If your awareness of Japanese cuisine consists mainly of sushi and sake, a trip to Japan will show you that your dining options extend far beyond those items.
This island country with 47 prefectures has a culinary combination of Western influences and provincial specialties along with regional recipes encompassing ingredients extending to rice, vegetables, tofu, seafood and meats.
For starters, fugu – the poisonous pufferfish that has to be prepared properly by a trained chef – is tied to the city of Shimonoseki, while the prefecture of Hiroshima is known for its oysters. Meanwhile, snow crab is a winter delicacy caught in the Sea of Japan and Pacific Ocean.
Other dishes have gone beyond regional boundaries and have different variations. For example. udon noodles and soba noodles can be served either hot or cold, and where they differ is that udon is white, thick and made from wheat flour, while soba is comprised of buckwheat flour and is similar to spaghetti.
Start off your culinary adventure in Japan with these suggested Japanese dishes.
Ramen varies throughout Japan, but it’s always a comforting dish — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / FilippoBacci
This popular noodle soup dish is categorized by various ingredients and is associated with different regions. While there are over 10 varieties, there are four primary versions. Shoyu is a clear, brown broth with a soy sauce flavoring; Shio is also clear, but with salt; Miso gets its taste from miso paste; and Tonkotsu is a thicker version made from pork bones and originating on the island of Kyushu.
Noodles can be long and straight or thick and wavy, and toppings can extend to slices of pork, chopped green onion, bean sprouts, a boiled egg and seaweed.
Okonomiyaki is layered, rather than mixed, in Hiroshima — Photo courtesy of Michele Herrmann
This savory pancake is a staple in two places, but can be enjoyed throughout the country. In Hiroshima, this soul food came about after World War II, when a shortage of food forced citizens to use whatever ingredients were available to them. Cooked on a griddle and served with a dark sauce, this dish layers cabbage, bean sprouts, noodles, egg and pork.
Osaka has a version of okonomiyaki, too, but their style is sans noodles and can be prepared tableside in restaurants.
Shrimp and vegetables often comprise tempura — Photo courtesy of Michele Herrmann
Tempura is a crispy medley of lightly battered and fried seafood and vegetables. The concept was brought over by the Portuguese, who arrived in Japan in 1543, and it evolved from a similar dish for fried green beans known as “peixinhos da horta.”
Eventually, during Japan’s Edo period, its popularity grew as it became less expensive to make. Everything from shrimp and onion to eggplant and mushrooms can be coated in batter and served with tentsuyu (a soy-based dipping sauce) or salt.
There are some places that allow the customers to make their own takoyaki, but we suggest leaving it up to the pros for your first time — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / PamelaJoeMcFarlane
Meaning grilled octopus, takoyaki is a ball-shaped snack made of bits of octopus, green onions and ginger with a flour base. It’s cooked on a special molded pan that gives them their easily recognized look and texture.
Originating in Osaka, this casual fast food is topped with a Japanese mayonnaise, takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire sauce) and bonito flakes.
Kawara soba is cooked and served on a heated tile — Photo courtesy of Michele Herrmann
Found within the city of Shimonoseki, kawara soba gets its name from the word “kawara,” which means roof tile. That’s because this dish is cooked and presented on top of a heated tile.
Kawara soba consists of green tea-infused buckwheat noddles, slices of seasoned beef and a shredded egg crepe garnish. The dish’s portions are dipped into a warm sauce before eating.
Shabu-shabu involves swirling sliced cuts of beef and vegetables in boiling water — Photo courtesy of Michele Herrmann
This DIY hot pot meal gets its fun name from the Japanese onomatopoeia for “swish, swish” as it’s prepared by swirling vegetables, tofu and thinly sliced cuts of beef into a nabe, a small pot holding boiling water or a broth called dashi. Other meat types and seafood can also be cooked.
Then, the ready-to-eat ingredients can be dipped into a citrusy sauce called ponzu or a sesame seed-based sauce.
Tonkatsu is a pork cutlet that is reminiscent of schnitzel — Photo courtesy of Michele Herrmann
Similar to schnitzel, this deep-fried pork cutlet gets coated in panko flakes or breadcrumbs. It often comes with a serving of a mustard or Worcestershire-style sauce and is paired with shredded cabbage, rice, miso soup and pickles known as tsukemono.
It also can become the topping for a Japanese curry rice dish called katsu curry, the filling for a sandwich known as katsu sando and an inclusion in a rice bowl named katsudon.
Wagashi are often as adorable as they are delicious — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / yumi
Wagashi are Japanese confections with various consistencies and tastes. Taiyaki is a crispy, fish-shaped snack made from batter and stuffed with a bean paste filling. It can also include more modern tastes like custard or chocolate.
Manju is a small bun treat filled with a a sweet bean paste. One type found on the island of Miyajima in Hiroshima is called momiji manju and it’s shaped like a maple leaf. Daifuku consists of a mochi (a soft rice cake) that gets an inner layer of bean paste and sometimes fruit such as strawberry. And dango is a set of small and sweet dumplings on a skewer.
Sheets of yuba have many culinary uses — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / Images_By_Kenny
A vegan Buddhist delicacy in Nikko and Kyoto, yuba (which is also known as tofu skin) is a film that forms on the surface of boiling soy milk. This byproduct is then collected and dried into yellow sheets. Don’t let its description discourage you from trying it, though.
When used for a meal, the sheets are moistened to a silky and light texture. Yuba can be eaten by itself or paired with vegetables, included in a soup, or used as a sushi wrap. Its taste can be sweet or savory, depending upon its accompanying condiment.
Yakitori is often found in take-out shops — Photo courtesy of Getty Images / fannrei
With this inexpensive dish, bite-size pieces of grilled chicken get placed on skewers and cooked on a grill. Various versions of this dish encompass different parts of poultry, from thighs to livers to wings.
One style is called torikawa, which uses the fatty portion of a chicken and is cooked until it’s crispy. As a barbecued meat, yakitori usually gets a good coating of tare, a soy and rice wine sauce that gives it a nice flavor.