Japanese cuisine is full of different textures that are new to the western tongue. Even for the open minded, eating Japanese food can at times be challenging. Once one overcomes the initial strangeness, however, a range of new tastes can be experienced. Leave the steak and potatoes at home – you are going for a ride.
Red meat is not an integral part of the diet, and Japan’s island geography places fish and seaweed in a prominent role. But Japanese food amounts to much more than sushi. The food variety is like Japan’s culture, foreign but worth the effort to understand.
Traditional meals are often served as four or five small dishes simultaneously, accompanied by miso soup and a bowl of rice. These dishes often contain an array of squishy foods. For instance, a range of textures in roots, mushrooms and tofu are presented. Traditional meals can also contain vegetables, like carrots, cabbage and daikon, a type of radish.
Japan also has fried food like katsu-don, a fried cutlet of pork or chicken with cabbage eaten with a sesame seed sauce. Takoyaki consists of battered octopus balls served with mayonaise and sweet sauce, and is famous in Osaka. Okinomiyaki is cabbage, vegetable and noodles battered together and fried, and is famous in Hiroshima. Tempura is a popular dish of sea food and vegetables dipped in batter and deep fried. Yakisoba is fried buckwheat noodles stir-fried with vegetables.
Noodle bowls, eaten with an audible slurping sound, can include tempura or meat, and green onions. Udon is a tasty, thick noodle that goes well with tempura. Soba is buckwheat noodles usually served cold in the summer which you can eat with tsuyu, a sweet type of soy sauce. Ramen, traditionally a Chinese food, is a tasty thin noodle bowl in a salty, pork grease broth, delicious and unhealthy. Commonly served with ramen is a dumpling filled with an onion, pork and seasoning called gyoza.
Rice bowls, don-buri, are a great fast food stop. They are cheap for Japan (700 to 800 yen,) and ordered from a machine. Enter your yen and press a Kanji-labeled button, and hope you get something you like. The bowls come with a choice of stir-fried vegetables, pork cutlet, and maybe with a fried egg on top.
Sushi is everywhere, and consists of raw fish wrapped with white rice in nori, dark green seaweed paper. Sashimi is fresh raw fish. These foods are eaten with wasabi, a green Japanese horseradish, ginger and soy sauce. Kaiten are fun restaurants where the sushi rotates in front of the customers on a conveyor belt. Popular sushi ingredients include: kani (crab,) unagi (eel,) tako (octopus,) ika (squid,) ebi (shrimp,) maguro (tuna) and shake(salmon.) Maki is vegetable, like cucumber, with rice wrapped in nori.
The Japanese have their own take on curry, kareraisu. As common as don-buri, these dishes have onion, potato, and beef with a dark brown kare (curry) sauce that is sweeter and less spicy than the western versions. Omraisu is a thin layer of egg, like an omelet, surrounding a rice mixture.
Natto is fermented soy bean, illegal in the United States due to its bacterial level, that looks like beans in a pool of snot and tastes like seaweed. It takes some getting used to.
Most of Japanese seasonings consist of soy sauce, seaweed, sake, and mirin, a syrupy vinegar. Dashi is a powdered fish stock used in much cooking. So many flavors come from the sea.