Japan is well-known for its food culture, particularly its cuisine. While many cuisines might seem exotic to Westerners, the subtlety of Japanese dishes has made it popular worldwide. Indeed, even people in Japan other than those who eat out at restaurants – mostly businesspeople and university students – often choose to make meals at home instead of buying them ready-made.
With this in mind, here are 10 types of traditional Japanese cuisine which you should know about:
This dish originates from Kamameshi Prefecture (southwestern Honshu), but it is available all over Japan nowadays. Its name comes from the style in which it is cooked (kama means ‘pot,’ meshi means ‘rice’). It resembles a rice casserole: rice and other ingredients such as meat, vegetables and mushrooms are layered inside a donabe (Japanese pot), and then cooked with steam. When done right, the rice at the bottom becomes crispy while the rest of the rice mixture is very tender.
Sukiyaki is one of Japan’s most popular dishes outside its borders, but it is also enjoyed nationwide. It consists of sliced beef cooked in a broth of soy sauce and sugar, along with shirataki noodles, vegetables such as enoki mushrooms and negi (a type of Japanese green onion), tofu and anything else that could fit into the cooking pot. After all ingredients have been boiled to a point where they’re very tender, it is customary to stir the mixture and drink the sukiyaki sauce straight from the pot.
While people outside Japan often wrongly assume that ramen is Japan’s most popular noodle dish, soba and udon reigns supreme in Japan as well as other countries where Japanese food culture has made its mark. While soba noodles are prepared with buckwheat flour (soba means ‘buckwheat’), udon consists of wheat flour (udon refers to a type of dumpling). Either way, both dishes are enjoyed across all seasons because of their adaptability; they can be served hot or cold depending on the time of year.
Miso is a traditional Japanese seasoning made from soybeans fermented with salt and koji. The most common types of miso soup are those containing tofu, seaweeds such as wakame or nori, and vegetables. In recent years there has been a rise in the number of restaurants offering miso soup containing seafood as well as meat, thanks to an increased interest in international cuisine. This can be attributed to Japan’s growing tourism industry and its evolving food culture.
Tofu is another one of Japan’s staple foods that can easily be found all over the world now. It has a long history: it is said that Prince Shotoku first encouraged people to eat tofu during the Asuka Period (538 to 710 AD). Two types of tofu are available in Japan. The first is ‘silk-cut’ tofu, which consists of tofu squeezed between pieces of cotton gauze, then immersed in water to remove excess oil. The second type is firm or soft bean curd that can be sliced or cubed for cooking.
Sashimi refers to thinly sliced raw meat and fish served with soy sauce, wasabi and other condiments. It is usually made from seafood, but other meats such as beef can also be used. Sushi often contains sashimi as well; the main difference is that sushi uses vinegared rice instead of plain rice seasoned with soy sauce or other ingredients.
Yakitori is made with all sorts of ingredients that are skewered on bamboo sticks then grilled over charcoal. It can be enjoyed at yakitori restaurants, but it is also sold in convenience stores as a popular snack food. Yakitori places are typically bustling with energy thanks to the lively atmosphere inside and people who eat while standing outside, hoping to catch some other customers passing by.
Similar to Korean barbecue, yakiniku – which means ‘grilled meat’ – consists of thinly sliced meat cooked on ceramic grills set into tables. Usually yakiniku places offer various cuts of beef such as skirt steak, short ribs and rump steak along with pork belly. The side dishes usually consist of vegetables marinated in a homemade sauce. One interesting thing about yakiniku is that people often go out to eat this dish with family or friends and cook the meat themselves at their table(s).
Okonomiyaki literally means ‘grilled as you like it’. The name comes from the fact that diners can choose whatever ingredients they want for this popular Hiroshima dish, including seafood, meat and vegetables, then watch as it is grilled right in front of them. A thick batter containing flour, grated yam and egg is poured onto a hotplate where cabbage stir-fried with chopped onions, ginger and other condiments are mixed in. Once the okonomiyaki is ready, it is topped with okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise and dried seaweed.
Curry is a dish that originated in India but is popular all over Southeast Asia. Japanese curry was influenced by Britain when Japan started trading with England during the Meiji Period (1868 to 1912). Japanese curry is thicker than its Indian counterpart because flour is added to thicken it up. It also contains roux so has a creamy consistency rather than being spicy hot, which makes it perfect for eating with rice, bread or crispy fried pork cutlets known as tonkatsu.
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