Five Foods You Should Try in Japan
You’re reading this blog because you have some interest in Japan. As such, (I hope that) most of you will go to Japan someday, either for work or for pleasure. When you do, there are a lot of wonderful and surprising things waiting for you. Among them is a variety and quality of food that boggles the mind.
And you probably won’t have time to try everything, either (I lived there for 4 and a half years and still didn’t try everything!). So I’m writing this blog post to help you make sure you have your bases covered.
I won’t bother recommending things like sushi that I know you’re going to eat anyway. This list includes 5 foods that I suspect people might overlook, but which should not be missed.
1. Curry Rice (カレーライス)
I never had curry (of any kind) before going to Japan. Yep, 22 wasted years; sad, isn’t it? If you try nothing else on this list while you are in Japan, you absolutely MUST try Japanese curry and rice.
It has a rich, bold flavor, completely unique from any Indian or Thai curry, and is hands-down the most comforting and satisfying food I have ever had the joy of experiencing.
While curry can be found at many different restaurants (the flavor is always slightly different), I prefer the feisty yet smooth curry at the chain restaurant Coco Ichibanya, where you can customize your curry with different amounts of rice, different spice levels (hint: start with a 2 or 3 max. anything over 4 is nuclear), and a wide variety of toppings.
Coco Ichibanyas also are generally equipped with an English menu (you might have to ask for it), so you have absolutely no excuse not to try it. NONE!
2. Unagi (鰻)
Unagi is eel, and is considered something of a luxury dish in Japan. It has a very soft consistency, and is glazed in what my limited gastronomical vocabulary can only describe as a kind of teriyaki sauce.
Unagi-don (unagi served on bowl of rice) is probably the most common way you’ll see it served, but it’s also great as sushi (even on sushi, unagi is still cooked and glazed).
And note, even if you’ve had unagi in your home country in an Asian restaurant somewhere, I encourage you to try it in Japan again. In my experience unagi outside of Japan is comparatively disappointing.
When I first got to Japan, I was surprised by how many young Japanese told me their favorite food was ramen. I thought, “Really? That cheap, flavorless noodle in a bowl of salt water? You’ve got to be kidding me.” …then I tried Japanese ramen, and begged to be forgiven for the sin of ignorance.
Not only are the noodles and broth incalculably superior to Top Ramen and Maru-chan, Japanese ramen is loaded with goodies like bean strouts, bamboo shoots, beef and pork.
There is a variety of different flavors/styles you’ll find ramen in. Shoyu (醤油: soy sauce) ramen is the “basic” style. Tonkotsu (豚骨: pig bone) is flavored with pork and has an opaque white broth. My personal favorite is Miso (味噌) ramen (spicy if available).
Shabu-shabu is one of the “communal” foods in Japan, typically eaten by a group of people to mark some occasion or get-together (you won’t find anyone eating shabu-shabu alone).
Basically, the restaurant brings out very thin strips of beef and pork, and you cook them by boiling them in a pot of water provided at the table.
But this food is something of a mystery to me. The mystery being the question of why it’s so damn good. The meat? Looks like they didn’t do anything to it. The water? Looks like normal water. The dipping sauces? Good, but the meat still tastes good without it too. So WHY doesn’t it come out this way when I try it at home! Must be Japanese ninja magic or something.
Regardless, shabu-shabu is a great thing to try if you have the opportunity, but you might need a Japanese guide to pull this one off.
Update: Thanks to Bobby on Facebook, I now know that shabu-shabu is not typically boiled in plain water, but instead in a kind of light beef/chicken broth. Mystery solved!
5. coffee jelly (etc.)
I know you’re gonna doubt me on this one. It just seems strange, doesn’t it? Coffee… Jelly. Well, that automatic suspicion is exactly why it’s on this list. Without the extra push, most of us gaijin would turn our noses up at this sort of food and walk away. It sounds neither Japanese nor appealing, so I don’t blame you. After all, it took me the better part of my 4.5 years there to finally take the plunge on this one.
I can’t really say if you’ll like it, but if you like coffee, there’s a good chance. I liked it (a lot). My point here is, Japan is full of seemingly “strange” flavor and food combinations, but if you take your chances in Japan you’ll find that a lot of them are actually really, really good.
If I were you, I would pick up a cheap coffee jelly at the very first convenience store I saw. Consider it an initiation or symbolic gesture that you’re ready to get out there and try new things. Japan is well known for dishes like sushi and tempura, but there are so many littler discoveries out there just waiting to entertain your taste buds. Embrace the spirit of exploration!
Honorable mention: Mos Burger
If you’re in Japan and craving some a burger, don’t go to McDonalds. You can do that back home. Go to Mos Burger. The burgers there run a premium (300-400 JPY), but that premium is easily justified by the freshest ingredients and best taste you’ll find in a fast-food burger. And look: the burger is put together presentably!
What do you recommend?
I know a lot of my blog readers have already been to Japan or are there right now. What food turned out to be better than you thought and what would you recommend to someone coming to Japan on vacation?