Japanese cuisine is far more diversified than the plethora of sushi restaurants overseas might otherwise suggest. Furthermore, the quality of the food is unrivaled. This is partly driven by the Japanese people’s fastidiousness about the sourcing and freshness of what is on their plate—in the supermarkets you will often see the origin of domestic produce right down to the exact region of Japan and sell-by dates precise to the hour.
Tempura is a dish of fish and vegetables that have been lightly battered and then deep-fried. While it may initially conjure up images of British fish and chips, the texture is very different: the fish and vegetables are only deep-fried for a matter of seconds, resulting in a very thin, fluffy, crisp layer of batter. Pretty much any type of fish or vegetable can be made into tempura, but the most common ingredients are shrimp, squid, bell peppers, aubergine, mushrooms, kabocha (a variety of squash), and shiso leaf. It is typically served with cold soba noodles. Within Tokyo, Asakusa is famous for tempura.
Shabu-shabu consists of dipping very thin slices of beef or pork into a boiling soup (the name derives from the sound that is emitted when the ingredients are stirred in the pot). Once the meat is cooked (which doesn’t take long), it is dipped in a choice of condiments. There are many all-you-can-eat (tabehodai) all-you-can-drink (nomihodai) shabu-shaburestaurants around Tokyo. Prices can vary, but ¥4,000–5,000 is fairly typical (two-hour limit).
Pretty much anything can go into okonomiyaki and monjayaki (in the same way we might add different ingredients to an omelette). For okonomiyaki, once the pancake mix has hardened, seaweed flakes, pickled ginger, and a healthy squirt of mayonnaise and okonomiyaki sauce (a bit like a sweet brown sauce) are put on top and it is sliced and served. Monjayaki doesn’t get this dressing and is instead eaten straight off the metal hot plate (you will be given small metal scrapers).
Part of the appeal of both okonomiyaki and monjayaki is the fact that you make them yourself in the restaurant. The waiter will bring only the ingredients and light the burner for the large, flat metal grill on the tabletop—after that you are on your own! Well, sort of. You can ask them to do it for you, but that would detract from the fun. Monja Street in Tsukishima is famous for the food.
O-den is a Japanese soy-based broth containing boiled eggs, fish cakes, and root vegetables typically eaten in winter. If you are visiting during the colder months you will see o-den being sold next to the cash points at convenience stores, but there are also restaurants that specialise in the cuisine.
Yakiniku (“grilled meat”) is an indoor Japanese barbeque. The grill sits in the middle of the table with a metal gauze on top. Above there will be an extractor fan, the mouth of which extends down from the ceiling. You order meat by the plate and it comes raw in bite size slices (alongside various condiments) for you to place on the grill and cook as you please. For meat-lovers, it’s about as good as it gets. There are also yakiniku restaurants which specialise in offal (horumon).
Kushi-katsu (or kushi-age) are deep fried skewers of meat and vegetables. Originally from Osaka, kushi-katsu restaurants can be found here and there throughout Tokyo. Many serve a set menu of 8-10 sticks with several condiments in which you can dip the skewers. In some restaurants, however, you will find a shared pot of dipping sauce on the table or bar counter, in which case you should only dip your kushi-katsu once into the sauce (i.e. not after you have taken a bite). While kushi-katsu sounds like tempura, the coating is different. Kushi-katsu uses breadcrumbs and egg in the coating, whereas tempura uses water and a lighter flour. The result is that kushi-katsu has a slightly heavier and oilier texture than the more delicate tempura. Moreover, kushi-katsu can contain sausage, pork, beef, and so on; whereas only fish and vegetables are used in tempura.
Japanese ramen consists of noodles, a little meat, a few other toppings, and a soup (usually miso or soy sauce flavoured). Different regions have their own type of ramen, the two most famous being Kyushu (ton-kotsu ramen) and Hokkaido (miso ramen). It’s rare to order at the counter in ramen restaurants. You will normally find a vending machine near the entrance with the different type of ramen and side dishes sold written on buttons along with the price. Insert money into the machine, make your selection, and a little ticket will pop out with your change at the bottom. Hand this to a member of staff, sit down at the counter, and wait for your order.
Yakitori (“grilled chicken”) restaurants are found throughout the city. This cheap, no-nonsense food is especially popular among salarymen who head to the restaurants in droves once work is done. They are often smoky and rowdy places where many are letting off steam. While you do get your fancy yakitori restaurants, eating in the backstreets is the proper way to enjoy this food. The skewers are seasoned with either salt or tare (a sweet, thickened soy sauce). See here for a one-sheet guide to yakitori.
Ton-katsu is a breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet. Served with shredded cabbage, ton-katsusauce (like a thick Worcestershire sauce) and karashi (Japanese mustard), it is a popular lunchtime dish. You can also find the pork cutlets in sandwiches (katsu-sando) and in Japanese curry (katsu-kare). Some restaurants will offer the choice of pork loin (rosu-katsu) or pork fillet (hire-katsu). Since opening in 1939 Tonki in Meguro has remained a local favourite for ton-katsu (no reservations; expect to queue).
Soba (buckwheat) noodles are especially popular in Tokyo as a sort of healthy fast food. Often served as a complimentary dish to tempura, soba can be served cold or in a hot broth. When served cold you will be brought a pot of soba-yu (the drained hot water from boiling the noodles) at the end of the meal which you can use to dilute the remaining tsuyu (dipping sauce) and make it into a hot drink.
O-sechi is traditionally boiled vegetables flavoured with soy sauce or sake and is eaten over New Year. Today the boxes sold at department stores at the end of December come with pickles, prawns, seaweed, and so on; although some Japanese do make o-sechi at home. O-sechi is served cold and has quite a strong taste (owing to the soy sauce).
No trip to Tokyo—or any other part of Japan, for that matter—would be complete without at least one meal of sushi and sashimi. Sushi is synonymous with Japanese cuisine, although consumption of fish per capita has been on a downward trend since the early 2000s as the cost of fish has increased and eating habits, influenced by international cuisine, have changed. In the surf versus turf war beef consumption officially overtook that of fish in 2005. Nevertheless, sushi and sashimi remain a huge part of Japanese cuisine and general culture. Whereas sushi is raw fish placed on top of rice (usually with a little wasabi), sashimi is simply raw fish. It is usually dipped into soy sauce into which a little wasabi has been mixed to taste. In Tokyo, the outer market of Tsukiji Fish Market is the go-to choice. Ginza is also excellent. There is a one-sheet guide for restaurants here.
Taking its name from the French “croquette” its origins might not be Japanese, but try telling that to anyone in Japan. Served on their own with ton-katsu sauce (like a thick Worcestersauce) or placed between bread slices to make a korokke-sando, they are a firm favourite among all ages.
Curry rice (kare-raisu) might just be Japan’s national dish. But this is not the spicy Indian variety that you might more commonly associate with the word. Introduced during the Meiji Era (1868–1912) by Indian traders, it has been adapted to Japanese tastes to the extent that it really is uniquely Japanese. The thick, brown curry sauce known as ru (from roux, the French sauce-thickener) is much sweeter and mellower than its Indian counterpart. It is a firm favourite lunch time meal for Tokyo’s office workers and students, and is often served with ton-katsu (pork cutlets) in a dish called katsu-kare.
While jiaozi, the Chinese steamed dumpling, is more commonly known elsewhere, in Japan their pan-fried cousin, gyoza, is practically a staple food. A mixture of minced pork, cabbage, nira (Asian onion), sesame oil, and garlic, the dumplings are fried and then dipped in a condiment of soy sauce, vinegar, and raiyu (Chinese chili oil). Gyoza can be found in just about every ramen restaurant in Tokyo; however, like many things, there’s gyoza and then there’s gyoza. The ¥250 side plates of gyoza found in the ramen chains don’t do this godly food justice. You need to find a specialist gyoza restaurant, head there on an empty stomach, and wash a couple of plates down with cold bottles of Japanese beer. Heavenly. Incidenally, Utsunomiya, north of Tokyo, is famous for the dumplings.
An abbreviation of “omelette” and “rice” this is a firm favourite among kids and adults alike. Essentially just fried rice covered with a thin layer of omelette and topped off with a healthy dollop of ketchup, it is a very popular lunch dish.
The literal translation of shirako is ‘white children’ and it is the sperm sacks of cod (called ‘milt’ in English). Even amongst Japanese, shirako is a bit of an acquired taste and the creamy texture does not sit well with some. Shirako turns a brilliant white when cooked but can also be consumed raw.
Shiokara—or “salty fish guts” if you prefer the English–is probably the most challenging delicacy for foreigners (not to mention, some Japanese, as well). I must admit, I have unwittingly eaten this on handful of occasions (assuming that it was just some sort of odd fish in paste) and it’s not as bad as it sounds. Now it sounds awful, so that doesn’t provide too much comfort, but if you feel you’re up to it then you just might find yourself liking it…
Mochi is just rice cake, traditionally made by soaking the rice grains overnight, cooking and then pounding them in a laborious process which ends with shaping the sticky mass into various shapes. Ironically, this innocuous rice cake is the most dangerous on the list. Typically consumed around New Year, the gooey, glutinous lump has been the cause of numerous deaths over the years as people literally try to bite off more than they can chew. Each little block contains about 3/4 of a bowl of rice so they might not be the best option for those watching their waistline.
Basashi—raw horse meat—is not for everyone. At least in northern Europe and the U.S., horses are seen as majestic creatures and the thought that like cows, pigs, and lambs they might be marked up for the slaughter house is anathema to some. But you really would be missing out if you turned this one down–from the taste to the texture, horse meat is truly a secret delight. Not served in all that many places in Tokyo, if you’re going to give it a try you might be advised to head to a slightly more expensive izakaya.
Sashi means to cut and tori is chicken—so torisashi are thin raw slices of chicken. Yup. Forget those times when you’d make sure the chicken isn’t still pink inside—no flame has touched these treats. If it puts you at ease, like everything else in Japan, the chicken will be super fresh so you need not worry about salmonella or the like. Torisashi actually doesn’t have much of a flavour, it’s more about the texture.
Derived from the word “hormone”, horumon is actually beef or pork offal and can be ordered at most yakiniku restaurants. We’re not just limiting ourselves to some kidney or heart, however. Lung, intestine, uterus—it’s all out there to be grilled and consumed. Slimy, chewy gut fat might not appeal to most, but there are many yakiniku restaurants that specialize in horumon.
Literally translating as ‘soft bone’, nankotsu is chicken cartilage and is a fairly standard item on the menu at any yakitori restaurant. Unsurprisingly, it has a texture half way between crunchy and chewy. You can also find a deep-fried nankotsu in some izakaya.
A popular food made from fermented soybeans, natto is a bit like the Japanese Marmite: you either love it or hate it. For many, natto on rice is the best way to start the day; for others natto’s odour and slimy texture is just too much. It can be purchased at any convenience store in Japan, coming in a little white container. Before eating you should stir the contents with a pair of chopsticks.
Shishamo is a small salt water fish called “smelt” in English. You eat the whole thing including the head. Shishamo is served with the roe (fish eggs) inside. Often grilled and sometimes fried, I’ve got to tell you: they go really well with beer…
Wagashi (Japanese sweets) are often served as a compliment to matcha, in much the same way you might you might get a biscotti with your capuccino. The almost always comprise of a mochi pastry and contain red bean paste made by boiling and mashing adzuki beans and mixing with the paste with sugar and honey. Red bean paste is not unique to Japan and can be found in other Chinese and Korean sweets (e.g. Chinese mooncake).
A classic o-tsumami (snack to go with alcohol), there are many different types of dried fish available in the supermarkets, but the staple is probably dried shredded squid. With quite a distinct flavour and an extremely chewy texture, it might not at first appeal, but give it a little while and you might find yourself reaching for more…
Matcha is fine powdered green tea. In the West, we often think of green tea as the pale green alternative to black tea, but the powdered form has just as much history. Originally brought over from China, matcha has been usurped as a Japanese tea over the years and ingrained in the culture to the extent that the method of preparing and pouring matcha has been turned into an art (sado) and formal matcha gatherings (chaji) can last for hours. So much for a quick cuppa. Pure matcha is served at specialist tea houses, but other forms such as matcha latte can be found in Starbucks and other cafes.
Nihon-shu or rice wine is produced via a brewing process like beer rather than a distilling process like whisky, resulting in an alcoholic drink of about 20% strength. In the more traditional izakaya, nihon-shu may be served in a masu, a square, wooden box that was used to measure rice during feudal times. It can be drunk cold (tsumetai) or hot (atsukan).
With its more earthly flavour, shochu is difficult to confuse with nihon-shu (although both are typically as clear as water). Distilled through barley, potatoes, buckwheat, or rice, its alcoholic content is usually around 25%. It is used as a base in many Japanese cocktails.
Wine is probably the last alcoholic drink you would ordinarily associate with Japan, but its popularity has been increasing sharply since the late 2000s. Yamanashi and Hokkaido are the main producing regions and in recent years a number of wine bars have sprung up in the capital which specialise in Japanese wine (try Grande Polaire on Corridor Gai).
Whisky has a considerable history in Japan. Torii Shinjiro, the founder of the major global beverage company, Suntory, built his empire on a desire to produce whisky in Japan. Relative to Scotch whisky the market is largely domestic, although exports (especially to other Asian countries) have been on the increase since the mid-2000s—a trend which shows no sign of abating. Taketsuru Masataka is the other major name in the history of Japanese whisky. Masataka travelled to Scotland in 1918 to study chemistry but ended up working in distilleries and marrying a Scottish woman, Jessie Cowan, with whom he travelled back to Japan to start what was to become Nikka Whisky. The story is well-loved by Japanese and the NHK drama Massan, a partly fictional account of the beginnings of Nikka Whisky broadcast in the morning in 15-minute episodes, is extremely popular.
Hoppy, which first came onto the Japanese market in 1948, is a 0.8% alcoholic beverage designed to be mixed with shochu as a substitute for beer (which was not affordable for many in the immediate post-war years). Especially popular in Tokyo, it is typically found at the more traditional izakaya, having seen something of a revival in the past decade. The name derives from a mix of “hops” and “beer”.
Japanese beer has been gaining popularity abroad over the past decade and today many bars outside of Japan will serve Asahi or Kirin on tap. While craft beer does exist, the vast majority of restaurants and izakaya will serve beer from one of the big four manufacturers: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory.
The beer market in Japan is split into two categories: beer and the beer-like happoshu. The latter exists because of the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese tax system which previously stipulated that a beverage is classified as beer if the weight of the malt extract is greater than 67% of the fermentable ingredients (and thus was subject to a higher tax rate). As a result, the industry responded with 65% malt products, to which the Japanese government replied by lowering the malt threshold to 50%. Predictably, manufacturers released products containing less than 50% malt in this race to the bottom. Today most happoshu contains less than 25% malt and the tax on these products is roughly 60% that of beer. Some of the cheaper izakaya will serve happoshu instead of beer. Within Tokyo, Asahi, Kirin, and Yebisu (Sapporo) each have their own chains of bars used partly as a marketing tool for the brand. The most common one is probably Kirin City, which serves every variety of beer offered by the manufacturer. Beer can also be purchased at some vending machines.