Food is yet another aspect of Japanese culture which, because of Japan’s separation from the Asian continent, has developed unique characteristics. Many Japanese dishes have become more well-known in the West over recent years, as Japanese restaurants have proliferated. But there are so many unique and fascinating dishes, we present here an alphabetical “dictionary” of the most popular Japanese food.

BENTO

A meal in a box.
As most Japanese food can be eaten cold, the cuisine lends itself to being packed – often very attractively – in a box for handy consumption anywhere. Prices vary according to the contents, but are usually very reasonable. Bento meals are available in many restaurants (to eat in), sold from kiosks at railway stations, and from trolleys on trains themselves; they are very convenient for train journeys.

BREAKFAST

Where this is provided at good-class ryokans, it is definitely recommendable in preference to the western-style breakfast offered.
Most dishes are the same as those of other meals, but the umeboshi plum is a breakfast speciality. Its astringent flavour will wake you up.

CHAWAN-MUSHI

A savoury steamed egg custard, usually served as an appetiser. Chawan is a tea cup, mushi is steam, so it is literally “steamed in a tea bowl”. The custard is flavoured with soy sauce, dashi, and mirin (slightly sweet rice wine), with numerous ingredients such as shitake mushroom  and boiled shrimp or chicken. It is served in a tea-cup shaped bowl, either hot or cold.

DONBURI

A one-bowl lunchtime dish, consisting of a donburi (big bowl) full of hot steamed rice with various savoury toppings:

Katsudon: with deep-fried breaded pork cutlet (also tonkatsudon)
Tekkadon: with tuna sashimi
Oyakodon: “Parent and child”): topped with chicken and egg (or sometimes salmon and salmon roe)
Gyudon: with seasoned beef
Tendon: with tempura
Unadon: with broiled eel (unagi) and vegetables.

MISO SOUP (Misoshiru)

This traditional soup is served all over Japan, with most meals: 75% of Japanese people have miso soup at least once a day!

It consists of a stock (dashi) into which miso paste is added, and other ingredients too, depending on regional and seasonal recipes.

The soup can be suitable for vegetarians if the dashi stock is made from kombu (dried kelp) and/or dried shiitake mushrooms. But it is more often  made with niboshi (dried sardines) or katsuobushi (dried and smoked bonito).

According to custom, the solid ingredients are chosen to reflect the seasons and to provide contrasts of colour, texture, and flavor. A strongly-flavoured ingredient like negi (spring onion) is often used together with a delicately-flavoured one like tofu. Ingredients that float, such as wakame seaweed, and ingredients that sink, such as potatoes, are also combined. Ingredients may include mushrooms, potatoes, seaweed, onion, shrimp, fish, clams, or sliced daikon radish. So many ingredients can be used, according to region or individual taste – but not all together: just a few in one soup!

It’s also worth mentioning that the miso soup is not a “course” on its own, but is served and consumed with the rest of the meal.

RAMEN

Wheat noodles in a meat-based broth (eg. chicken), with a topping such as sliced pork, (chashu), seaweed, kamaboko (see above), green onions, and even corn.
Almost every locality or prefecture in Japan has its own variety of ramen, from the tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen of Kyushu to the miso ramen of Hokkaido.

 

SASHIMI

Slices of raw fish. As it is so fresh, it melts in the mouth with hardly any fishy taste.
Sashimi is sometimes the first course in a formal Japanese meal, but is also often served as a main course with rice and miso soup in separate bowls. Sashimi is traditionally considered to be the finest dish in Japanese cuisine, and many people maintain that its delicate flavour should be sampled before other more strongly-flavoured dishes.
The slices of fish are can be dipped in soy sauce or a small amount of wasabi paste (a pale green hot paste like mustard or horseradish). Some of the most popular sashimi: salmon (sake), squid(ika), cooked shrimp (ebi), tuna (maguro), mackerel (saba), octopus (tako).

SHABU SHABU

The dish is traditionally made with thinly sliced beef, though nowadays pork, chicken or other meats may be used.
The ingredients are brought to the table raw. The fun consists in cooking them yourself. The dish is prepared by submerging a very thin slice of meat or a piece of vegetable in a pot of boiling broth (dashi) made with a sort of seaweed (kombu) and swishing it back and forth several times. (The familiar swishing sound is where the dish gets its name. Shabu-shabu roughly translates as “swish-swish”.) Because the meat is so thin, it takes only a few moments to cook. The meat is usally served with tofu (bean curd), Chinese cabbage, nori (edible seaweed), onions, carrots and mushrooms. These vegetables are dipped in the broth too, as appropriate. The cooked meat and vegetables are usually dipped in goma (sesame seed) sauce and eaten with steamed rice or noodles.
At the end, the leftover broth from the pot is usually combined with the remaining rice or noodles, and the resulting soup is eaten last.

SOBA

This is a type of thin noodle made from buckwheat flour. It is served either chilled with a dipping sauce, or in hot broth as a noodle soup.
They are a cheap fast food, often sold at train stations, but can also be served by exclusive and expensive specialty restaurants, and are also made at home.
Soba is virtually always eaten with chopsticks, and it is usual to slurp the noodles noisily. (For the hot variety, this helps to cool the soup down.)
Soba noodles are often served drained and chilled in the summer, and hot in the winter with a soy-based dashi broth. Extra toppings can be added onto both hot and cold soba.
Chilled soba is often served on a sieve-like bamboo tray called a zaru (see photo), with a dipping sauce known as soba tsuyu on the side. The tsuyu is made of a strong mixture of dashi broth, sweet soy sauce and mirin. Using chopsticks, you pick up a small amount of soba from the tray and swirl it in the cold tsuyu before eating it. Wasabi, scallions and grated ginger are often mixed into the tsuyu. Soba is traditionally eaten on New Years Eve.

 

SUIMONO

A general term for soup, usually clear soup with fish, chicken or egg and vegetables.

SUSHI

The sushi maker takes half a handful of of boiled rice that has been cooled and seasoned with slightly sweetened vinegar, molds it into a small oblong and places a thin slice of raw fish on top.
Shrimp, squid and many other items can be used instead of the fish. This is nigiri-zushi (“hand-formed” sushi). In maki-zushi (“rolled” sushi), a flat piece of seaweed (nori) is used to wrap and roll up a small handful of rice with a slice of cucumber or sweetened gourd peel inside.

Sushi can be eaten either with the chopsticks, or with the fingers; traditionally nigiri is eaten with the fingers because the rice is meant to be packed loosely, and would fall apart between chopsticks. Traditionally, one should start with white-fleshed or milder-tasting items then go on to darker, stronger-flavoured varieties later. Sushi are usually dipped in soy sauce, but if possible only the fish should be dipped, not the rice (as the rice soaks up too much soy sauce). Wasabi is also used, but in higher class restaurants the sushi chef will have included exactly the right amount, and to add more would be bad form.

Conveyor belt sushi (kaiten zushi) restaurants are a popular, reasonably-priced way of eating sushi. At these restaurants, the sushi is sometimes served on colour-coded plates, with each colour denoting the cost. You choose your dishes as they pass by on the belt, and your bill is calculated by counting how many plates of each colour you have taken.

SUKIYAKI

Thinly-sliced beef and vegetables cooked in a mixture of soy sauce, dashi, sugar and sake.
You cook this at the table (see also shabu-shabu above) then dip the food into your individual bowl of raw egg before eating it.

 

TEISHOKU LUNCH

At lunchtimes, many moderate restaurants offer a reasonably-priced set lunch menu called “teishoku” (around 1,00-1,500 yen).

 

TEMPURA

Items battered and deep fried (can be prawns, shellfish, vegetables). Tempura is eaten hot and dipped in special soy sauce and grated daikon radish.

 

TEPPANYAKI

Tender beef, seafood and fresh vegetables are cooked on a griddle set in the centre of the your table. Teppan = iron plate, yaki = grilled. The teppanyaki chef cooks the food according to your taste, with the beef and any other large items being cut into bite-size pieces.

 

TERIYAKI

Grilled, broiled, or pan-fried meat, fish, chicken or vegetables glazed with a sweetened soy sauce.
Fish such as tuna, salmon, trout and mackerel are preferred in Japan; chicken, pork and beef are more usual in the West. The fish or meat should be dipped in, or brushed with, the sauce several times before completion. The sauce (consisting of soy sauce, sake or mirin, and sugar or honey) is boiled and reduced to the desired thickness before it is used to marinate the meat. The meat is then grilled or broiled. Sometimes ginger is added, and the final dish is often garnished with spring onions.
Teriyaki can also be served cold, as it often is in a bento box meal.

UDON

Another noodle. This one is usually served hot in a mildly flavored broth: kake udon. It is usually topped with finely chopped spring onions. Tempura or eggs toppings are also common.

YAKITORI

Yaki (grilled) tori (bird): pieces of chicken barbecued on a bamboo skewer.
It is a favourite snack to have on the way home from work: a yakitori and a beer from a yakitori stall. Yakitori is also a common, cheap accompaniment to beer in izakayas (informal drinking establishments).

Related:

Yakizakana = grilled fish, often served with grated daikon radish. One of the most common dishes served at home.
Yakiniku = grilled meat: may be a “Korean BBQ” – bite-sized pieces of meat (usually beef) grilled, usually at the table. A speciality of Hokkaido is lamb prepared in this way with various seafoods and vegetables (sometimes referred to as a “Genghis Khan” barbecue).