It is said that you can’t have a bad meal in Tokyo, but I don’t think you can have a bad meal in Japan. Everything looked and smelt amazing and it was all new to us.
We always immerse ourselves into the local food wherever we are. Whether it is the traditional food from Thailand or Italy (our two favourite food destinations to date) or cities like New York with their cosmopolitan influences from around the world. Other than sushi, we were pretty ignorant about Japanese food.
The Japanese seem to enjoy eating their own food, as most restaurants, certainly the ones we were exposed to, or sought out, were Japanese, interspersed with a few Chinese and Korean. The Western fast food chains have a presence, but are far between.
The biggest problem was how to plan what to try and when, limited by the size of our tummies. Japanese cuisine made a deep impression – the flavours, the variety, the consistent quality, the friendliness of the staff/owners.
Here are some of the foods that we discovered. There are many more but we have to save something for next time!
Our very first meal in Japan was in a fast food joint, a mixture of diner-type tables and high chairs at counters. We chose it because the pictures looked good and the price looked better and we had a lot to do so didn’t want to spend time in a restaurant, but we needed to sit down. The Japanese patrons (not a tourist in sight) sat hunched over their bowls eating rapidly and then departing – clearly they had things to do – just like us.
We selected by pointing at pictures. We were introduced to the concept of a “set”. Very seldom do you get a single dish when you order. It generally comes with miso soup, and pickles. This meal was some sort of soup and pork fried rice – magnificent. For some strange reason we ordered beer, which neither of us drink, thereby accidentally opening up a whole new world of flavour. Japanese beer is delicious and complements their food so well.
Our first meal
All the restaurants we frequented had pictures of the food. Just as well, as most did not speak English. Even the more upmarket restaurants seemed to have pictures of the food outside, inviting people in. We were hesitant initially, but eventually even went to some places where you selected your dish from a vending machine, paid, received a ticket, sat down and waited for your number to be called and then collected your meals from the serving hatch. The quality of the meals was just as good as waited eateries.
Another simple meal: Gyozos – pan fried, then steamed dumplings, stuffed with pork, spring onions and ginger, or even just vegetables.
The first thing we noticed was how often the word Yaki appears in the names of Japanese dishes. The word “yaki” means “cooked over direct heat” – grilled or hot plate. Some of the best known include teriyaki (meat or tofu cooked in a glistening glaze), yakitori (grilled chicken skewers), sukiyaki (a shallow pan simmering meat and vegetables in broth), and okonomiyaki (“as you like it” — a savoury pancake-like, one-plate dinner filled with vegetables and topped with an assortment of ingredients).
Kushiyaki vs Yakitori
So many foreigners know yakitori, and so many make the mistake that everything skewered and grilled is called yakitori. In fact, everything skewered and grilled is Kushiyaki. Yakitori are just the chicken skewers.
We went to Omoide Yokocho (or Memory Lane), a collection of small bars, yakitori grills and food stalls just outside the west gate of Shinjuku station. Also known as Piss Alley, it contains tiny restaurants seating only holding 6-8 at a counter. We started being choosey, trying to find one with the right atmosphere and the right selection, but they were all packed with tourists and salarymen. Eventually we just chose the one we were walking past as two patrons stood up to leave. Everyone slides down the counter good naturedly, moving their drinks and plates along too. We selected by looking at what everybody else was having as well as the platter of raw skewers. We bravely chose huge chillies. They had no heat but were juicy and delicious.
As usual. we had delicious beers followed by surprisingly fragrant saké.
Okonomiyaki (“how you like it”, grilled) is a batter mixture of flour, yam, egg and cabbage, plus your choice of shrimp, squid, pork, cheese (or all of the above) cooked on a flat iron grill like a pancake.
There are two main types: Kansai (or Osaka) Okonomiyaki : all the ingredients are mixed then grilled – no yakisoba noodles
Hiroshima Okonomiyaki : the ingredients are cooked in layers with yakisoba noodles as a layer
We had our first one (with the lot!) on the 7th floor food hall at the Grand Front in Osaka and it left us wanting another!
Takoyaki– octopus balls? Not exactly an inviting name. They are fried batter balls filled with small pieces of tender octopus, green onions and ginger. Osaka was full of these stands, some with long queues.
It is fascinating watching them being made: Batter is poured into a hot griddle with golf ball-sized indentations. The octopus and other ingredients are tossed in the middle. As the batter becomes partially cooked, the chef uses chopsticks to form the batter into ball-shapes, keeping the octopus in the centre. The perfect Takoyaki is crisp on the outside and juicy on the inside.
Beef, Wagyu, Kobe
It is hard to believe, but beef was officially prohibited for centuries. This was based on both religious and secular reasons. Buddhism introduced principles of respect for life and avoidance of waste in the 6th century. The island nation relied on rice and seafood for protein, minimising resource intensive meat production.
Beef was legalised in 1871 during the Meiji era as part of an effort to introduce western culture to the country. Emperor Meiji ate beef publicly in 1873 to show that it was OK. Directly thereafter, a group of Buddhist monks broke into the Imperial Palace to protest. Half were killed, by the palace guards – the upliftment of the ban remained.
Wagyu is the stuff of legends. Magnificent, purebred, meticulously raised Japanese beef, producing the succulent, marbled delicacy. There are arguments whether Kobe is better than Wagyu. Not amongst the Japanese though! The word wagyu literally translates into Japanese cattle. So Kobe is wagyu.
Yakiniku means “grilled meat”, and supposedly, this dining experience has its origins in Korea.
It consists of pieces of meat and vegetables which you grill on a charcoal burner at your table and dip into a special sauce. We ordered an assortment of wagyu, chicken, whole garlic, pepper, brinjal and mushrooms.
And then some innocent looking chillies……..
Each day as we made our way back to our hotel in Tokyo we passed a restaurant packed with lots of smoke and laughter. On our last night we decided to try whatever it was that made people so happy. Turns out it was Yakiniku!
Tonkatsu / Tonkotsu what’s in a vowel?
Tonkatsu is a fried pork cutlet.
It is breaded with panko, a Japanese style breadcrumb made from white bread without crusts. The crisp and crunchy panko flakes are larger than breadcrumbs and gives it a light and airy texture. Since it absorbs less oil than breadcrumbs, it turns crispy after being fried.
Tonkotsuis a pig bone broth, normally used in ramen.
There is much rivalry between the different ramen outlets for make the Tonkotsu with greatest depth of flavour.
Ramen is a very popular noodle soup in Japan. Ramen noodles are originally Chinese style noodles, but they have changed and evolved to become a favorite Japanese food over many years. Because there are a lot of Ramen restaurants out there – mom and pop restaurants, street carts open late at night, to sophisticated Ramen specialty shops in cities – the competition is fierce. But once they win the battle, customers won’t mind waiting for hours for their Ramen.
There are two main components in Ramen: noodles and soup. The noodles are made from wheat with a firm and chewy texture. The texture is very important as the noodles are soaked in hot soup while eating and might absorb too much liquid and become too soft.
The soup is usually pork, chicken or seafood broth and then seasoned with one of Shyoyu (soy sauce), Miso, or Shio (salt).
We only got round to trying Ramen on our second last night in Japan. What a mistake. It is hard to find words to describe the depth of flavour. We could live on this meal! If we needed any further incentive to return to Japan it would be for bowls of tasty Ramen.
Donburi means bowl – often abbreviated to Don. The varieties of donburi are named after what’s on top of the rice. We had the first three below without specifically looking for them – Donburi is fast food and was generally on top of the menu/specials at the type of places that we frequented. The Kaisendon was a different kettle of fish. This one had sea urchin, three different cuts of tuna, roe and prawn. Totally different price too.
Gyudon – beef bowl. The beef is thinly sliced and pan-grilled with sweet mirin sauce and onions.
Butadon – pork bowl. Thinly sliced pork is grilled with sliced green onion
Katsudon – fried pork cutlet (Tonkatsu). The fried pork cutlet is also simmered with onions and egg
Kaisendon – seafood bowl. An assortment of sashimi
Kushikatsu is yet another dish that is very popular in Osaka with stands and restaurants up every street and side alley
Kushi in Japanese means skewers, and katsu means breaded and deep fried. A wide selection of vegetables and meats, are skewered, coated in a light batter, and deep fried until golden brown.
This was the final item in the trio of fast foods that, although not necessarily very healthy, no trip to Japan can do without- Okonomiyaki, Takoyaki and Kushikatsu
This is street food like no other – fresh, smells to drive your taste buds wild, smiling stand owners proudly producing their speciality. We would arrive at a market and stroll up and down selecting that day’s fare. This is also where the local chefs select the freshest, seasonal produce for their restaurants, so we were in excellent culinary company.
Nikki’s all time favourite – rich, delicious Wagyu soup
Crepes with berries, ice cream and Nutella
Juicy pork dumplings dipped in a smear of Japanese mustard
Take Tamago – Baby octopus lollipop stuffed with a quail egg
Creamy buns – sakura flavour of course
Twirly fried potatoes. Probably not that Japanese, but delicious.
Delicate, melt-in-the-mouth tuna
Takoyaki – Octopus balls
Steamed pork buns, served piping hot
Tender and tasty fried chicken pieces
Tamogoyaki – Japanese Omelette
Steamed squid-ink bun with sea urchin, hot and creamy
Char grilled scallops
Creamy matcha ice cream
These are just the selection of tasty dishes and morsels that we tried over the two weeks of our trip. There was so much more to try, but our tummies eventually protested, so we had to be selective!