comes to mind when we think about Japanese cuisine. This delicacy was one of the first Japanese dishes to be exported overseas after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and since then its popularity has steadily increased year after year.

The word “sushi” refers to a family of artfully presented dishes made with vinegared sushi rice and a variety of ingredients, mostly raw fish and other types of seafood. 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). For sushi connoisseurs, it’s more than just food, it’s an art form.

For sushi connoisseurs, this dish is more than just food, it’s an art form.

Sushi is commonly served with pickled ginger and dipped in soy sauce mixed with wasabi. For many years, it’s become a must-try dish for any traveler who ever visited Japan. 

Sashimi

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/ meat and is never served with rice. The fish used to make sashimi must be as fresh as possible, both in order to minimize the risk of contamination, and because fresher fish makes for tastier sashimi.

Udon

Being 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 various 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 tasty 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).

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Ramen

Ramen is another signature noodle soup dish consisting of wheat noodles (also known as ’ramen noodles’), a savory 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.

Travelers can easily find a ramen restaurant/ bar in every corner of Japan streets.

Ramen is one of present-day Japan’s absolute favorite delicacies, costing very little and being widely available in restaurants and ramen bars (which are on almost every street corner of Japan). Indeed, Japanese ramen is so popular that there is a ramen-themed museum/amusement park in Tokyo.

Tempura 

In Japan, one of the most renowned types of fried food is tempura. In tempura, vegetables and fish such as pumpkin, sweet potato, seaweed, shrimp, and green beans are fried. The possibilities are truly endless, but shrimp tends to be the most well-known and popular type of tempura. Tempura is usually enjoyed with a savory dipping sauce or with salt, and sometimes over rice. Some people also enjoy tempura in noodles, but the classic way to enjoy it is simply by itself, with a side of rice and miso soup on the side. Tempura ranks as one of the most popular and well-known foods among tourists, but it is also well-loved by the people of Japan.

If you enjoy crispy fried foods, then you will love tempura.

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Natto

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 soybeans 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, savoury (or umami) flavour and their huge nutritional value. Is natto delicious or disgusting? It is up to you to decide. Travel to Japan and give it a try soon.

This traditional Japanese food is one of the most controversial ones. Is natto delicious or disgusting? It is up to you to decide!

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 savory flavors 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.

Miso is served as a side dish with traditional Japanese-style breakfasts, lunches and dinners.

Shabu Shabu Hot Pot

Shabushabu is a hot pot dish 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.  Everyone at the table participates in communal cooking and enjoys the ingredients with different dipping sauces. It‘s intimate yet casual communal meal with a whole lot of fun! It’s the best decision for family gatherings or friends hangout. 

Japanese cuisine is a symphony of flavors that transcends the boundaries of taste and tradition. From the precision of sushi to the comforting embrace of ramen, each dish tells a unique story of culture, history, and culinary artistry. As you embark on your culinary adventure in Japan, make sure to savor these top popular dishes, and let the rich tapestry of Japanese flavors transport you to a world where every meal is a celebration of taste and tradition. 

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