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Japanese food: Top dishes you NEED to try on your first visit

Japanese food

The island nation is a bucket list destination for many, and its culinary culture is a huge part of that draw. Many famous dishes have been successfully exported all over the world, but the sheer diversity of foodstuffs available in the actual country is almost impossible to believe.

Whether you’re a dessert lover, need a spicy kick in your meals, or just want to indulge in something homely, there’s a plethora of great dishes for you to try in the Japanese food ecosystem. But, with so much to dig into, it can be a little overwhelming to plan your mealtimes. Luckily, we’ve slurped our way through bowls of ramen, become proficient enough chopstick users to pick up singular grains of rice, and held our nose to try some of the more intense Japanese delicacies, all so that we can bring you this guide.

Read on to find out more about Japanese food, and all the top dishes you need to try on your first visit!

Noodles

1. Soba noodles

Also known as buckwheat noodles, these brown noodles are made from buckwheat flour and are usually served chilled alongside a dipping sauce and lots of greens. One of the healthiest Japanese food options, soba noodles are ideal for eating on a warm spring or summer’s day and go great alongside a chilled Sapporo.

2. Ramen

Although ramen is widely considered to be as Japanese as Nintendo and samurais, this famous noodle broth has its origins in China. Soy sauce and miso provide the flavour base, but depth is usually added via bone broth (or vegetable stock, for veggie options). Toppings are what make each ramen dish its own, with a protein of some kind served on top of the noodles alongside vegetables and a soft-boiled egg.

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3. Udon noodles

Thick, delicious, and so satisfying to eat, udon noodles are made from wheat flour and are the perfect vehicle for all kinds of delicious Japanese food sauces and broths. Known for their large size, udon noodles are often served with lighter broths, but they manage to soak up the flavour deliciously, making for an addictive treat.

Curries and Soups

1. Oden

Northern and Eastern European countries might think that when it comes to hearty soups, they can’t be beaten, but the Japanese have a pretty strong contender for most warming stew in Oden.

A warming, soy-flavoured broth is filled with a number of ingredients that can range from boiled eggs to fish cakes to daikon radishes. No matter what’s inside, you’ll definitely feel full after indulging. A perfect meal for after a long day of sightseeing.

2. Japanese curry

A fusion food that is now a beloved favourite in Japan, Japanese curry was Introduced in the 19th century when Brits from colonial India brought curry powder over. The dish was classified as Western food at first, but is now a staple in homes up and down the island nation.

The curry refers to the flavour of the sauce in the dish, which is commonly served with a breaded protein or vegetable (known as katsu). Although curry powder is the main flavour, there are plenty of other subtleties in the sauce, which is often cooked with a range of ingredients that includes apples and onions.

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3. Miso soup

Another simple comfort dish, miso soup is a base for many favourites in the Japanese food world, but is also often served on its own alongside bigger meals. The flavourful broth is usually kept simple, and while you may get tofu or green onions added, you’re not likely to see more fillings floating in the soup. Light but warming, it’s a great starter.

Rice

1. Sushi

The quintessential Japanese food. This was one of the first items from the country to gain global prominence, and there’s a good reason for it: it’s versatile, delicious, and works as both a snack and a full meal.

Sushi refers to a dish that’s been made with rice seasoned with rice vinegar. There are a whole host of Japanese dishes that fall under this umbrella, but the most well-known are nigiri (where the rice is shaped into a bite-size mound and draped with something else, usually raw fish), maki (rice rolled in seaweed, with a fish, seafood, meat, or vegetarian centre), and urakami (also known as the inside-out sushi, as the rice is the outer layer).

Other beloved versions include inari (sushi rice stuffed inside a fried tofu skin) and temaki (a larger piece of sushi rolled into the shape of a cone). Sushi is taken very seriously in Japan, so don’t miss out on the chance to try it.

sushi in Japan

Image source:Contiki

2. Onigiri

Known as rice balls in the West, this handheld snack can be picked up in any convenience store and comes with a variety of fillings. Onigiri occupy a similar place to sandwiches in that they can contain almost anything, and are portable meals. They are also wrapped with seaweed to maintain their shape, and are a great option if you’re going to be walking around without planning on a lunch stop.

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3. Yakimeshi

Comfort food of the highest order, Yakimeshi is a fried rice dish that is easy to make, and even easier to devour. Toppings and ingredients may vary, but you’re bound to get green onions in yours for an extra flavour kick. By no means a high-end dish, but without a doubt one that has a place in the hearts of many Japanese people.

Meat, fish, and seafood

1. Yakitori

This sizzling dish has its origins as a street food, but can be found in restaurants too. It’s a simple food: chicken is placed on a skewer and barbecued until it develops a smoky char. Sometimes it’s seasoned with tare or teriyaki sauces, but often the meat is left to speak for itself.

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2. Sashimi

Sashimi often falls under the sushi banner as it is often served alongside its rice-heavy cousin in similar establishments. The dish refers to thinly sliced, ultra-fresh seafood, fish, or meat. Simplicity and quality of ingredients is the key here, as sashimi is usually enjoyed with nothing but soy sauce.

3. Uni

Sea urchin isn’t the most appetising looking dish, but it’s beloved in Japanese food circles for its fresh flavour and lightness. The dish is made from the creamy, yellowish interior of the spiky looking sea urchin, and can be enjoyed raw or cooked.

Specialty Snacks

1. Natto

This is not a dish for the faint-hearted, and even divides opinion among Japanese natives. Consisting of fermented whole soybeans and often appearing on top of rice, natto has an incredibly strong flavour, and is usually served as a breakfast or brunch dish in Japanese restaurants and homes.

If you’re a fan of intense tastes like blue cheese or fermented foods in general, you might find yourself on Team Natto. Otherwise, it’s definitely an acquired taste that you might not want to acquire! Still, if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s worth a bite or three.

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2. Pickled Daikon radish

Usually served as a side dish, pickled daikons are a staple in the Japanese food world. While they’re usually eaten alongside a larger meal, they are incredibly moreish, and you just might find yourself snacking on entire bowls of them without realising!

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3. Tempura

Tempura usually consists of seafood or vegetables that have been covered in a light batter and fried in oil. A staple of Japanese cuisine, this dish has its roots in Europe, and came about when Portuguese missionaries shared their native cooking techniques with the Japanese, thus proving that a love of frying things spans borders.

The name mostly refers to the battering process rather than any one ingredient, and as such you can get tempura that’s not made from what one would consider a traditional ingredient. The most common fillings are vegetables and seafood. Usually served alongside a delicious dipping sauce (or a few), this side dish is a must try for anyone experiencing Japanese food for the first time.

4. Takoyaki

This Osaka street food favourite is wildly popular across Japan, and with good reason. The savoury, moreish balls are made of a wheat flour batter that’s cooked in a special pan, and typically filled with octopus that’s been minced or diced, alongside scraps from tempura, pickled ginger, and green onions.

This flavourful ball is then brushed with a rich, flavoursome takoyaki sauce and some mayonnaise, which adds a bit of creaminess. Finally, it’s topped with crispy dried bonito (a kind of tuna) for a bit of extra crunch.

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5. Nama tamago

In Japan high standards of food production mean that this versatile dish, consisting of uncooked egg, is a popular one. The egg is utilised as a dipping sauce, put into a broth, mixed with rice, or any number of other options, adding an interesting flavour and silky texture to any dish. 

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6. Gyoza

The humble dumpling is a classic food all over the world, and this Japanese version delivers. Filled with meats, seafood, vegetables, and pretty much anything you can think of, they can be fried or boiled. Gyoza are then eaten with a dip of your choice, which can be a salty, tangy soy sauce and vinegar mix, or even a more vibrant sweet and sour combo.

gyoza in Japan

Image source:Contiki

Desserts

1. Fruit sando

If you have a sweet tooth, then this fruit-filled snack is the one for you. Two slices of light, soft, and sweet shokupan (milk bread) are filled with a combination of whipped cream and fresh fruit, delivering a delicious dessert snack. Dangerously addictive because of how fresh and light they are.

2. Numerous Kit-Kat flavours

Japan does Kit-Kats differently. While in the West you might get dark chocolate or nutty varieties at most, in Japan the flavours range from matcha to melon. The manufacturer of the famous chocolate is truly inventive, delivering both savoury and sweet combinations. So, if you’ve ever wanted to try a wasabi flavoured chocolate, this is your chance…

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3. Kashi pan

Bread might not be a traditional Japanese food, but the island nation has adopted it and, like many of their versions of Westernised foods, they’ve done a great job of making it their own. Kashi Pan (translating to sweet bread) is a baked good that’s filled or topped with something, often a sweet red bean paste. Other versions include melon pan and mushi pan, as well as many other varieties.

Food on the go

1. A 7-Eleven feast

The famous convenience store is more popular here than anywhere else in the world, with over 21,000 of them operating in Japan. That amounts to 30% of all 7-Elevens globally, which is no small fry.

While convenience store food is looked down upon in much of the world, in Japan a 7-Eleven is a truly epicurean experience. You’ll get all kinds of options (including some mentioned in this list) for a bogglingly reasonable price, at any time of the day. While we would encourage you to go to street food stalls and restaurants on your Japanese food journey, don’t be afraid to put together at least one meal from items that you’ve bought here.

There are also microwaves, hot taps, and seating available, so you can treat yourself to a little spread without even leaving the shop!

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2. Anything from a vending machine

It’s a bit of a running joke among tourists to Japan just how much you can buy from a vending machine. Whether you want a banana, an umbrella, or live crabs (yes, really), you can get it from a humble box.

Ready to join one of our incredible Japan trips and eat your way through this incredible island nation? Begin your planning today, and before you know it you’ll be slurping ramen in the bright lights of Shinjuku!

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