When you think about Japanese food, we bet the first thing that springs to mind is sushi. However, with its long history and influences from other cultures- particularly Chinese and more recently European – there’s so much more to Japan than sushi. Get your chops around our foodie guide below…
Traditional Japanese food
Being an island nation, seafood has been the staple food in Japan for thousands of years. Traditionally, most meals are made up of white rice, along with one or more okazu (a side for the rice). Okazu is typically some sort of fish, vegetable or tofu dish and, more recently, meat served up with miso soup and pickles (tsukemono). Rice is almost always dished as an individual portion in a small bowl called a chawan, which is also used for tea. Flavours are normally kept separately in traditional meals, rather than mixing everything together as we may be more used to. In fact, putting your okazu onto your rice would be frowned upon in traditional culture.
As with most Japanese culture, artistry is a vital part of cuisine; everything has its place. Even in small restaurants, there’s an elegance which you might not expect. Kaiseki and honzen-ryori are classic Japanese meals that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are tasty.
Donburi is a tasty dish served in oversized bowls, filled with rice, grilled or fried fish, meat or tofu. In fact, pretty much anything you can think of can be cooked up and made into a variation of donburi. It’s tasty, hearty and varied; you really can’t go wrong. Sauces vary from delicate soy sauce and stock, to bold, spicy orange tekkadon sauce (and everything in between).
It goes without saying that sushi is one of the greatest gifts to the world from Japan; it’s delicate, tasty and slightly ceremonial. Sushi has its origins in another dish which is now known as nare-zushi, where rice was fermented and fish salted for months to prevent the fish from spoiling (in a similar way to the way meats were salted or cured to preserve them in European cultures). Nare-zushi started to become a vital part of Japanese culture, as well as the main source of protein.
However, sushi had its real birth during the Edo period (1603-1868) where fresh fish was served with rice in the way that we see it today. Edo is also where the famous bento box (take-away sushi dishes) became popular and now can be found worldwide. There are many types of sushi fillings & toppings, ranging from raw fish, meats, vegetables or seafood all wrapped in seaweed or omelette. There are plenty of sushi styles too, from nori (makizushi), temaki (cone-shaped rolls), futomaki (thick rolls), to name but a few. Sushi has certainly made its mark on the global food scene, spawning a variety of novel sushi dishes, from the famous California roll to the sushi burrito!
Worldwide Japanese adaptations
As much as Japanese food has influenced the world, Japan has borrowed some of its best bits from other cultures too.
Although famous as a Japanese dish, ramen actually originates from China. Tasty wheat noodles in a brothy stock with different variations of topping, ramen is a warming bowl of goodness. Ramen can also be made with soba noodles (thin buckwheat) or udon noodles (thick buckwheat). Make sure you try the tonkotsu ramen, usually made with meat broth and soy or miso, served with soba noodles.
The most famous Japanese curry variation is the Katsu curry, which is not only found in Japan, but around the world too.
Italian & Korean cuisine
Inspired by classic Italian dishes, Japan has its own take on pasta sauces that are often combined with prawns, lobster and crab, served with a sea urchin sauce.
You’ll also see countless Korean BBQ restaurants around Japan. The food is tasty yet diverse: think meat skewers, all types of fish, vegetables and kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage & green beans).
Another highlight of Japanese dining comes in the form of the actual ordering of the food itself. You might find that there are times that you don’t even know what you’re eating, but that’s part of the adventure! Some restaurants use iPads or ordering machines with food arriving by conveyor belt.
Veggie and vegan food in Japan
Let’s be honest, Japan isn’t the most vegetarian or vegan-friendly place, so choice can be fairly limited. However, that’s not to say that it is impossible. Handy smartphone apps can help you navigate your way to the nearest vegan or vegetarian friendly eateries- all it takes is a little forward planning!
Tempura is deep fried vegetables or seafood in a light, crispy-thin batter. They’re not often very oily but they are usually very tasty.
Tofu & Dofu
Luckily you’ll be able to find many dishes containing delicious tofu or dofu. Tofu is a popular Japanese ingredient with a long tradition in vegetarian Buddhist cuisine, and it consists of curdled soy milk pressed into a block. A classic Japanese tofu appetiser to watch out for is ‘Agedashi Tofu’ – a delicious block of tofu topped with crispy onion flakes, grated daikon, chopped scallions.
The good news is that you’ll be able to drink as much miso as you like. Miso soup is made from a stock called ‘dashi’ mixed with miso paste (fermented soya bean). It’s usually seasoned with seaweed and tofu. Oh, and it’s drunk like a drink, not slurped with a spoon!
Top Vegan & Vegetarian Tips
One of the most useful websites and nifty apps is Happy Cow, for navigating your way to vegetarian, vegan or vegetarian-friendly restaurants in Japan. You can simply enter where you are and local suggestions will pop up on the map. It’s also a good idea to print out some key Japanese phrases to help if you get in a tricky spot. Phrases like “I don’t eat meat” or “I don’t eat dairy” will help locals point out which dishes are suitable for your diet.
The chain convenience store, 7-Eleven is handy for both vegans and vegetarians. You can easily look at the bento boxes and see what’s inside them, making it simple to identify which ones are vegan or vegetarian-friendly.
Japan gluten free advice
- Take your own Tamari sauce
- Take a translation card to explain in restaurants
- Rice is your best friend – as it’s mainly gluten free
- Be careful with sushi as the rice can be mixed with vinegar made with barley
- Track down the Holy Mecca restaurant in Tokyo which is entirely gluten-free
For even more tips and advice on travelling to Japan with gluten free dietary requirements, view our top 8 tips in this handy guide.
Drinks in Japan
Pronounced sak-eh, this world-renowned alcoholic rice beverage is served warm or cold. Its delicate flavours and smooth drinking makes it a perfect partner to any Japanese meal. Sake is made in quite a different way to wine, in fact, it’s closer to beer brewing. The rice is fermented several times and is an incredibly intensive process. There are over 1,500 sake breweries, and most of them make hundreds of varieties. Hic!
Another mutual appreciation between the UK and Japan, tea is extremely important in Japanese culture. The famous tea ceremony (Way of Tea), is equally about presentation and ritual as it is about the tea itself, which is heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. Sencha tea leaves are used, brewed in a natsume (tea caddy) and served in the chawan (tea bowl). Attending a Japanese tea ceremony is a must!
Although new to the Whisky making party, starting production in the late 1800s, Suntory whisky has been produced since the 1890s and has won worldwide acclaim for its take on Scotch. A particularly exceptional one is the Hibbiki 21 YO blend.
Beer was introduced to Japan by Dutch traders during the Edo period, and since then has become increasingly popular. In the UK it’s safe to say we’re familiar with Asahi (founded in 1889) which has a considerable export trade as well as being domestically popular. There are three other main brewers of larger to keep an eye out for, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory. They generally make Pilsner style lagers which are most popular in Japan, but with a lower malt level than most in Europe or America. Microbreweries have also started to become popular since the 1990s.
This punchy, nutty, earthy, spirit is made with rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat and brown sugar. Stronger than sake, but not as strong as most pure spirits (between 25-35%), it’s enjoyed in several ways including neat, on ice, or with various mixers.
Japanese wine is light-bodied with a subtle crisp. The main producing regions are Hokkaido and Yamanashi where you can find the famous Koshu, a soft, fruity wine made from white grapes.
Why not try Umeshu or plum wine? Umeshu is a liqueur made out of fresh plums, sugar and shochu. It’s sweet but light at the same time, perfect for an evening meal.
For even more Japan travel tips, head to our travel guide below.
On the blog
Meet Frazer and Emily, two British travellers living in Japan with a passion for food. Here are their favourite places serving up food loved by Tokyo's locals!