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19 Japanese Dishes You Must Try

19 Japanese Dishes You Must Try

written by The Travel Captain January 17, 2017

Never did I think I would find a country that ties with Italy in the food category.  In fact, Japanese dishes and Japanese food, in general, have very much the same themes that food in Italy does.  The themes are freshness, simplicity and using seasonal ingredients.  Let the beauty of the ingredients speak for themselves.  The Japanese even take it one step further with artistry.  Below are 19 Must Try Japanese Dishes, some obvious and others not so much.

Side Note: I have a major sensitivity to seafood and fish if its not handled properly.  Some cooked prawn fritters from a fairly reputable Thai place down the street sent me crashing to the floor with stomach pangs and hives not too long ago.  I ate fish and seafood every single day I was in Japan and didn’t suffer one bad reaction.  The Zyrtec was always handy but never needed. Whether it’s food from the supermarket, train station, street vendor or high end restaurant, the food in Japan is always fresh.

 

Japanese Dishes You Must Try in Japan

Udon

A thick wheat flour usually served in a soup made of soy sauce and mirin.  Below is chicken and leek.  We probably ate it five other ways while in Japan.  Once with tempura, curried udon, seafood etc.

Japanese Dishes

Chicken and Leek Udon

Kaiseki Ryori

Also known as ‘kaiseki’, kaiseki ryori are traditional, multi-course Japanese dinners. They consist of fresh, seasonal and most times local produce.  A full kaiseki can involve twelve or more courses with each prepared in small servings.  The courses demonstrate different Japanese cooking techniques.  We wore a traditional yukata (robe) to our dinner and breakfast kaiseki in a ryokan (traditional Japanese style inn).  The experience is considered an art form.

must try Japanese Dishes

Kobe Beef

Promoting the consumption of beef is a tough one for me.  I eat red meat about once or twice a month.  I saved my allotment for Japan because I absolutely wanted to try Kobe Beef.  It was one of those must try Japanese dishes.  Trust me when I tell you that the “Kobe” sliders you tried at your local steakhouse don’t taste anything like Kobe beef in Japan.  You can read about how American restaurants continually lied to the public for years by labeling their beef as Kobe in this article: The New Truth About Kobe Beef.  

Kobe beef is generally pretty expensive, that is a downside.  We paid $170 just for two 160 gram portions of Kobe beef in Kyoto at a good restaurant, not including the cost of starters, wine and dessert.  But, it was UH-mazing.  The perfectly marbled beef is one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever tried.

Japanese Dishes

Kobe Beef @ ITOH in Kyoto

Ramen

No explanation necessary.  One thing though, the ramen I had in Japan at these little hole in the wall eateries forever changed my whole perception of what this amazing, perfect for after the bars or on a cold day, dish really is.  The pic below on the left is a healthier version with a lot less pork fat in the broth. On the right, a full fat version about twice the size and much richer.  Both are delicious.

 

Takoyaki

The ultimate Japanese street food.  A ball-shaped snack made of wheat flour batter and filled with minced octopus and topped with pickled ginger, scallions and different sauces like mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce .  They are super hot inside when you get them and should come with a “May burn your mouth” warning label. Many variations to the takoyaki recipe exist in Japan.  They’re all pretty delicious.  The best ones we had were at Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo and Nishiki Market in Kyoto.

Must Try Japanese Dishes

Takoyaki at Nishiki Market in Kyoto

Sushi

There are different types of sushi.  The basic variations are nigiri (fish on a ball of sushi rice), sashimi (fish without anything), maki (seaweed-wrapped), uramaki (rice on the outside) and temaki (sushi in a cone shape).  My personal favorites are nigiri and sashimi.  I probably ate nigiri sushi about 12 of the 15 days I was there.  Could not get enough. Sushi in Japan is just worlds apart from any sushi I’ve eaten abroad, high end restaurant or not.

Donburi

a Japanese rice bowl consisting of fish, meat, vegetables or other ingredients simmered together and served over rice. I tried this one with chicken and egg.  The texture of the egg stew was interesting to say the least but it was tasty.

Japanese Dishes

Japanese Dishes – Donburi, meaning bowl.

Tonkatsu

Deep fried breaded pork cutlet.  Typically it’s served sliced but we had ours in ball form.  Fried goodness.

Must Try Japanese Dishes

Tonkatsu

Tamagoyaki

A Japanese omelette made by layering cooked egg.  It’s served many ways and even in sushi.  I don’t like the Tamagoyaki I’ve tried outside of Japan.  But in Japan, it is delicate and scrumptious.  Here’s one of the ways we tried it.

Must try Japanese Dishes

Tamagoyaki

Tempura

I’m so happy I didn’t overdose on tempura, it was a serious likelihood.  After the first three days of non stop tempura, I took a step back.  Glad I did because it gave me a chance to sample all the other wonderful Japanese dishes.  Obviously, you’ll still have tempura in Japan but try some different ones.  Below was oyster mushroom and octopus.

Must Try Japanese Dishes

Tempura

Soba Noodles

Not to be confused with udon or ramen, soba noodles are made from buckwheat.  Pretty healthy.  I enjoyed them cold with wasabi.

Must Try Japanese Dishes

Cold soba noodles

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a popular pan fried, savory pancake that consists of batter and cabbage.  Selected toppings and ingredients are added and can range from anything such as green onion, meat (pork belly), octopus, squid, shrimp, vegetables, cheese, etc.  Okonomiyaki is sometimes referred to as a “Japanese pizza.”  It’s oh so good.  We tried some in Gion, Kyoto.  Didn’t take a picture of the dish but here is the advertisement outside the restaurant.  Haha.

Must Try Japanese Dishes

Okonomiyaki – Must Try Japanese Dishes

Nikuman

A Japanese version of the Chinese steamed pork buns.  The dough is much softer than any Chinese version I’ve tasted.

Must try Japanese Dishes

steamed pork buns near the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto

Onigiri

Sushi’s casual friend.  A rice ball made of white rice formed into triangular or cylinder shapes and wrapped in nori.  It is filled with pickled ume, salted salmon or any other salty or sour ingredient. Found in a lot of convenience stores and supermarkets and sometimes with various fillings and flavors.  

Must try Japanese dishes

Yakitori

A Japanese street food that is essentially skewered meat.  The skewer can have chicken thigh, gizzards, chicken skin, pork, chicken liver, etc.  Grilled over a charcoal fire and seasoned with salt or sauce after.  We sampled some chicken thigh skewers in Ueno Park in Tokyo.

must try Japanese dishes

Must try Japanese dishes

 

The Desserts

I was blown away by how incredible the desserts in Japan are.  On par with famed European counterparts.  While the Japanese excel at traditional western desserts like chocolate mousse, cakes, pastries and fruit tarts, I am highlighting more traditional Japanese dishes here.

Green Tea/Matcha Anything

Try It All. Ice cream, pastry, whatever.

Must Try Japanese Dishes

Matcha Dessert

Red Bean Paste

This is in pure form but, generally, you’ll find desserts that have a little spread of red bean paste put in the center of delicious pastry, cookie, dough, etc.

Japanese Dishes

Ice cream

There is a fascination with soft serve ice cream in Japan.  Even on an a winter day, we saw locals enjoying ice cream everywhere.  Make sure to try one of the interesting flavors!  Same goes for Kit Kat!

Ningyo-yaki

Made from the fluffiest batter you’ll ever taste.  Filled with sweet bean paste or vanilla cream and sometimes chocolate. They come in different shapes from Hello Kitty to cute birds.  These were fish shaped and we came back for seconds.

Japanese Dishes

Fish shaped Ningyo-yaki

 

We ate ALL the Japanese dishes in this post, and more.  You know what?  We only put on a couple of pounds.  In 15 days of non stop eating, that’s pretty good.  Wanna know my theory?  The body much prefers fresh and non processed food.  Japan is a country that prides itself on these concepts.

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Japanese Dishes

 

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  • Probearoundthe Globe

    I love to travel to Japan one day and these foods look delicious! I think I definately would like to try the tonkatsu! It looks really tasty! Thanks

  • A Woman Afoot

    Oh, my, my mouth is watering! I know very little of the true Japanese cuisine and would love to try some of the examples you showed! I think I would be saving for a year to try that Kobe beef 😀

    • It was a huge splurge for sure, not very economical!! 🙂

  • Bonita

    I have never been so hungry at the sight of nice food in my entire life. Photography check, flow of story check! I love the description as well. I will try and look for Nikuman at a local Japanese restaurant! Well done!

    • Thank you! Let me know what you think about the taste when you find it !

  • Penny

    Each time I tell my husband that we should visit Japan, he responds that he won’t be able to survive on sushi. This is one post that I have to share with him!

    • Haha! There is so much more than sushi and then whats written here, I promise. I hope he gives in because Japan is a great destination to visit. 🙂

  • You’ve made me so hungry! I was supposed to travel to Japan in spring and I was looking forward to the food there, but unfortunately my trip got postponed. I have only tried the sushi, the ramen and the strange flavored KitKats (I couldn’t resist ordering them from ebay) and everything was so flavorsome. Japan can definitely offer one a proper foodie experience!

    • That is awesome! Ordering the kit kats from Ebay makes you a true foodie connoisseur! I’m sorry your trip got postponed but the bright side is that I’ve heard its jam-packed around sakura time so perhaps maybe the fall when the foliage is bright and beautiful and weather still good.

  • Maria A

    Oh my, why did I have to read this before lunch 🙂 Loved the pictures and tasty descriptions, especially Kobe Beef, Tempura and Noodles. I also love sushi, try to eat them at least once per week, but of course it can hardly compare to what they taste like in Japan. Just love it how the food is so healthy and fresh there! All the best, Maria from Tigrest.com

    • Thanks Maria! I got hungry writing it and when dredging up all the pics from our trip. Glad you share the same love of the cuisine that I do as well as appreciation for freshness. So important! 🙂

  • I’d only tried sushi and tempura in a Japanese restaurant in Paris, and I loved them. I hope to go to Japan some day, for a taste of all these culinary wonders.

    • If you loved tempura and sushi, Im pretty sure you’ll enjoy the rest! I’ve heard of great eateries sprouting up around the world which now serve authentic ramen. Hope you get to try this and of course in Japan!

  • Robyn Spice

    Udon and tempura are for sure my favourite. Never tried any of the deserts though. Your pictures make the food look super delicious. I am in Singapore at the moment and they have a lot of Japanese dishes at Hawker stalls so I will be sure to check some of these dishes out!

    • Thank you! Actually you’re making me hungry now! The food in Singapore is out of this world, another awesome foodie destination in Asia!

  • Rimsha

    So many of these that I’m yet to try! Great list 😀

  • Every time we go to Japan I get sad. I have Celiac disease and can’t eat like half of those beautiful dishes! We’re heading there in 2 weeks. But I have an excuse to eat lots and lots of sushi! 😀 Where was your feature image taken? That looks amazing!

    • I’m so sorry, I can only imagine what the struggle is like! I have histamine intolerance and eating out in some countries can be a nightmare. But yes, the sushi is just incredible! even the $12 nigiri assortments from the supermarket, i couldnt get enough. The image was taken at a random izakaya at one of the Tokyo Skytree eateries 🙂

      • Ill wander around the Skytree then until I find it! 😉

        • Will try to find the name for you!

          • Thank you and no worries! If you do, then fantastic and if you don’t we have a mission 😉

          • I was on a mission to find it! I made a mistake. Mu husband reminded me that its in Roppongi Hills and the name of the place is Arata! Phew! To be honest, it was good enough but not the first place I’d recommend in Tokyo. The maki rolls topped with the salmon roe made for a nice pic though.

          • Thanks! I loved the ones that are just slightly grilled with the blowtorch! 🙂

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