An introduction to the wonders of Japanese food
I have recently come back from living in Japan. I had always been intrigued by Japanese culture and because I didn’t have a mortgage, a dog or children, I thought ‘to heck with it’, why not go and spend some time in the metropolis that is Tokyo. I quit my job and headed over there with two phrases; ‘arigato‘ (thank you) and ‘konnichiwa‘ (hello) in tow. I feared that Japan would not live up to the hype but luckily it fulfilled expectations and I certainly learnt why Japanese food ranks amongst the world’s most loved cuisines. Here is my guide to Japanese food, with everything that I think is important for any visitor.
So where to start. Well as I begin everyday needing breakfast within 5 minutes of waking, let us start there. Breakfast I found was not a big thing in Japan. Many restaurants and cafes are not open until a bit later in the day. In Tokyo, many busy workers grab some sort of bread or onigiri (rice ball) from a convenience store, and they are good to go. There are many excellent bakeries in the cities, that have quite an array on offer. Some of the loaves of bread are a touch sweeter than what we are used to in the West. One of my bakery favourites was melon pan, a classic sweet bun that gets its name, not because it contains melon but because its crunchy topping is scored with crosses to resemble melon skin. If breakfast for you means cereal or granola, then I must warn you that it is ridiculously expensive, which is understandable as it’s more of a Western favourite.
Many people I spoke to would say that a ‘traditional’ Japanese breakfast is no longer the norm for most, especially in Tokyo. Simply because it takes too long to prepare. A ‘traditional’ breakfast usually comprises of grilled fish, rice, miso soup and sometimes natto beans. Natto are fermented soya beans and are hugely popular throughout Japan. They have a somewhat sticky, slimy texture. For me it is the texture more than the taste that is challenging. Visitors to Japan will always be able to sample a traditional breakfast at a ryokan (a Japanese inn), where the meal is always beautifully crafted.
Lunch offers a lot of choice. Bento boxes with a variety of single portion delights are very tempting, and easily purchased from shops and food courts found in the basement of most department stores. They are reasonably priced and very filling. If you go on the Shinkansen (bullet train) be sure to buy a bento before you board, otherwise you will soon be envious when you see fellow passengers tuck into theirs. When I worked at a school, I was surprised by the children’s lunches that had been prepared by their parents. The effort that many Japanese parents put into these lunches is astounding. They included tasty things such as tempura and meat croquettes, and often had rice shaped into cartoon characters with meat or seaweed used to create a picture or design. One parent was particularly artistic, creating Winnie the Pooh with some orange coloured rice, seaweed and tomatoes. Needless to say I was envious of all the lunches, my convenience store rice ball failing miserably in comparison.
Queuing for restaurants and food is commonplace in Tokyo. Being British and a food lover, I would sometimes join a line even if I did not know what I was going to eat at the end of it. Sometimes the result was favourable and sometimes I felt I had been had by a marketing trick. Of course a long queue in any country doesn’t always mean the best food! One current food craze, popular with young people is gyukatsu. You may have heard of tonkatsu, a breaded fried pork cutlet, well gyukatsu is a steak version. I waited over an hour to try it myself and found it bit rich and the breadcrumb coating gratuitous. In Harajuku, a popular hangout for young people in Tokyo, I saw a line stretching around the block and found out it was down to an American chain selling gourmet popcorn. Luckily I had become wise to blindly joining a queue by that point and saved myself the disappointment of waiting hours for flavoured popped corn.
Whether you eat out for breakfast, lunch or dinner, you will find the service in Japan is second to none. It is efficient, yet friendly. Usually when you enter most restaurants, you will be met by the shouts of ‘irasshaimase‘ (welcome). However, unlike service in say America or the UK, waiting staff will not come to your table until you shout out ‘sumimasen‘ (excuse me) and will not check on you after setting down your meal, as this is viewed as an intrusion on your dining experience. You will never have to ask for water, as it is always supplied on your table and you do not have to waste time asking for the bill, as you usually pay at the counter at the end of a meal. Remember to have money on you, as credit and debit cards are not widely used. I always felt extremely welcome in every restaurant throughout my time in Japan, with only one memorable instance of a grumpy waiter. Good service is simply expected and is not at all dependent on gratuity. In fact, you should not tip for anything in Japan, as it can be considered rude.
Many restaurants in Japan are designed with the single diner in mind. From single seated tables to set meals for one, you will not feel out of place eating a meal on your own. For the shy diner there are many restaurants where you can purchase a ticket from a vending machine and pass it without word to the kitchen staff in exchange for your meal. In the ramen chain Ichiran, which has recently opened a branch in New York, you can eat a bowl of ramen at your own private booth. You never see the face of the person serving you but once you are handed your order, a screen comes down so you can pay full attention to the steaming bowl of ramen in front of you.
No article on Japanese food would be complete without some mention of ramen. In London, ramen restaurants have popped up with notable frequency, with Japanese chains such as Ippudo getting in on the act. Of course nothing can beat the ramen you can enjoy in Japan. Every element of a great bowl of ramen is created with time and care. Watch the 1985 Japanese comedy Tampopo to get a sense of how much reverence is paid to each component. (The eagle-eyed amongst you will spot a young Ken Watanabe). A bowl of ramen includes the broth, tare (flavour), noodles and toppings. Most ramen broths are meat or seafood based. The adornments to a bowl of ramen vary but often include chashu pork, spring onions, bamboo shoots and seaweed. A beautifully cooked soft boiled egg is usually optional. Ramen is often categorised by the broth or tare into 4 main categories; miso (fermented soybeans), shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce) and perhaps the most well known outside Japan, tonkotsu (pork bone).
Tsukemen (roughly pronounced skay-men) is not well known outside of Japan but was one of my favourite things to eat. Thick noodles are served separately to a thick dipping sauce. Slurping your noodles is considered polite, although I found this difficult to master and ended up swallowing a lot of air, causing a bout of indigestion. Despite Tokyo having over 200 Michelin starred restaurants, the only one I went to was Tsuta, a ramen restaurant with one Michelin star. Set in a quiet neighbourhood in the north of Tokyo, it holds space for only 9 diners. Customers enjoy their artfully prepared, truffle oil topped ramen in more-or-less silence. The price is still cheap but it does require a lot of free time to get a ticket early in the morning, giving you a time slot to come back later. If you are in a hurry you can always enjoy your ramen at numerous standing restaurants.
Another well known Japanese food you can eat in a hurry, is of course sushi. Even at cheaper standing restaurants or conveyor belt sushi, you can still see that the quality of seafood in Japan is impressive. My absolute favourite thing to eat was raw tuna, which for me rivals any steak. Fatty tuna belly is the most expensive cut and really does melt in the mouth. I enjoyed the tuna most at Uoriki Kaisen restaurant in Shibuya, Tokyo, where they serve it over sushi rice, with tamagoyaki (Japanese omelette), pickled ginger and a perilla leaf for garnish. To see a whole bluefin tuna at Tsukiji Fish Market is a sight to behold and it is understandable why each fish can fetch thousands of yen. I do realise with much guilt that I am part of the demand that is seeing tuna stocks depleted at a rapid rate.
I understand why sushi is so fashionable in the West, as it is a treat for the eyes and for the taste buds. It is also fascinating to see a sushi chef at work. Their use of a knife is an art form honed with much practice. Sushi chefs must train for up to ten years and it is a few years into their training before they even get to handling fish. The documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi shows the dedication one must give to this pursuit. Chefs preparing the delicacy fugu (blowfish), that can be deadly if not handled correctly, must undergo stringent training and also require a difficult to obtain licence. At the other end of the spectrum, you can find what I would class as fast-food sushi, in restaurants where you select your sushi on a screen in front of you and then wait for your order to arrive on a train. The concept is very entertaining but as you can expect from a place that sells carbonara pasta and hamburger sushi, the quality is not the best but still not terrible. One kind of sashimi (raw strips of meat/ fish) I came across and was not keen to try was raw chicken. Apparently the chickens used are salmonella-free but for me the issue is the unpleasant texture.
One thing that I was very eager to try was wagyu, premium, highly marbled Japanese beef. I made the pilgrimage over to Kobe especially to try it. In the West, beef from this region is the most well known, with a lot said on how the cattle are massaged, fed on beer and played music to. In Japan itself, there is debate over where the best beef comes from. Some say Hida beef from Gifu prefecture, whilst others swear it is Matsusaka beef from Mie prefecture. Being an hour’s train away, I made the trip to Kobe. I had the beef cooked teppanyaki style, on an iron griddle in front of me. It was mesmerising to watch the chef expertly cook the beef, cutting it into smaller portions as the fattier parts would need longer cooking. The marbleisation made for a very juicy bite that melts quickly in the mouth. I would say that if you enjoy the richness of bone marrow then you will be sure to love wagyu.
Wagashi refers to Japanese sweets. At any tea ceremony, wagashi is usually served alongside and that is how they are best enjoyed, with green tea. Traditional Japanese confection is a lot less sweet than what we are used to in the West. They often have anko (azuki bean paste) as a key ingredient. Mochi (pounded sticky rice), often with an anko filling, is very popular and has a comforting chewy texture. If you visit Nara, see the fastest mochi pounders around at Nakatanido shop in the city centre. I was very addicted to Dorayaki, little pancakes with anko filling. I love these kind of bean-filled sweets but even I have been duped many times into buying what I thought was a jam doughnut, only to bite in and discover a bean filling.
In Japanese cities, there is always a conbini (convenience store) or two on every road. Unlike a corner shop in the UK, these have a lot of food on offer, from meals that staff will warm in the microwave for you, to hot karaage (fried chicken) and desserts. Not only can you buy food, but you can pay bills, photocopy, send luggage and buy gig tickets; making them truly live up to the title of convenience store. If going to a supermarket to buy food you will be bamboozled by the amount of ingredients you will not know. You might also be shocked by the cost of vegetables and fruit. The high prices are in part down to government protection for Japanese farmers. Japan produces some of the most expensive fruit in the world, which reach near perfection due to selective farming. These are often bought to be given away as gifts. Like in a lot of Asian countries, giving gifts of food is commonplace.
It is relatively difficult to be a vegetarian in Japan, not only because of the high cost of vegetables, but because there is often a meat or fish component in most dishes. For vegetarians, or anyone who loves tofu, be sure to visit a supermarket where the tofu aisle is abundant. You will also see a wide range of pickled vegetables on offer. Pickles are very important in Japanese cuisine and bring an acidic note to any meal or serve as a palate cleanser. If cooking in a Japanese residence, be reminded that like most of Asia, it is not common to have an oven in the kitchen.
Seasonality is pivotal to Japanese cuisine. In spring comes the cherry blossom season, with the flavour of sakura (cherry blossom) prevalent in much of the food and drink. Japanese celebrate with hanami (flower viewing), where they hold outdoor parties with great quantities of food. In autumn, pumpkin and sweet potato are plentiful and included in many food items. You can even find pumpkin flavoured Kit Kats. Whilst on the subject of Kit Kats, you may know that Japan has numerous flavours, such as wasabi and sake but did you know that Kit Kats are given as gifts, usually to students taking their exams. This is because Kit Kat resembles the phrase kitto katsu (you will surely win). Amazing coincidence for Kit Kat!
Drinking culture is big in Japan. In fact it is legal to drink anywhere. Izakayas (a kind of gastropub) are big business. After work salarymen and women often head to an izakaya to wind down. You can have excellent food, with famous snacks such as gyoza (dumplings), yakitori (skewered chicken) and yakisoba (fried noodles) on offer. Asahi is the most famous Japanese beer in the West but beers like Sapporo, Kirin and Suntory are also big in Japan. Whiskey, the drink that Bill Murray promotes in Lost in Translation, is a very popular spirit and often enjoyed in highball cocktails. The Japanese rice wine, sake, is consumed warm or cold and its price and grade is dependent on the percentage of the rice grain that is polished and milled away. If you speak to a Japanese person about sake there may be some confusion as ‘sake’ refers to general alcohol in Japanese. The term they would use is nihonshu.
A couple of points on manners. Most Japanese will say ‘itadakimasu’ before a meal, this doesn’t have an exact translation but appropriates to being thankful for the food. After a meal they might say ‘gochisosama deshita’ (it was quite a feast). This is quite traditional and difficult to say! If you liked the food, you can say it was ‘oishii’ (delicious). Traditionally, it is rude to not finish your food in Japan, so do not order too much. Also, do not stand your chopsticks upright in a bowl. This is true when in China too. It reminiscent of the funeral rite of standing chopsticks in a bowl of rice.
My discussion on Japanese food is not at all exhaustive, it only scratches the surface of what there is to know. There is of course much regional variation that I have not covered but I hope this has given you a helpful introduction. To sum up Japanese food, I would say that it takes a few ingredients and really shows them off to their full potential. The cooking and preparation of food is done with real passion and zest, using ingredients that are always of the highest quality.