Japanese food: “what else is there to discover?” you may ask.
As with Italian, Mexican and a few other world-famous cuisines, we’re all so familiar with some of their trademark dishes (or, at times, with the poor versions served in our respective countries) that we tend to forget how much more there is to them.
Food was certainly one of many, many highlights of my first visit to Japan. Not just because pretty much everything I ate was delicious and surprisingly affordable (specially compared to the astronomically high prices of accommodation), but also because I discovered some new dishes and flavors I wasn’t expecting to find.
Here they are:
1. Hida Beef Mabushi
Made with the high-quality, certified, local Hida beef, this dish is best eaten in three stages. In the first one, the thin, juicy beef strips are mixed with plain rice. When all that’s left in the bowl is rice, you add some more beef and some assorted vegetable toppings and pickles (see photo). Finally, you add the remaining beef and toppings into the bowl, and pour some broth to finish your dish as a rice soup.
It’s subtle, filling, full of flavors and extremely satisfying.
Where you can eat it: I had it at the Takumi-ya Restaurant in Takayama, a charming city in the Central Honshu region.
How much you will pay: 1,800 yen (about €13-$15), or 1,500 yen if you go for regular instead of Hida beef.
2. Gyoza (Dumplings)
Yes, this one’s a classic amongst all Japanese food dishes. Pretty much everyone has tasted them and love them. Me, I like gyoza with such passion that I almost tend to distrust anyone who doesn’t. Naturally, when I read there was a small restaurant in Tokyo that serves nothing but gyoza (mostly), I was all over it.
What did I have? You guessed it: half a dozen grilled (yaki) and half a dozen boiled (sui) gyoza, washed down with a large, cold Kirin beer sitting at the bar. Pure bliss.
Where you can eat it: a small restaurant called Harajuku Gyoza Ro, in the trendy Harajuku district of Tokyo. There is no English sign at the front, so make sure you look up the place beforehand if you won’t be having a mobile internet connection (you can find very detailed directions here).
How much you will pay: about 600 yen (roughly €4-$5) for a dozen dumplings.
A hearty stew or hot pot with chunky flat noodles, vegetables and meat. The miso-based soup is thick and packed with flavors. This is precisely the kind of food you feel like eating after a long day hiking in the mountains, as it will warm you up and leave you feeling well nourished. The pronunciation is something like “hou-tou” (as in “toe”).
You can find vegetarian versions of hoto, like mushroom or azuki bean hoto, or meat-based ones made with pork, beef, boar, duck, bear or even turtle.
I ordered the one with beef and it came in a rather large pot that would have easily fed two or three people. I’m not ashamed to admit I wolfed it down without any assistance.
Where you can eat it: in the Yamanashi prefecture where this dish is typical from. I had it at a nice restaurant in Kawaguchiko (in the Five Lakes area near Mt. Fuji) called Kosaku.
How much you will pay: about 2,000 yen (€14-$16) for the beef hoto; 1,500 for the mushroom or the pork one, and double that if you go for bear or turtle.
4. Spicy Miso Ramen
For some reason, other than being extremely versatile and appetizing, ramen soup recipes have become wildly popular in the last few years.
An entire generation of college students seem to have survived largely on ramen noodles (the packaged ones, it goes without saying). In time, this has developed into an appreciation for more sophisticated, freshly cooked versions of ramen, and an almost cult following.
Where you can eat it: where can you not, in Japan. I had them in Tokyo, one day when I was looking for the extremely popular Kikanbo noodle shop. I couldn’t find it, and ended up at another tiny noodle shop the name of which I don’t even know (there were no English signs outside).
I was not disappointed at all, even if one (and my tongue and mouth back then) could argue that I went overboard with the chili flakes in an unnecessary try to make it even more spicy-hot.
How much you will pay: 800 yen (about €6-$7) for a huge bowl.
This is one that surprised me greatly, as I’d never heard of it. People like to assimilate them to pancakes, or pizza, but it is really neither.
Okonomiyaki is a pan-grilled mix of batter and cabbage, topped with pretty much any kind of toppings you like (in fact, “okonomi” means “to your liking”): meat, seafood, vegetables, cheese… In that sense, okonomiyaki does resemble pizza.
In some places, you can sit at the bar and the dish is prepared on a griddle right in front of you (like the one in the photo). The finishing touches include a generous dose of mayonnaise, and fish shavings added just before serving it on the plate.
What can I say? It’s pure genius.
Where you can eat it: while it’s more popular in Western Japan (notably Hiroshima and Osaka), you can find it elsewhere. I had it at Kyo Chabana Kyotoekimae, in Kyoto.
How much you will pay: around 1,800 yen (€13-$15), not dirt-cheap, but unless you are famished, one will be enough for a meal.
6. Kakuni Udon
There’s a lot to sink your teeth into in this simple-looking dish. Again, we’re in noodle soup territory, this time with the thick, chewy udon, one of the most popular noodle varieties in Japan.
The meaty part comes courtesy of kakuni, pork belly cuts slowly braised in soy sauce and sake until they are glazed and impossibly tender. Yes, it is fatty, but oh so tasty, and it melts in your mouth.
Garnish with chopped green onions, pickled vegetables and any other of your favourite toppings, and there it is: perfection. Apparently it is also great eaten with plain rice.
Where you can eat it: this is a traditional Japanese recipe, so I’m guessing you can find it in many places. I had it at a small, unassuming restaurant in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.
How much you will pay: around 600 yen (€4-$5) for a large bowl of goodness.
Have you tasted any of these Japanese dishes? Which is your favourite? Do tell by leaving your comment below!