Find out all you need to know about the best Japanese food and drinks before your trip.
Japanese food is not so different than the rest of Southeast and East Asian cuisines—majorly based on rice, seafood, and seasonal herbs and spices. Meals include a main course with side dishes, which mainly include a soup and three sides. Heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine, Japanese food doesn’t carry many traces from outer cuisines due to the country’s closed state in its development era. You will find the same dishes served in a variety of ways as you travel across the different geographic regions of Japan. Finding the absolute must-eat food in Japan may be quite overwhelming, so check out this Japanese culinary guide to make sure you know all the essentials. Before you arrive, also keep in mind these Japanese food tips:
Must-Try Japanese Foods
Here are the top dishes of the Japanese food scene that will help you eat like a local:
Sushi is one of the most iconic dishes in international cuisine, and you won’t have a hard time finding it in any of the countries you visit. But, having originated in Japan centuries ago, sushi is more than just food in the island country these days—it is an art form. In ancient times, people would wrap raw fish in fermented rice to preserve it. It has come a long way since then, served in hundreds of shapes and forms in fine dining restaurants and street food stalls. Vinegared rice and a wide variety of raw fish are the main ingredients. Grab your chopsticks, dip a sushi in some hot soy sauce mixed with wasabi, and eat sushi like the locals.
If there is a dish older than sushi in the Japanese food timeline, it is sashimi. A bowl of thinly sliced raw fish seasoned with local herbs and sauces like wasabi and served without rice, sashimi can be quite extreme if you are not used to raw meat. You will find some of the best sashimi in the buzzing Kuromon Food Market. Choose among a variety of meats including chicken, beef, fish, and even horse meat. Go easy on your stomach if it is your first time.
If you have traveled to the Middle East, you are probably familiar with the looks of yakitori—pieces of grilled meat on a skewer. This iconic dish appears in most gastropubs across Japan as a popular bar food. The classical one is made with charcoal-grilled chicken, but you can taste other varieties as well. If you are sensitive about offal, we recommend asking what you are eating before you order. Yakitori is a perfect example of the Japanese food culture of avoiding wastefulness, so all parts of the chicken usually go into yakitori.
The signature piece on every table in Japan, Miso Soup is hearty, delicious, and quintessentially Japanese. You can eat it as a starter or at the end of a meal. Dashi is the main ingredient, and an aromatic mix of vegetables, tofu, and seafood accompany it with the miso bean paste sealing the taste. Miso paste is what gives the soup its unique taste. It is soybeans fermented with salt and some fungus. You will also see the Eastern and Southeast Asian culinary philosophies coming to life in the miso soup, with an appetizing balance of floating and sinking ingredients, and strong and mild flavors.
There is nothing like a bowl of steaming udon customized with your favorite toppings. This popular Japanese food is affordable and available everywhere, varying in different regions of the country. Wheat flour noodles are served in a broth with scallions, fish cakes, veggies, and soy sauce. You will see that the broth is lighter in taste compared to ramen, another iconic Japanese food. This is to highlight the strong taste of the udon noodles. Udon goes perfectly at lunch with a couple of bottles of Japan’s local beers.
Japan’s favorite summer sweet treat, kuzu-mochi is a wonderful variety of Japanese mochi, glutinous rice cake. It is made with the starchy flour named kuzuko. You will find icy cups of kuzu-mochi served cold and topped with roasted soybean flour. You can grab one as you wander the streets of Tokyo, where the best kuzu-mochi is served, as a quick afternoon snack. Its taste is so light and refreshing that you will hardly have enough. If you want a more intense flavor, add some brown sugar syrup.
Must-Try Japanese Drinks
Sake needs no introduction. You are probably familiar with the most famous alcohol in the world fermented from rice, and a forever calling card for Japan’s drinking scene. Sake is the national drink in Japan, consumed daily and on special occasions by locals and travelers alike. It has a balance of slightly sweet, astringent, and savory flavors that will be a feast for your taste buds. The ritual of tasting sake is another experience all by itself. The drink is traditionally served in palm-sized porcelain cups called sakazuki. You can enjoy it at any phase of a meal, but it is best with appetizers and sushi.
Japanese tea ceremony centers around the preparation and drinking of matcha, the green powdered tea that most of the world loves and consumes these days. The distinctive quality of matcha is that green tea plants are grown in shade for three to four weeks before harvest. This method causes the plant to produce more theanine and caffeine. The tea is then made into a powder, and suspended in water or milk as part of the brewery. Theanine’s stress-reducing effect is one of the major appeals of matcha in the western world. But in Japan, you will experience matcha tea in the most authentic way.
Tours visiting Japan
Highlights of Japan