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11 must-try food and drink dishes when visiting Japan

Eating in Japan is not just for sustenance, it’s an experience. You’ll find a tantalising range of tastes and flavours. Here are our favourite 11 Japanese dishes. Get practising at those chopstick skills…
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1. Sushi

Of course, when you think of Japanese food you probably think of sushi. And this is for good reason – wherever you go in Japan there is delicious sushi on offer. Sushi is vinegared rice topped or rolled around fish, meat or vegetables. You’ll find a huge range available all over Japan with different ingredients, so you certainly won’t get bored of the same flavours.

2. Sashimi

Often confused with sushi, sashimi is specifically seafood, like tuna or salmon, served raw and thinly-sliced. Unlike sushi it’s not served with rice, but usually comes with soy sauce for dipping. Sashimi is often eaten at the start of the meal, when your palate is free from other tastes and you can appreciate the simple but delicious flavour.

3. Tempura

Tempura usually consists of seafood or vegetables deep-fried in a light batter. It is often served as part of a larger meal, although it can also be served on rice – a dish called ‘tendon’ or with soba noodles.

4. Okonomiyaki

This Japanese savoury pancake is a popular dish throughout the country, but there are many different regional variations. The base ingredients most often used are flour, water, eggs and shredded cabbage, but other ingredients and toppings will vary. From vegetables and pork belly to octopus and squid, you’ll see all sorts of variations. In some restaurants you may find that tables are fitted with hotplates so you can cook your own okonomiyaki. In Hiroshima the ingredients are layers, whereas in other areas they’re mixed into the batter like a frittata or omelette.

5. Ramen

A very popular dish in Japan, ramen can be found on almost every street. It’s made up of wheat noodles served in a broth (usually meat or fish-based) and flavoured with soy sauce or miso, then topped with extra ingredients. Again there are regional variations – toppings can include sliced pork, egg, seaweed or seafood and the broth base varies by location. In some restaurants you'll even find a vending machine, which you use to pay for your ramen. You get a ticket and then your order is brought to your table.  And when eating your ramen don’t worry about slurping – it’s not considered bad manners in Japan as it shows you’re enjoying your meal! Japanese people also believe slurping enhances the flavour.

6. Gyoza

Gyoza are meat or vegetable dumplings that come in different forms – they can be pan fried, boiled or deep fried. They originated in China but have become very popular in Japan. Typically they are filled with ground pork and vegetables like cabbage, ginger and garlic, but you’ll likely find different variations of fillings being served.

7. Miso soup

This soup has a stock broth base, called “dashi”, made from seaweed and smoked and dried fish into which softened miso paste is mixed. It’s often served with tofu in, to complement the savoury flavour, and topped with spring onions. You may also find it served with vegetables or seafood.

When eating miso soup it is customary to lift the bowl to your mouth and drink from it. Use your chopsticks to eat the solid pieces.

8. Japanese sweets (wagashi)

It’s not just all about the savoury food in Japan; they also like their desserts and commonly serve them with tea. Known as wagashi, these desserts come in all sorts of colours, shapes and flavours, often using plant-based ingredients like bean paste or mochi, which is made from rice. You’ll probably know that Japanese people are big on presentation, so expect very pretty and colourful bitesize wagashi.

9. Udon

Another type of noodles, these are much thicker and chewier than other types. They can be served cold, with a dipping sauce, or hot, often in miso soup or with tempura. Use chopsticks to eat these noodles and don’t hold back on the slurping – in Japanese culture it is also believed that slurping helps to cool down the hot noodles.

10. Sake

It’s not just about the food, sake is of course a well-known drink that often accompanies Japanese cuisine. The national beverage, sake is an alcoholic drink made by fermenting rice and is also referred to as rice wine. Sake is usually served in small cups or glasses, and sometimes these sit in a small wooden box. It can be hot or cold, depending on the type of sake and the season. When eating in a group you may find sake in decorative, porcelain bottles. It’s customary to pour sake for others (with two hands on the bottle) and not for yourself – allow someone to pour your sake.

11. Yakitori

Yakitori is grilled meat skewers with bitesize pieces of meat, most often chicken. The meat comes in different shapes depending on the cut; most commonly its thigh meat but you can also get minced meat, wings or chicken skin skewers. You can also get skewers with vegetables like peppers, mushrooms or asparagus. They’re quite often found being cooked over charcoal on food stalls.

 

Is your mouth watering?

Sample all of these tasty dishes, plus a huge range of other delicacies, on a tour to Japan. On our trips we make sure food and drink is a focal point in your experience, with chances to eat with locals and visit local food markets. From trying sushi at the Omichi fish market on our Simply Japan tour to trying okonomiyaki in Osaka on the Walk Japan trip, you won’t forget your Japanese eating experience.
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