Sushi is one of Japan’s most famous foods and tops nearly all the must-try lists when visiting the great city of Tokyo. Fresh cuts of salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and many others, are professionally prepared and laid over a bed of white rice or wrapped in a thin blanket of dried seaweed. People seem to either love or hate this Japanese delicacy, and perhaps you are a traveler who starts to feel a little queasy at the thought of ingesting raw fish. But there are so many other delicious Japanese foods worth trying when you visit Japan, and Tokyo is such a modern, international metropolis that it’s really no problem to find food to suit every palate.
This dish is one of the most popular in Tokyo, a Japanese soul food that can be found everywhere from classy sit-down restaurants to street food stalls. Japanese ramen, with its rich soup base and, thick, al dente noodles loaded with delicious toppings may take travelers by surprise, especially if they are only used to ramen in its Cup Noodle form. Most ramen restaurants offer a choice of three soup bases – shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), or miso. Lovers of ramen should visit the Tokyo Station, where they will find a special “Ramen Street” hidden within the underground shopping mall. The restaurants of this singular alley compete each afternoon for the most delicious bowl of ramen, with each delivering the popular dish in their own individual style.
This dish literally means “fried as you like it”, and so the toppings of this savory Japanese pancake will have some variation depending on where you find it. Okonomiyaki starts by preparing a pancake of egg mixed with wheat flour, then topped with cabbage, fried pork belly, cooked squid or octopus, various fresh veggies, sweet mayonnaise, shredded bonito, nori seaweed, and finally a special Japanese okonomiyaki sauce packed with umami. This most basic version is easy enough to find in Tokyo’s Tokushima district, but wandering other regions of the country like Hiroshima, Hamamatsu, and Osaka (where the dish originated) will reveal wonderful varieties tailor-made to suit local tastes.
This dish of shrimp and vegetables deep fried in oil is thought to have been brought over to Japan from Portugal but has since became a staple of Japanese cuisine. Tempura can be served on its own, or as part of another dish: on top of white sticky rice or soaking in a soup broth. Known for its light and crispy texture, Tempura has been sold in Tokyo since the Edo era, where it was served from outdoor stalls known as yatai. Nowadays, the dish is often served atop rice, and can be found all across Tokyo, from little hole-in-the-wall train station diners to classy Michelin-star establishments.
Onigiri, also known as “rice ball,” is one of the easiest foods to find across Japan. A thick triangle of white sicky rice is stuffed with a secret pocket of flavor, which might be anything from tuna fish to umeboshi (pickled plum) to kombu seaweed and many more varieties. Rice balls are often wrapped in a thin, papery layer of dried nori seaweed, and can even be made with egg fried rice! Even the convenience stores of Tokyo sell delicious onigiri, which can be good for travelers looking for a light breakfast or lunch, or perhaps a tasty late-night snack.
Shabu Shabu is a form of hot pot dish and is usually eaten communally at an informal gathering. Diners sit around a large pot of boiling dashi stock and choose what they like from plates of vegetables, tofu, and paper-thin slices of meat. The items are swished around in the boiling stock before being dipped in a choice of sauces. The name of the dish comes from the swishing sound one makes while cooking the ingredients. Diners at Tokyo shabu shabu establishments will often pay by the plate, but sometimes will offer 1-2 hours of all-you-can-eat enjoyment.
Curry is a dish usually associated with Indian cuisine, but the Japanese have their own variety of sweeter, soupier roux, most often paired with white sticky rice instead of naan. The Japanese version of curry is very hearty, and will commonly include root vegetables like potato, carrot, and onion. It’s a staple comfort food of Japanese households because it’s so tasty and easy to make. It has quickly become integrated into the local culture of Tokyo, especially in places like Akihabara.
Takoyaki is diced octopus that has been cooked in a little ball of fried batter, topped in sweet mayonnaise, Takoyaki sauce (kind of like Worcestershire sauce), and dried bonito shavings. This tasty snack, crunchy on the outside, warm and chewy on the inside, is yet another dish credited to the street food powerhouse that is the city of Osaka – a definite must-try if you find yourself there. There is certainly no shortage of Takoyaki restaurants or street food stalls in Tokyo, especially if you happen to visit during Japan’s summer festival season.
Tonkatsu is thick slices of pork cutlet that have been coated in panko and deep-fried, tempura-style. Standard tonkatsu is served on a bed of white rice, but it can also be found mixed in with other dishes. Tonkatsu curry and tonkatsu ramen are popular additions to the menus of Japanese diners; its crunchy coating and tender, meaty interior pleases the taste buds no matter how you choose to try it. For travelers who avoid pork, it is not unusual to find other meats that have been prepared in katsu fashion. Chicken katsu is the most common in restaurants across the country and is incredibly popular with kids.
Udon are thick, doughy noodles made from wheat flour, usually served in a hot soup with a light soy and dashi soup base. An excellent lunch choice for a chilly winter day, a steaming bowl of udon really hits the spot, with its chewy texture and flavorful broth. Many varieties of the soup are found throughout Japan, including curry udon, which is made with a curry broth, and tempura udon, topped with crunchy tempura pieces. A particularly popular type is kitsune, or “fox udon”, with a square of fried tofu cut into two triangles like fox ears. Udon can also be enjoyed chilled on hot summer days (usually without the broth), and has many toppings found on ramen, such as fish cake, bamboo shoots, kombu seaweed, and boiled egg.
Soba is a buckwheat noodle that is found is perhaps just as popular as ramen in Japan and can be found on the menus of soba diners across the country. This light, chewy noodle tastes great in many of the same broths that udon does, and a lot of station diners have the same soup in soba or udon varieties. Zaru soba is a particularly popular and delightful soba dish to enjoy over-the-counter in a Tokyo city train station. Cooked soba noodles are laid on a bamboo mat (or “zaru”) and dipped in a soy-based sauce before being eaten. Other Japan locales have signature soba dishes. The Iwate prefecture town of Morioka is famed for its Wanko Soba – little bowls of soba containing only a few bites. Customers can typically eat between 40-50 bowls in a single sitting!
Yakiniku means grilled meat, and although it is a broad term, it usually refers to grilled beef. Yakiniku is a top choice for dinner parties across Japan because of its communal dining style. Spending an evening around the shared yakiniku grill provides the right sort of party atmosphere, aided by the mouthwatering aroma rising from each piece of wagyu beef. In addition to the beef, yakiniku is often served with vegetables on the side, and comes with choice dipping sauces. Tokyo has some top-tier yakiniku restaurants, and some of them even have Michelin stars!
Yakitori is the chicken version of yakiniku. Unlike yakiniku, yakitori is fully grilled before it comes to the table and is usually served to the customer on a skewer. It is one of the most popular foods during the summer season, when Japanese people and international travelers attend the local festivals in bright yukata, round fan in one hand and yakitori skewer in the other. Yakitori can have different varieties depending on the sauce used to coat the chicken, but is most often mild and sweet, making it one of the most popular snacks for kids.
Donburi means “rice bowl” and is a broad term for cooked meat and vegetables served on a bed of white rice. Donburi is one of Japan’s top comfort foods and is so common that most Japanese ramen or soba noodle diners will also have at least one donburi-style dish. Gyuudon is an all-around favorite – simmered beef and onions over rice, sometimes topped with raw or poached egg, gives the hardworking Japanese renewed energy during the day. Other popular types include katsudon, which uses tonkatsu and egg; tendon, which has a crispy tempura topping; and oyakodon or “parent and child bowl”, which combines chicken with beaten eggs.
Sukiyaki is a Japanese hot pot dish. The dish is usually made with a dashi broth, which simmers thinly sliced beef, tofu, scallions, Chinese cabbage (or “hakusai”), shiitake mushrooms, and other fresh local vegetables. A Japanese health dish of choice, Sukiyaki is popular at winter gatherings, though it can be enjoyed in Japan year-round. The sukiyaki in Tokyo is especially must-try, and there are a number of quality sukiyaki establishments in the central Tokyo area.
Oden is another kind of hot pot dish, consisting of ingredients such as boiled egg, tofu, daikon radish, konjac, and fishcake, all stewed in a dashi broth. The recipe for oden varies depending on what region of Japan you visit – some regions make it like a hearty stew, and others have the stewed ingredients on skewers. This delightful dish is most popular in winter, is easy to eat, healthy, and really warms you right up. The dish is often served out of food stalls that keep the ingredients simmering, allowing the customer to pick and choose what ingredients they want in their Oden.