The first thing that comes to one’s mind on spelling Japanese food is rice, the country’s staple food. Rice forms the base of Japan’s most sought-after platter, sushi, alongside other one-pot dishes. One could also not ignore seafood’s role, primarily raw and even cooked in their cuisines, alongside several meat varieties, mainly beef. The result is a sumptuous platter of soups, fries, noodles, and pancakes.
A traditional home-packed meal or bento has a mixture of many things like rice or noodles, meat or fish, and cooked and pickled vegetables all filled inside a box. On the other hand, Kaiseki is an elaborate multi-course dinner, having everything from appetizers to desserts.
Sushi, one of the most popular and traditional Japanese dishes, has not just remained confined to its place of origin, but its fame has spread worldwide. The key ingredient of sushi is vinegared rice, with the medium-grained white varieties used traditionally. Though at present, short-grain or brown rice even go into its preparation. Other ingredients include seafood, mostly raw (like squid, salmon, yellowtail, tuna, and eel) and vegetables. Garnishes like pickled ginger and pickled daikon takes its taste to another level.
Sushi has several variations like chirashizushi or scattered sushi, where the rice is served in a bowl with toppings of raw fish and garnishes of vegetables. Inarizushi looks like a pouch with fried tofu filled with sushi rice. In nigirizushi, the sushi rice is pressed to an oval ball topped with seafood, veggies, and other ingredients. With the dish becoming a global sensation at present, each part of the world has its way of preparing and presenting it. The overall taste is a mild one, with the flavors depending on ingredients that go into its making.
Donburi, meaning bowl literally, is a rice bowl platter prepared by simmering vegetables, fish, or meat and serving them over rice. One of the dish’s key attractions is the oversized bowls called donburi-bachi that hold the rice. The sauces for seasonings vary from one region to the other. However, a combination of dashi, rice wine, and soy sauce is typically used. Donburi has several variations, such as gyudon having toppings of beef and onion over rice, with seasonings of mildly sweet sauces. Butadon has pork, while tendon has toppings of tempura over the rice.
Japanese cuisine without tempura appears incomplete. The main ingredients include meat, vegetables (like broccoli, eggplant, carrot, pumpkin), and seafood (prawn, squid, shrimp, or crab). They are coated in a wheat flour-iced water batter and fried till it turns golden with a crunchy texture. Mostly teamed with grated daikon and eaten steaming hot, one could have it as an appetizer along with a spicy sauce. At the same time, it often goes as a topping on rice bowls or noodles.
Udon is a wheat flour noodle, perfect comfort food for the Japanese, particularly during the cold weather. Of the several preparation methods, the commonest one includes preparing it into a hot soup with seasonings of soy sauce, mirin, and dashi, alongside toppings of chopped scallions, fish cake, and tempura.
It has several versions like chikara udon, topped with rice cakes; kake udon, having toppings of sliced green onions, and kamaboko (seafood); and so on. Though eaten steaming hot, some like hadaka udon and zaru udon are served chilled, especially during the hot summer. Yaki udon is a unique variation of this dish. The noodles are stir-fried, cooked in vegetables, meat, and soy sauce.
Udon has a mildly chewy texture, with the flavor varying according to the ingredients and its method of preparation.
Sukiyaki is a slow-cooked dish having meat, mainly beef as its main ingredient, besides vegetables and spices. The technique followed to make sukiyaki is the nabemono style, cooking the ingredients in a single pot. The authentic flavor comes from the broth prepared with mirin, soy sauce, sugar, and sake, adding to its richness. Many people go a step further by beating the raw egg in a separate bowl, dipping the meat and veggies into it, and then having it. This one is a perfect winter dish mostly eaten during year-end parties and other special occasions.
Another of Japan’s one-pot dishes, oden, is a flavorful stew made with boiled eggs, fishcakes, daikon, deep-fried tofu, and fish cakes. A light broth made from dashi(soup stock) and soy sauce is used for stewing the ingredients, with the result being a mild and spicy soup with a fresh flavor.
One could often spot carts in Japan selling oden, though it has made its way into the menu of plush restaurants and eateries too. Dishes having a single ingredient come for just 100 yen. Though a winter food, it is available all-year-round with some eateries preserving the broth (as master stock) and simmering it repeatedly for a rich flavor.
One of Japan’s traditional breakfast soups, miso, is a combination of dashi broth and miso paste (a famous Japanese seasoning made by fermenting soybeans with salt, barley, rice, seaweed, etc.). Miso has a complex flavor, ranging from savory and tangy to sweet. It has a soft, smooth texture, too, melting in your mouth at an instant. Adding toppings of green onion, tofu, potatoes, carrots, and mushroom, gives it a richer flavor. A bowl of miso, teamed with white rice, is one of the most typical Japanese foods people have in the morning. Being so much on-demand, shops in Japan sell instant miso soup in powdered or paste form.
Tofu blocks are famous worldwide, and Japanese mostly eat tofu uncooked with savory garnishes. Other variations include boiling tofu in hot pots or even frying or pan-frying it for a delicious, delectable platter.
Japan’s saga of soup seems unending, and this dish bears testimony of the same. It is a noodle soup made with Chinese wheat noodles alongside a meaty or fish broth. Flavorings of miso or soy sauce and toppings of sliced pork, scallion, and nori intensify its taste. Ramen has several variations throughout Japan, like tonkotsu ramen mostly made of pork bones, mazemen where a sweet-sour sauce replaces the broth.
Natto is another unique Japanese dish prepared by fermenting soybeans in Bacillus subtilis, a particular type of bacteria. Popular as a breakfast food throughout the country, it comes with accompaniments of karashi (mustard used as a seasoning), tare, or soy sauce. It has a powerful, pungent smell, similar to cheese, alongside a sticky texture. Though not flavorful enough to satisfy one’s taste bud, yet as per a 2009-survey, about 70% of the Japanese have regarded it as pleasant because of the numerous health benefits it offers.
Tonkatsu is a tasty pork cutlet prepared by dipping in a bread crumb batter and frying till it attains a golden brown color. They mostly go as a side with rice, vegetable salad (mainly shredded cabbage), and tonkatsu sauce (made from fruits and vegetables like dates, apples, prunes, carrots, tomatoes). It is often a part of a bento box (home-packed) lunch or even goes as a filling in a sandwich.
A salty delicacy, mentaiko is made by marinating pollock in several spicy seasonings that count for its savory-salty taste and creamy texture. People often eat it as a side and steamed rice or even use t for topping ramen or stuffing the onigiri rice ball.
Japan’s traditional stew, it is mainly made of potatoes, meat, and onion, simmered in mirin, sake, sugar, and soy sauce. Though beef is the commonly used meat to prepare this dish, some regions, particularly the eastern parts of Japan, substitute beef with pork. It is widely eaten in almost every Japanese home in winter, teamed with miso soup and white rice.
Its invention dates back to the 19th century when Togo Heihachiro, an admiral in the Japanese Navy, ordered cooks to prepare a beef stew. Due to the unavailability of butter and wine, sesame oil and soy sauce were used, replicating the nikajuga of the present times.
Shabu shabu, similar to sukiyaki, is another hot pot dish prepared by boiling vegetables and sliced meat in water, and seasoning it with sesame and soy sauces. The word shabu shabu is onomatopoeic derived from the swish swish noise from the cooking pot as the ingredients are being prepared.
Moon-shaped dumplings, gyoza has fillings of minced meat and vegetables or any one of the two. The dumpling is then fried on one side and then steamed. The outcome is a juicy platter, soft at the top and crispy below. A steaming soup or sesame-vinegar sauce goes as accompaniment.
Chawan means teacup, while mushi translates to steamed, meaning steamed in a cup, exactly justifying its preparation. The dish comprises an egg custard prepared by seasoning egg mixture in dashi, mirin, soy sauce and then pouring them in a cup. The contents are steamed in a steamer or pot till they solidify, attaining a pudding-like texture. One could eat it hot or cold, but the spoon primarily replaces the traditional chopsticks while having it. The addition of udon noodles to this dish gives it the name odamaki udon or odamaki mushi.
Another breakfast dish comprises cooked rice topped with soy sauce and raw eggs. The preparation technique varies from one region to another, as the rice could be freshly cooked or stale and cold. The eggs may even be beaten directly into the rice or beaten in a bowl and then poured. Some even create a well-like space in the rice to accommodate the egg mix. Cleaning the eggs and avoiding using old or broken ones could minimize the chances of contamination. The platter, abbreviated as TKG, has a slimy and pleasant taste.
Spicy curry wrapped in bread, coated in breadcrumbs, and then fried is all that this dish comprises. On special occasions, baking often replaces the commonly implemented deep-frying technique. One could typically spot it in most convenience stores and bakeries. Crispy, chewy, the curry appears rich, flavorful, and spicy.
Karaage is a cooking technique of Japan in which mostly chicken or even other meats, veggies, or fish are coated in corn starch, potato, or flour and then deep-fried. It may be eaten as a main dish with a spicy sauce or dip or as a side with rice and cabbage. Karaage is a common find during festivals, with over 60 shops participating to showcase several versions of this platter during Oita’s annual Karaage festival.
Kamameshi, literally meaning kettle rice, justifies the cooking technique with the iron pot or kama used in its preparation traditionally. Family members or even co-workers ate directly from the kettle or even put the rice in small bowls. Eventually, it became more like a pilaf with rice cooked in many other things like seafood, meat, and vegetables with seasonings of mirin, sake, or soy sauce.
Zoni, a traditional Japanese soup, is prepared with mocha rice cakes mostly eaten by the locals to commemorate the New Year. It has its roots back in the samurai society, cooked as a meal by boiling vegetables, dried foods, and rice cakes together. The tradition to have it to commemorate the New Year dates back between the 14th and 16th century. In the present version, chicken, meatballs, and leady vegetables are added to the soup to enhance its flavor.
It is made by slicing eggplants and brushing them with a miso glaze. The dish’s literal meaning is grilling eggplant over the fire, justifying its traditional cooking technique. It has a toasted and nutty texture, alongside a smoky, sweet, savory flavor.
Best Japanese Street Food: Tempura, Imagawayaki
Best Japanese Breakfast Food: Miso Soup, Natto, Gohan
Popular Japanese Food: Sushi, Tempura
Best Japanese Noodle Dishes: Ramen, Udon
Best Japanese Rice Dishes: Donburi, Kamameshi,Tamago Kake Gohan
Best Japanese One Pot Dishes: Oden, Sukiyaki, Shabu shabu
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