Are you traveling to Japan soon and not sure what to eat?
Japanese cuisine is more than just ramen and raw fish – it is recognized and respected as one of the best cuisines in the world. In fact, in 2013, UNESCO added Japanese cuisine to the Intangible Cultural Heritage List as it is one of Japan’s cultural assets and has been showing increasing global popularity.
In this article, we have listed 20 must-try Japanese dishes that will surely expand your knowledge on Japanese food, and will make your Japan trip more enjoyable and unforgettable.
Ramen via Pixabay
Ramen (ラメーン) is a very well-known Japanese Chinese-style noodle soup dish that is usually made with wheat noodles served in a very rich and savory broth, topped with sliced pork or チャシュー(chashu), soft boiled egg or 半熟卵 (hanjuku tamago), marinated egg or 味卵 (aji tamago), fresh scallions, and some laver or 海苔 (nori). This dish is considered as one of the locals’ staple food.
Ramen is so popular that wherever you go in Japan you will find a ラメーン屋 or ramenya which translates to ‘ramen shop or restaurant’. Price ranges from ¥600 to ¥1,200 per bowl, depending on how special the ramen is. In fact, there is a wide variety of ramen – every prefecture boasts their own special ramen such as Hokkaido’s tonkotsu ramen, Fukushima’s kozuyu ramen, Nagoya’s “Taiwan” ramen, and so much more.
So, when you eat at a ramen shop in Japan, do not forget to ask and try their specialty!
2. Sushi and Sashimi
Most often, people confuse sushi (寿司) with sashimi (刺身). But really, what is the difference? Sashimi is raw fish, while sushi is a dish made with seasoned rice (usually with vinegar), vegetables, eggs, and sashimi or cooked seafood.
In Japan, you will find a whole range of budget-friendly to Michelin-starred quality sushi and sashimi. If you wish to try some quality sushi and sashimi without hurting your wallet, eat at a 回転寿司 or kaitenzushi. It is a sushi conveyor belt that transports dishes past customers, who can take whatever sushi or sashimi they like. Cheapest price per plate is ¥100 plus tax. Not bad, right?
On the other hand, you can try high-end omakase-style sushi restaurants that serve the freshest and premium ingredients available. Here, a chef may personally pick what kind of sushi or sashimi to make and serve you on the spot. Of course, this can get quite expensive with prices starting from ¥10,000 and above. With the quality of service and food, the price is surely all worth it.
Udon (うどん) is a thick, chewy wheat noodle served in a dashi-based soup. Dashi (ダシ) is a Japanese soup stock made from fish and kelp. There are various types of udon that you can enjoy:
- Kakeudon, the simplest type which is made only with dashi, mirin and soy sauce
- Curry udon, coated with Japanese curry sauce – a unique type of udon
- Udon Suki, a hot pot-type udon – usually served with bamboo shoots, shrimp, shiitake mushroom, daikon radish, and other vegetables; and
- Yakiudon, stir-fried type of udon that can made vegetarian or with meat.
Soba (そば) is a kind of slippery noodle made with buckwheat, and can be served with either hot or cold broth which is equally good. The most common type is Morisoba which is served cold with tsuyu (つゆ) or a dipping sauce. You can find this in food courts, or in udon/soba restaurants.
Gyuudon via Pixabay
Donburi (どんぶり) is a famous Japanese rice bowl dish. Its toppings can basically be anything, cooked or uncooked. The most common donburi that you can find are: Gyuudon (牛丼), which is braised beef and vegetables on top of a bed of rice; and Katsudon (カツ丼), which is fried pork cutlet served over rice.
Tonkatsu (トンカツ) is a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet that is usually served with rice, miso soup and some shredded cabbage on the side – a famous lunch dish in Japan. The best texture of a tonkatsu is juicy on the inside, and crunchy on the outside.
Tonkatsu can be eaten alone, or dipped or drizzled with ‘tonkatsu sauce’ (トンカツソース), which is a special tonkatsu dressing made from a mixture of Worcester, soy, vinegar, vegetable and fruit extracts, and some spices. You may also choose to top it with karashi (カラシ) or Japanese mustard, if you want to add a little spice in your meal.
Tempura (天ぷら) are crispy fried seafood or vegetables that are usually served as a rice topping, side dish, or even as a main dish. These deep-fried pieces are dipped in 天汁 (てんつゆ) or tentsuyu, a special thin sauce for tempura. Here are some of the kinds of tempura that you can try when you get to Japan:
This battered, deep-fried shrimp is the most popular kind of tempura.
This is a battered, deep-fried mixture of vegetables and seafood cut into thin strips – usually served as an appetizer or side dish.
These tempuras are made with Japanese pumpkins, usually cut very thinly and cooked with skin.
These are mushroom tempuras, usually shiitake (シイタケ) or maitake (マイタケ) in kind.
These are fish fillet tempura – usually goby, sweetfish, or whitebait in kind.
via I am a food blog
Oden (おでん) is a type of Japanese one-pot dish, or なべもの(nabemono), with various ingredients simmered in a Japanese soup stock called ダシor dashi – a perfect dish to eat during the cold weather.
Its ingredients usually consist of hard-boiled eggs, mixed fish balls, deep-fried tofu or atsuage, fish cakes, daikon (Japanese radish), potato, konnyaku or konjac, chikuwa (a type of Japanese fish cake), and a lot more.
You can eat oden at affordable prices in convenience stores and food stalls.
Okonomiyaki is a traditional Japanese pancake which is made with flour, shredded cabbage, eggs, and meat. For meat selections, you can decide whether to put in pork, shrimp, or any meat of your choice. It is usually topped with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, seaweed flakes, and bonito flakes.
You can have this dish at any okonomiyakiya (お好み焼き屋) or okonomiyaki restaurants, where you can have it prepared and made in the kitchen, cooked and served personally by a chef across your table, or cook it yourself at a table with a built-in teppan (with or without a staff’s assistance) – this is definitely an experience to try when in Japan!
Takoyaki （たこ焼き）is one of the famous street foods in Japan. It is a ball-shaped dumpling made with wheat flour batter filled with diced octopus or tako (たこ), green onions (ネギ), tempura scraps, and some pickled ginger (べにしょうが). These octopus balls are then drizzled with takoyaki or okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, bonito flakes, and laver flakes.
These are easy to find and very affordable – you can buy them in food stalls inside the mall, in the fresh food section of grocery stores, or sometimes along some streets in Japan. If you wish to eat the best takoyaki in Japan, you can go to Osaka and go on a takoyaki food trip.
Onigiri via Pixabay
Onigiri (おにぎり) are delicious Japanese rice balls in triangular or circular shape, wrapped in laver sheets or nori. Onigiri fillings vary from salted salmon, umeboshi plums, tuna mayonnaise, karaage (deep-, unagi, teriyaki chicken, shrimp mayonnaise, and more.
These are often made for lunch boxes or obento (お弁当). It is so compact and convenient to carry, so most travelers and locals have these. In fact, when you enter a convenience store in Japan, you will be surprised to find a section or corner dedicated only to onigiri. Price ranges from ¥100 and above, depending on the filling.
Gyouza via Pixabay
Gyouza ( 餃子) are crescent-shaped Japanese pan-fried dumplings made with thin wheat flour wrapper, filled with seasoned minced pork and vegetables. These are usually eaten as a side dish, best partnered with ramen. These dumplings taste good when dipped in a mixture of soy sauce, rice vinegar, garlic, ginger, and some red pepper flakes.
Aside from ramen shops, these dumplings can also be found in Chinese restaurants and izakaya, which is an informal Japanese gastropub. There are also a few gyouza specialty shops that can be spotted in Japan.
One of the classic Japanese foods is yakisoba (焼きそば). These are stir fried wheat flour noodles mixed with some pork and vegetables, and seasoned with ‘yakisoba sauce’ which is a Worcestershire-like sauce. These are usually cooked in a teppan or iron plates.
This stir fry noodle is so popular that this snack is often enjoyed at home, at matsuri (festivals), or school events. You can also find this being sold in the fresh food section of grocery stores. Price ranges from ¥200 and above.
Chawan-mushi (茶碗蒸し) is a very unique Japanese egg custard filled with chicken, shrimps, mushroom, bamboo shoots, and fish cake (usually kamakobo). It is typically served in a small tea cup as an appetizer, cold or hot.
Compared to other usual custards, this one is not sweet but has a flavorful taste. If we were to describe it in Japanese, this has an umami hint. If you wish to have this, look for a more formal Japanese restaurant or sushi restaurants.
Natto (ナット) is traditional Japanese fermented soy beans – perhaps the most avoided food by foreigners because of its slimy and sticky texture as well as its distinct strong smell.
This dish is commonly eaten during breakfast, topped in a bowl of rice. You can easily find and buy this in convenience stores and supermarkets. These are sold normally in packs of three just for an affordable price of ¥100 plus tax.
Karaage (から揚げ) is a Japanese style of deep-frying different kinds of food. However, this is commonly associated with deep-fried chicken. Chicken karaage is like the Japanese version of chicken popcorns – marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, ginger extract, cooking sake, and minced garlic, then coated with potato starch.
This delicious Japanese fried chicken is juicy on the inside and crackly crispy on the outside. Locals would often include this dish in lunch boxes, or have this as snacks. You can find this in restaurants, convenience stores, and grocery stores.
Yakitori (焼き鳥) are grilled chicken skewers which are usually available in an izakaya or informal Japanese gastropub. This is a good casual Japanese dish, typically eaten when drinking beer or other Japanese alcoholic beverages.
You can find these skewers in a yakitoriya (焼鳥や) or a shop that specializes in serving yakitori, or in a yatai or small stalls usually positioned in the streets during matsuri or festivals. A stick of yakitori usually costs ¥200 to ¥300.
Dango (団子) is a wagashi or a traditional Japanese confectionery that is a kind of dumpling skewered on a bamboo stick, usually made of rice flour and topped with special sauces. In most cases, these are grilled or heated over a charcoal grill. These are eaten all year-round and can easily be found in convenience stores, grocery stores, or even in a shrine or temple.
These ball-shaped rice cakes are often linked to seasonal occasions and traditional festivals, so you may find a variety of dango throughout your travel.
Omurice (オムライス) is a Western-inspired dish and is considered as one of the comfort food of the locals. The term omuraisu is a combination of the words omelet and rice. The fried rice is seasoned with ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, and tonkatsu sauce, then wrapped or topped with custardy egg omelet.
Omurice are coated with special demi-glace sauce, or ketchup and mayonnaise. Omurice that are served in some restaurants could go as much as ¥3,000 per plate.
Kobe Beef via Pixabay
Wagyu (和牛) is a Japanese-produced beef which is known for its excellent quality – it is so soft that it melts in your mouth. The reason why Wagyu is deemed to be the most expensive beef in the world is because there are only four breeds of Wagyu beef cattle in Japan.
In addition to that, these cattle were raised and slaughtered so delicately, following a set of strict guidelines mandated by the Japanese government to secure and monitor its market value and quality.
If you wish to eat the best wagyu in Japan, visit Kobe prefecture and you will find numerous restaurants serving this beef – just be wary of fake ones!
What’s your favorite Japanese food? Share with us in the comments below.