Sushi is definitely among the best traditional Japanese dishes but what if we had to go beyond the delicious seaweed-wrapped rolls? When it comes to cuisines of the orient, Japanese is one of the best known. Japanese food also makes us think of fine dining restaurants and lots of rice, noodles, and fish.
And let’s not forget that Japan also gave the world the gift of instant noodles! Most top luxury hotels in the world include a Japanese restaurant among their dining options and with good reason. Let’s take a look at the 18 best traditional dishes of Japanese cuisine, which is both healthy and delectable.
Although we’re most familiar with the rolled up form of sushi (makisushi), it is actually only one of many varieties. To qualify as sushi, the dish only needs to include Japanese rice flavoured with rice vinegar as its main ingredient. Beyond this, vegetarian and/or non-vegetarian elements may be added to the sushi. Makisushi involves sushi rice and various fillings rolled up in black seaweed sheets called nori. It is a popular fixture in sushi platters. Then there’s also inarisushi, which is sushi rice in fried tofu pockets, and nigiri sushi, which is a small dollop of sushi rice with a sliver of raw fish on top. Interestingly, sushi entered the American market as early as 1868!
Following on the heels of sushi, sashimi is definitely among the best traditional Japanese dishes. This dish is not for the faint-hearted as it’s made up of extremely thin slices of raw fish or meat. But the dish has a lot of flavour due to the accompaniments, including the ubiquitous soy sauce and wasabi, along with pickled ginger and daikon radish. It’s true that the Japanese love rice, but it doesn’t make an appearance in sashimi. You have to be very careful about where you decide to sample this treat, as raw dish can easily be contaminated. Make sure your sashimi is made with the freshest fish.
If you’re invited to dinner at a Japanese household, chances are, you’ll find Miso soup on the table. This salty broth is prepared mainly with miso paste, which consists of ground-up fermented soy beans. Bu the dish also includes dashi stock, which is made from umami-rich dried ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, kombu kelp seaweed, sardines, and bonito fish flakes. To jazz things up, pieces of tofu, scallions, and wakame seaweed may be added to the soup. Miso soup is a versatile dish, routinely featuring in all meals of the day.
It would be hard indeed, for a Japanese epicurean to choose between rice and noodles. And one of the most unique types of noodles in Japanese cuisine is Udon. They are thick wheat noodles that can be really chewy. You’ll usually find Udon noodles in soups and hot pots, which feature a variety of ingredients. But they can also be added to stir fries. A bowl of hot Udon soup with fresh vegetables can make for a very healthy meal. If you want to romance these noodles further, try kitsune udon, where the noodles are garnished with fried tofu. Or you could go for tempura udon, which is of course, udon with tempura (fried vegetables or seafood). There’s also chikara udon, where grilled rice cakes are added to the noodles.
It’s about time we featured a snack on this list, don’t you think? Gyoza are absolutely delicious crescent-shaped dumplings usually filled with savoury, minced pork with scallions, mushrooms, and cabbage. The covering of the dumpling features pleated edges on the lines of many other dumplings in India and the orient. However, the process of preparing gyozas is a little different from regular dumplings. It is a combination of frying and steaming, with the gyozas being pan-fried first to make them crisp, and then steamed to endow their wrappers with the silky-smooth texture typical of dumplings. Bite into it, and your mouth is filled with moist and juicy meat and vegetables!
Continuing with ‘snacky’ traditional Japanese dishes, we come to yakitori, a national favourite. They’re pieces of barbecued chicken served on small skewers. The chicken is really flavourful, as it is seasoned with salt and a marinade made of soy sauce, rice wine, sake, and sugar. The bite-sized snacks are often served during sporting events and other communal occasions. You can have yakitori made of chicken thighs, chicken meatballs, or a combination of spring onions and chicken. But yes, it’s always made of chicken!
One of the few Japanese dishes that can’t exactly be called ‘healthy’, fried tempura are undeniably delicious. And since they are often only a component of an otherwise diverse and healthful hot pot or bento box, tempura are an acceptable, crispy aside! Besides, they are often vegetarian, featuring ingredients like radish, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and green beans. However, prawns and other small seafood are also made into tempura. The ingredients are dipped into tempura batter and then deep fried until golden and crispy. Tempura is usually served with grated radish and tsuyu sauce.
Will the Japanese never stop impressing the rest of the world with their surprisingly healthy snacking habits? Edamame are tender soy beans that are a common fixture in pubs and bars! The Japanese like to munch on the bright green beans with their drinks. The edamame pods are blanched and salted and served whole. Picking out the beans is probably as enjoyable as crunching them down! Apart from being tasty in an unobtrusive way, edamame beans also come packed with a variety of nutrients like iron, calcium, and protein. Who knew that drinking could actually turn out to be a healthy activity in Japan?
Fast food in Japan is rather different from the sugary doughnuts and baked goods popular in US and many parts of the world. Onigiri rice balls are sold in most kiosks and takeaway shops, and they make for a satisfying yet simple treat. They are basically rice balls with a sweet or savoury filling like pickled plums, glazed chicken, salted seaweed, and tuna with mayonnaise. Onigiri has been a popular travel food among the Japanese for centuries. They are also very affordable, often costing less than 1 USD for a piece. Contrary to their name, onigiri are usually triangular in shape, though a few are also cylindrical.
We spoke about the thick Udon noodles, and now it’s time for Soba or slim, buckwheat noodles. However, since buckwheat has no gluten, other flours are also used in small amounts to make the noodles. Nevertheless, the buckwheat gives the noodles a nutty taste that pairs excellently with Japanese cuisine elements like sesame and garlic. In fact, you can get pretty creative with your toppings and accompaniments for the earthy soba noodles. Some prefer to simply down them with some wasabi and tsuyu sauce and an easy topping of scallions and shredded nori. But if you want a fancy experience, have the soba in a soup bowl with tempura flakes, grilled mochi (rice cakes), fish cakes, and spring onions.
Tofu is nothing but solidified blocks of soya curds. Silken tofu is a priced addition to many Japanese dishes and a great vegetarian alternative to meat-heavy dishes. Tofu is rich in protein and made from soya curds. This also makes it a great dairy-free choice for people who are lactose-intolerant. In Japan, everyone consumes tofu on a regular basis, irrespective of whether they are vegetarian or not. Tofu can be firm or crumbled, and eaten raw, boiled, or fried. It is quite versatile like that, and the taste and texture of every version is delightfully different.
Japanese cuisine is not that famous for its breads or sweets but both food categories converge in the kashipan. These sweet buns are sold at most bakeries and come in several variations. You can have kashipan with a cookie dough topping or kashipan with a filling of red bean paste, which features in many South Asian desserts. There’s also ‘kare pan’, a savoury bun stuffed with curry sauce and then crumbed and fried to perfection. Many other varieties of bread are also available in Japan; so if you don’t fancy rice or noodles for some reason, you do have an alternative.
One look at Japan’s Ramen bars and you realize that ramen is not just instant noodles. The term actually refers to noodle soups that include the wheat ramen noodles along with many delicious additions. The basis of the soup is a savoury broth that may consist of miso soup, soy sauce, or pork bone stock. You’ll usually see fresh vegetables like bamboo shoots and spring onions swimming in the soup, along with seaweed, boiled eggs, and sliced pork. The ramen soup is a complete meal and very affordable by Japanese standards. You can quickly get a piping hot bowl with your additions of choice at one of the Ramen bars in Japan.
Wagashi are sweet ball-shaped desserts that are served at the end of a meal or during a green tea ceremony. These sweets have been around since the Edo period and are made using plant-based ingredients. So you won’t find much of chocolate or even dairy in these dessert balls. Common ingredients in wagashi are mochi (sweetened rice cakes), anko (red bean paste), and nuts and fruits. Kanten, a type of vegetarian gelatine is used to hold the balls together. You can enjoy mochi balls on sticks, mochi balls with anko stuffing, anko and pancake sandwiches and simply anko with sugar and kanten. Many sculpt the wagashi into interesting shapes that are almost like food art.
Known to have incredible health benefits, matcha is a Japanese green tea powder made from a special breed of tea leaves. These tea plants are grown in a shaded environment, which influences the taste of the tea. During a Japanese tea ceremony, the fine matcha powder is mixed with hot water to make tea in an almost meditative process. The green colouring of the matcha tea is responsible for green variants of many dishes like mochi (rice balls) and soba noodles. Today, you’ll find that matcha has crept into many modern foods, giving rise to delicacies like matcha tea lattes and green tea ice-cream. Matcha tea is also a part of Chinese cuisine and culture.
Yakisoba is the Japanese version of fried noodles, and not necessarily made of buckwheat soba noodles. The dish is a popular street food and includes noodles stir-fried with carrots, cabbage, pork, and other vegetables. A yakisoba sauce coats the noodles and lends it a barbecue-like flavour. The dish is a must-have for those visiting Japan in the summer. It’s also rather easy to replicate at home if you want to have a go at Japanese cuisine!
Another popular street food in Japan is the takoyaki, which are savoury roundels filled with pieces of octopus meat. That’s why some also refer to them as octopus dumplings or balls. Takoyaki is prepared on hot plates fitted with concave moulds. Savoury batter is poured into the moulds, and then a piece of octopus meat is wedged into each takoyaki. Cooking the takoyaki perfectly requires constant attention, as they have to be turned around at intervals. You can get plates of six or more takoyaki served with a sweet or savoury sauce, seaweed, bonito fish flakes, and even mayonnaise.
The last dish on this list is a savoury stew of potatoes, meat, and various vegetables. The ingredients are cooked in a savoury base of sake, soy sauce, mirin (another rice wine), and some sugar. Nikujaga is among a category of dishes called ‘nimono’ or ‘simmered stuff’. The dish is open to experimentation when it comes to the quantity and variety of ingredients added. So no two nikujagas may taste exactly the same. While it is served in many restaurants in Japan, locals say that the most flavourful nikujaga is made in a traditional Japanese home.