Japanese cuisine is often renowned abroad for its simple yet delicious and aesthetically pleasing dishes. With the popularization of Japanese pop culture and anime, common and everyday dishes are now sold worldwide. But that is not all. Japanese cuisine has even a greater variety of unique and particular dishes to offer. From simple dishes that are part of the staple diet, to highly renowned delicacies sought by food enthusiasts and critics.
In this list, we will provide a list of unique and delicious dishes in Japanese cuisine that you should try at least once while living in Japan!
This article is a part of our extensive series on learning about Japanese Culture through online Japanese lessons at Japan Switch.
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The Amazing Variety of Japanese Cuisine
There is a lot of variety in Japanese cuisine depending on the region, prefecture, and even time of the year. Japan strongly values the use of seasonal and local ingredients (such as miso, bamboo shoots, yuzu, bitter melon, etc.) in traditional Japanese cuisine. Just by going on a short day trip outside of Tokyo, you can find a great variety of senmon (specialties) that make the town or prefecture famous. It never gets boring because there is always a new dish, dessert, or food item to look forward to.
Because seasons are embedded in Japanese culture, we crafted an Ultimate Guide to Seasons in Japan so you can learn how to best appreciate each one of them.
Another amazing aspect of Japanese culture is that there is an emphasis on not wasting anything, and that also applies to food. Japanese cuisine makes good use of any edible part of animals or vegetables available in the country. Not only is this sustainable, but also becomes a great opportunity to try dishes that we might not be familiar with or are not as common as they used to be (such as gizzards which are intestines).
How Can You Further Explore Japane Cuisine?
Delicious Japanese cuisine is all around you. You just need a little patience, simple research skills, and a bit of courage.
The most common way to find new restaurants nowadays is through the Internet. A quick Google search can save you a long time of walking around and unpleasant experiences. There are a lot of sites, blogs, and web pages dedicated to the best restaurants for a specific dish, cuisine, or area. Japanese people often use the website Tabelog to look up restaurants. The website is available in both English and Japanese with plenty of customer photos, reviews, and menus. You can even make reservations for some restaurants.
Another thing that I like to do to find new dishes or places to eat, is to go on Instagram. One of my personal favorites for Japanese cuisine is @itsho_gourme. There are a lot of Japanese and foreign influencers with pages dedicated to food. These people show newly trending places with interesting and unique food items that you can get. This is also a great opportunity to practice your Japanese if you follow a native influencer.
If you wish for a more organic experience you can do a blind search. You can just walk around an area full of restaurants and cafes and pick the one that inspires you the most. Just be careful of “tourist traps” (restaurants designed to attract naive tourists that charge more than usual and serve average-tasting food at best).
Finally, if you go into a new place or simply want to try something new but don’t know how to choose, ask for the what are the osusume (popular/recommended) options. These are the most popular dishes among customers available on the menu. In some restaurants, they mark the osusume dishes on the menu.
Japanese Cuisine For Fish Lovers: Our Top 7
When you think about Japan and Japanese cuisine, one of the things that come into mind is sushi and more generally fresh seafood. Japanese cuisine can pride itself on offering a high variety and high-quality range of fish. For instance, Japanese maguro (tuna) is renowned worldwide and nowadays a prime bluefin sells on average for 17,000 to 20,000 yen ( $170 to $200) per kilogram. While that might seem a little pricey, a single serving will cost you much less depending on the restaurant.
Besides maguro, there are other delicious seafood and sushi pieces that you can try when going out. If you are a sushi lover and want to show off your knowledge, read our Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sushi: How Much Do You Know?.
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Mentaiko (明太子) means “child of mentai” where mentai refers to a type of fish from the cod family. It is a pollock roe (eggs) that is pickled with different ingredients that make it spicy and give the dish its characteristic bright red color. Mentaiko is a Fukuoka specialty and a popular omiyage (souvenir) for Kyushu.
Fukuoka is an amazing city with so much delicious food that deserves to be visited. If you are thinking to plan a quick trip, check out Top 21 Things to Do in Fukuoka for some inspiration.
Mentaiko is salty and spicy with a seafood flavor but not necessarily fishy. It is served cooked or raw as a side dish when drinking sake. It can also be used as a filling for onigiri (rice balls). In modern Japanese cuisine, you can find mentaiko bread, mentaiko pasta, mentaiko pizza, and several snacks with mentaiko flavor.
You can find mentaiko in sushi restaurants, izakayas that mainly serve fish and seafood (such as Isomaru Suisan), most supermarkets, and Kyushu specialty stores.
Shirako (白子) or milt in English, means white child and is essentially fish semen. It is white and vaguely resembles mayonnaise. Shirako has a mild, subtle flavor, with a hint of fish flavor. It has a soft and creamy texture.
There are different ways you can enjoy this dish. Of course, you can try it raw with some ponzu sauce and chopped scallions. Personally, I really enjoy raw shirako because of its delicate flavor and creamy texture.
Shirako tempura is deep-fried and creates a nice contrast between the warm crispy butter and the soft creaminess of the milt. If you are put off by this dish but still want to try it, this version is probably the most approachable.
Chawanmushi is shirako with egg custard. The egg custard is prepared in a teacup and the milt is either mixed in or added on top. It is fishier with a more umami flavor. You can enjoy shirako at most sushi places and izakaya. The high season is from December to February, so outside of this period of time, it might be harder to find.
Kanimiso (蟹味噌) is a thick paste made with the boiled inner gizzards of fresh crab. Because of its appearance, it is called miso but it has nothing to do with the soup paste. It is light brown or gray, has a creamy texture, and tastes exactly like crab.
You can enjoy kanimiso as a sushi topping called gunkan maki (battleship roll), which is a small ball of rice wrapped around in seaweed with the kanimiso standing on top. Or you can grill the paste inside the crab shells with some chopped onion as a garnish in fish izakayas.
Eihire (エイヒレ) is a grilled and dried stingray usually served with Japanese mayonnaise on the side and sometimes with a soy-based sauce. For an extra kick, you can add shichimi-pepper (a blend of peppers that you can find among the condiments on your table). It is a very popular otsumami (appetizer) in izakayas.
Eihire is one of my favorite things to order at izakayas. It is often served warm, it has a chewy texture, and it goes so well with Japanese mayo. At times it can be quite rough, so be careful to not cut the inside of your mouth.
Takowasa (たこわさ) is the abbreviation for tako (octopus) and wasabi. It is another popular otsumami in izakayas. The dish is essentially raw octopus with wasabi, however, sometimes the octopus can also be cooked. If you have never seen raw octopus before, takowasa might be off-putting. It is chewy, slimy (when raw), and spicy. Takowasa is very easy to eat, you just have to mix it a bit and enjoy it!
Fugu (河豚/ふぐ) is pufferfish, a delicious but possibly deadly fish. Pufferfish contains lethal toxins in some parts of its body. If not cut properly, it can cause you to die. For this reason, the preparation of fugu is highly monitored by the Japanese government. Chefs that aspire to include this dish in their establishments must go under rigorous training to obtain a license. The training lasts a minimum of three years.
Fugu is often served as sashimi, but it is also possible to find it in some special nabe 鍋 pots. To enjoy this dish, you have to specifically look for a sushi place that is authorized to prepare and serve fugu. People say that fugu tastes like a mild whitefish.
If you are not a fan of fugu in your nabe, fear not because there are other types of nabe that you can enjoy. To learn more, check out Ultimate Guide to Japanese Nabe.
Uni (海胆/うに) is the edible part of the sea urchin and is considered a world delicacy. It has a yellow or golden color depending on the quality. Uni has a unique texture and flavor that you either love or hate. It has a savory, umami flavor with a buttery texture that melts in your mouth.
Uni is mostly enjoyed as sushi (gunkan maki) or sashimi but you can also find it as chawanmushi, Ichigo-ni (seafood hotpot from Aomori prefecture), donburi (hot rice bowl), and wafu pasta.
You can find uni in any sushi place, but the quality and hence flavor is gonna vary from place to place.
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Japanese Cuisine for Meat Enthusiasts: Our Top 4
Eating meat in Japan can be extremely enjoyable since Japanese cuisine features different cuts and parts that best suit the feeling of a dish. Not only can you enjoy more common types of meat (beef, chicken, pork), you can also find other types and parts that perhaps aren’t very common to eat for you.
Kobe beef (神戸ビーフ) is one of the prides of Japanese Cuisine. It is the most known type of Wagyu, or Japanese black cattle, when it comes to Japanese cuisine. Other types of Wagyu equally renowned are Matsuzaka and Yonezawa beef.
Kobe beef was first cultivated in 1868, after the Meji restoration era, as a way to introduce Western food habits and culture to Japan. This modern breed of cow was created by breeding native Japanese cattle with imported ones. As of now, Kobe beef is produced in Hyogo prefectures from pedigreed Tajima breed cattle.
Kobe beef is known for its tender, flavorful, and fatty meat that melts in your mouth. It is often served as a steak but can also be served as shabu-shabu and sukiyaki. Compared to regular steak, Kobe beef is in the pricier range. Although the price varies depending on the establishment, you can expect to pay a few thousand yen for a few grams.
If you plan to taste Kobe beef in Tokyo, Hakushu is considered the best Kobe beef Teppanyaki restaurant around. Located in Shibuya, this restaurant won the title “Best fine dining in Japan” on Tripadvisor in 2016.
Motsunabe (もつ鍋) is a type of nabe 鍋 characteristic of Fukuoka. It is essentially a hotpot with pork or beef tripe and other kinds of intestines (or “hormones”), vegetables such as cabbage and leek, garlic, and chili peppers in a broth made with dashi, miso, or soy sauce.
Motsunabe is probably one of my favorite dishes in Japanese cuisine. The organ meat is a bit fatty, soft, and chewy with a mild meaty flavor that makes it so fun to eat. After you are done eating, if you still feel peckish, you can add some noodles to the flavorful broth.
Ooyama Hakata Motsunabe is a famous chain restaurant for mostunabe with its head office in Hakata, Fukuoka. Currently, they have three locations in Tokyo, one in Shinjuku, one in Ginza, and one in Ikebukuro.
Yukke (ユッケor Yukhoe) is a raw beef dish originally from Korea but adopted into Japanese cuisine. Yukke uses lean but also tender cuts of meat that are subject to the same kind of treatment that tartar steak and beef sashimi go under to avoid E.coli contamination. In some restaurants, they use raw wagyu beef instead of regular beef for a more Japanese touch.
This dish is usually seasoned with salt, sugar, black pepper, sesame oil, and garlic and with a raw egg as a garnish. It is a fresh dish with a delicate yet meaty flavor. You can find this dish in some izakayas and yakiniku places.
Basashi (馬刺し) is horse meat sashimi, which means that the meat is served raw. It is a traditional dish of Kumamoto prefecture in Kyushu. There are three types of basashi cut. The first one, toro, is completely lean meat from the rib. The second one is like toro but with some fat strike. And the third one, futaego, is the meat from the horse's neck, it is thicker and has much more fat compared to the previous two.
Basashi is often served with soy sauce, ginger, or horseradish with onions. To avoid bacteria contamination, basashi is served cold, almost frozen in the center. You can just dip the sashimi in the sauce and eat it alone or with a shiso leaf. Compared to other types of meat, horse meat tastes a little bit sweeter.
You can find basashi in some izakayas, such as ロッキーカナィ, or restaurants that specialize in Japanese cuisine from Kyushu.
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Vegan-Friendly Japanese Cuisine: Our Top 3
Traditional Japanese cuisine is not very vegetarian or vegan-friendly. Most dishes feature animal products in their recipes. Apparent vegetarian dishes such as omurice, tamagoyaki, or miso soup contain meat and fish products like tsuyu or dashi which help give the dish its characteristic flavor.
With the announcement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, more vegetarian and vegan places opened up around Tokyo for the international audience. They offer Japanese, other Asian, and Western dishes with plant-based substitutes, making it easier to maintain a vegan lifestyle.
There are however some dishes in Japanese cuisine that are inherently vegan-friendly.
Natto (納豆）is essentially fermented soybeans. It is a dish full of probiotics with the reputation of being a superfood thanks to the Bacillus subtilis bacteria used during the fermentation process. It is believed that Natto is incredibly beneficial to a person’s health. Not only helps lose weight and body fat but also helps with constipation and prevents heart-related diseases thanks to the nattokinase (a natural enzyme that helps thin the blood).
There are many origin stories on how Natto came to be, but it is agreed that the Japanese dish originated in Ibaraki prefecture in the Kanto region at the beginning of the 1800s.
Natto is one of those dishes that you either love or hate due to its uniqueness. Often foreigners are put off by its unique smell and appearance. It has a gooey and sticky texture with a subtle flavor that to some people reminds them of cheese. It definitely takes some time to get used to it.
It is traditionally a breakfast food, often eaten with rice, raw eggs, or seaweed. You can eat it plain or add karashi mustard, soy sauce, or tartar sauce for extra flavor. The mustard adds an extra kick of spice. You can purchase Natto in any convenience store or supermarket for extremely cheap. Usually, a packet with three servings of Natto costs less than 100 yen (less than a dollar).
Other natto-related dishes in Japanese cuisine
If you enjoy natto, there are other dishes in Japanese cuisine that include it. For instance, you can purchase at any convenience store a natto temaki zushi, which is hand-roll sushi rice and natto with a dried piece of seaweed. Or a more modern and fusion-like dish is natto spaghetti, which is pretty self-explanatory. It is natto over a plate of spaghetti, some seasonings such as green onions, and at times a raw egg yolk.
Konjac or konnyaku ( 蒟蒻）is a vegetable root that grows in Asia. It is high in fiber and probiotics, and low in calories, making it a popular ingredient for many types of diets. Because it is highly versatile, it can come in many shapes.
The most common form is in a rectangular block called ita konnyaku. The block is then cut into smaller pieces and used for stir-fry, soup, oden, and other cooked dishes. Sometimes in izakayas, they will offer a small bowl of miso soup with konjac and cooked vegetables, such as carrots, shiitake mushrooms, and potatoes. Perfect for a cold rainy day.
Ita konnyaku can also be cut into smaller and slick pieces. This is called sashimi konnyaku and can be eaten with a sauce made of yuzu and miso, or soy sauce mixed with vinegar or wasabi.
Tsuki konnyaku is konjac that has been cut into long and thin noodles. It is a great substitute for egg regular noodles in stir-fry, soups, and ramen. Konjac can also be cut to the size of a grain of rice. This is called tsuki konnyaku. It can be dried or fresh and it is often mixed with regular rice to reduce the calorie intake of a meal.
You can purchase konjac and its many forms (block, noodles, rice, or sashimi) at any supermarket for 100 to 200 yen (less than two dollars). However, a bag (1.5kg) of dried konjac rice is also available on Amazon for approximately 2,000 yen (around $20). Konjac usually comes in a bag filled with fluid to preserve the product. When you open the bag, It has a fishy smell at first but after it is washed with fresh water and cooled, the fishy smell goes away. The texture is soft and chewy, almost like jello but firmer.
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Japanese cuisine and Izakaya options
Going out to eat and drink at an izakaya is probably one of the most sought experiences when moving to Japan. It is a fun time to unwind after a long day, meet some friends, and taste delicious food.
Check out our Ultimate Guide to Tokyo at Night to find more ways to enjoy Japan after a long day.
Izakaya food is part of Japanese cuisine, some dishes are mostly found only in these establishments and are enjoyed most with alcohol. A dietary lifestyle should not put a limit on what you want to experience while living in Japan.
Some vegan options that you can find in most, if not all, izakayas are:
is a grilled rice ball covered in soy sauce
are boiled soybeans still in their pods sprinkled with a bit of coarse salt. They are best enjoyed with beer.
is silky chilled tofu topped with soy sauce and scallions. It may include bonito flakes, so it is better to ask first. It is perfect for a hot summer day.
is a smaller variety of Japanese green peppers. They have a sweet and mild flavor compared to other peppers. They either come as a grilled skewer or fried (tempura).
means garlic. In an izakaya, ninniku comes as grilled cloves of garlic on a skewer.
is a summer vegetable with a sticky and slimy coat when cut into pieces. It is often served raw or fried.
is a variety of potatoes found in high mountains. It is usually cut into strips. It is white in color and has a slimy coat that covers it.
If you are unsure if a dish is vegan or contains any animal product, don’t hesitate to ask your server. Learn more about ordering food with our Ultimate Guide to Ordering Food in Japanese.
Japanese Cuisine for Sweet Tooths: Our Top 3
In Japanese cuisine, Japanese sweets, or wagashi, are very different from the ones you found in other Western countries. There is a lot of emphasis on presentation and aesthetics. It is a culinary experience that involves not just the taste but also the sight.
Depending on the season, wagashi can take the form of a characteristic leaf and flower or can include those elements as ingredients or garnish. For instance, in the current cherry blossom season, many sweets use sakura flowers.
There is so much more to say about Japanese sweets, for this reason, we wrote an Ultimate Guide to Japanese Sweets.
Anmitsu (あんみつ/餡蜜) is a colorful and refreshing summer dessert that dates back to the Meiji era. It consists of a bowl of agar jelly, anko (sweet red bean) paste, mochi, seasonal and fresh fruits (kiwi, strawberries, mandarin, bananas, etc.), and ice cream.
There are some variations to this dessert. For instance, mitsumame features boiled and peeled azuki beans instead of anko paste. Depending on how you like to eat sweet red beans, you might prefer mistumame over anmitsu.
You can purchase this dessert in many restaurants and shops, such as Kaldi. Mihashi is the most famous store for anmitsu and has many branches in Tokyo.
Raindrop cake, or mizu shingen mochi (水信玄餅), is an evolution of the shingen mochi (信玄餅), another traditional Japanese sweet. It first appeared in 2014 and quickly became popular in Japan.
The raindrop cake takes its name after its round and clear appearance. The dessert is made of water and agar and is often served with kinako powder and black syrup sugar. It has an extremely soft texture with a delicate sweet flavor given by its toppings.
The most notorious place for mizu shingen mochi is a shop called Kinseiken in Yamanashi prefecture, approximately two hours away from Tokyo and accessible with the JR lines.
Ichigo Daifuku (いちご大福) is a variety of daifuku which are mochi (soft rice cakes) with different kinds of fillings, such as bean paste. Ichigo daifuku is filled with anko or shiroan (white bean paste) and a whole juicy strawberry! It has a chewy texture thanks to the mochi with a sweet and tart flavor thanks to the combination of the bean paste and the strawberry.
Ichigo Daifuku is a relatively new addition to Japanese cuisine with its creation in the 1980s. It is seen as a traditional wagashi with a modern twist. The sweet is often found in supermarkets, convenience stores, or traditional sweet stores in winter and spring, which is the Japanese strawberry season.
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Japanese cuisine offers an incredible variety of delicious food from more well-known mainstream dishes to more unique and local ones. It is worth trying each one of them even if you don’t end up liking them. After all, it is part of living in Japan and getting in contact with different aspects of the culture.
Japan is incredibly proud of its cuisine and one way to respect that is to be open-minded about what the country has to offer, even if it is very different from what you are normally used to. You never know, you might even develop new favorite unique dishes that you can introduce to friends and family.