Put simply, sushi is raw fish served on rice seasoned lightly with vinegar. It’s in the variety of flavours and textures – like tangy, creamy uni (sea urchin roe) and plump, juicy, ama-ebi (sweet shrimp) – that things get interesting. Despite sushi’s lofty image, it has a humble origin: street food.
Ramen, egg noodles in a salty broth, is Japan’s favourite late night meal. It’s also the perfect example of an imported dish – in this case from China – that the Japanese have made completely and deliciously their own. There are four major soup styles: tonkotsu (pork bone), miso, soy sauce and salt. Fukuoka is particularly famous for its rich tonkotsu ramen; pungent miso ramen is a specialty of Hokkaido.
Unagi is river eel grilled over charcoal and lacquered with a sweet barbecue sauce. According to folklore, unagi is the ideal antidote to the heat and humidity of Japan’s stultifying summers. It’s a delicacy evocative of old Japan and most restaurants that specialize in eel have a wonderfully traditional feel. Fresh, wild-caught unagi is available May through October.
Light and fluffy tempura is Japan’s contribution to the world of deep-fried foods (though it likely originated with Portuguese traders). The batter-coated seafood and vegetables are traditionally fried in sesame oil and served with either a tiny pool of salt or a dish of soy sauce-flavoured broth spiked with grated radish for dipping. Do not miss out on ebi-ten (tempura prawns).
Part dinner, part work of art, kaiseki is Japan’s haute cuisine. It originated centuries ago alongside the tea ceremony in Kyoto (and Kyoto remains the capital of kaiseki). There’s no menu, just a procession of small courses meticulously arranged on exquisite crockery. Only fresh ingredients are used and each dish is designed to evoke the current season.
Soba – long, thin buckwheat noodles – has long been a staple of Japanese cuisine, particularly in the mountainous regions where hardy buckwheat fares better than rice. The noodles are served in either a hot, soy sauce-flavoured broth or at room temperature on a bamboo mat with broth on the side for dipping. Purists, who bemoan soup-logged noodles, prefer the latter.
Shabu-shabu is the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of thin slices of beef or pork being swished around with chopsticks in bubbling broth. It’s a decadent dish, with platters of marbled meat brought to the table for diners to cook themselves – it takes only a moment – one mouthful at a time.
Literally “grilled as you like,” okonomiyaki is Japanese comfort food at its best, and a clear violation of the typical refined image of Japanese food. It’s a savoury pancake filled with any number of things (but usually cabbage and pork) and topped with fish flakes, dried seaweed, mayonnaise and a Worcester-style sauce. It’s also a lot of fun: At most restaurants, diners grill the dish themselves at a hotplate built into the table.
Tonkatsu, breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet, dates to the late 19th Century when Japan threw open its doors to Western influence. But never mind the European origin: the ingredients and attention to detail are thoroughly Japanese. Tonkatsu – especially when it’s kuro-buta (Berkshire pork) from Kagoshima – is melt-in-your-mouth tender, served with a side of miso soup and a mountain of shredded cabbage.
A cold beer and a few skewers of yakitori – charcoal grilled chicken – is an evening ritual for many of Japan’s weekday warriors. Nearly every part of the chicken is on the menu, all grilled to perfection, seasoned with either shio (salt) or tare (a sweet soy sauce-based sauce) and served with a side of friendly banter.