Tastes of Japan – Top Dishes for Visitors to Try

Japanese Food
Photo by Jeff Laitila via flickr 

Jeremy Hill, The Daily Telegraph, February 10, 2015

There's much more than sushi for adventurous Britons in Tokyo, explains one long-term expat – just skip the McDonald's squid burger.

“Guess what I saw being sold in McDonald's this morning”, says Richard, as we three expat friends gathered underneath the arches of Shimbashi station in Tokyo. “An ink-squid burger!”

“Sounds horrendous to me,” I reply. “I'd rather stick to the traditional ika maruyaki (whole squid grilled in soya sauce) any day and avoid burgers like the plague.”

“Remember chaps”, says Tony,“you’re in Japan, so no matter how disgusting it seems it will always be oishii (delicious)".

Watch any TV food programme in Japan and celebrities and presenters will declare how delectable the food is before they’ve even tried it. Daytime TV is the same the world over. But a recent survey putting Japan at the top of the list for food enjoyed by expats was, I believe, right. There is plenty this country has to offer the adventurous expat and visitor.

For Christmas, which is celebrated as a festival rather than a religious holiday, Japanese people have adopted the custom of eating fried chicken on Christmas Eve. So much so that if you don’t order in advance, KFC and the convenience stores will have sold out by the time you get there.

New Year is much better with many families either buying or making secchi ryori, a selection of fish and meat, vegetables and pickles elegantly presented in stacking lacquerware boxes. The idea is that over the long holiday the hard-pressed housewife can take a break as families gradually work their way down the pre-prepared dishes, rather like the tiers of a wedding cake, but much more nutritious.

“Can you eat raw fish?” is a standard question asked of foreigners here.

“Yes, but there is so much more to Japanese food than sushi” is my usual response. I, as others do, enjoy very freshly prepared sashimi (slices of fresh, raw fish without the rice base which makes it sushi), and a trip to a kaiten sushi restaurant (conveyor belt style) is a must for all visitors. Even the non-fish eaters can enjoy the experience as all restaurants serve some sushi with egg, small pieces of meat or vegetables on top of the rice ball.

While supermarkets sell a range of imported goods aimed mainly at the expat population, a trip to the local shop will find you all the locally produced meat, fish, fruit and veg needed to prepare a Western or a Japanese meal at home. Unless you can read Japanese though, it can also be quite confusing. Traditionally when I move in to a new place the first meal I prepare myself is a simple spaghetti bolognaise. As a young language student arriving in Japan 36 years ago, I found the minced beef without any problem, and tinned tomatoes were pretty easy; I realised later though that instead of an Italian brand pasta I had managed to make my trademark dish with ramen noodles.

Beyond the tourist favourites of tempura and sushi, what would Japanese friends recommend to foreigners? Naoki was in no doubt. “Go for a kaiseki ryori” he suggested. A multi-course haute-cuisine dinner certainly is the way to experience a wide range of Japanese delicacies both mouth-watering and eye-catching. Each course will be beautifully presented on an individual tray or dish and served by a kimono clad waitress who will introduce each with an explanation of the ingredients and method of preparation. One also has the crockery to appreciate, which in the upmarket establishments may be unique or even antique.

Each course is quite small though, so don’t be fooled into thinking that they are all starters and sit there waiting for your ‘main’ to arrive. Enjoy the experience and the time and effort that have gone in to creating the banquet, preferably in a traditional restaurant with an inner garden and ornamental ponds.

“That’s great for a special occasion, but kaiseki meals are expensive.” I replied.

“In that case I recommend a bowl of soba (buckwheat) noodles; they are basic, but it takes time to prepare properly as the key to the taste lies in the soup," said Naoki.

Each restaurant has its own special recipe for the soup which cannot be written down but only handed down through the generations. Naoki then explained that to enjoy the noodles properly you have to forget those Western table manners and be prepared to slurp in order to fully appreciate the taste and aroma.

Mitsuo, however, recommends an izakaya Japanese bar, similar to the one where we three Brits meet regularly. You can choose across the whole range of Japanese cuisine, and some now have English menus, or at least ones with pictures so you can have a better idea of what you are ordering. They cater to all tastes, from grilled yakitori chicken kebabs to grilled fish, tofu salad and plates of mixed sashimi. Most bars even offer some Western style dishes such as mini pizzas or bowls of chips – if you must.

Whatever your budget, dietary requirements or sense of adventure you can always find some food to enjoy. You will certainly find it ‘oishii’ without even being told so.

Jeremy Hill spent 35 years working as a British diplomat in Japan and stayed there after he retired. Read his blog at jeremyjlhill.com .


This article was written by Jeremy Hill from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.