There's far more to Japanese food than sushi and miso soup. Those are certainly two of our favorites, but on our recent trip to Japan, we ventured past the staples and explored a side of the cuisine we never knew existed.
Unagi (freshwater eel)
If this word brings to mind images of Ross on Friends with fingers to his temple, then we will get along well. And since we're friends now, I'm going to tell you that unagi is life-changing. Not the "state of total awareness" life-changing that Ross speaks of, but in the "I never thought eel could taste so good" way. I've always been slightly creeped out by eels, and the prospect of eating one wasn't too appetizing. But I'm so glad I did. And not just in a sushi roll - but on its own. It melts in your mouth and has a uniquely delicate flavor you just have to taste for yourself.
Okonomi meaning "what you like" and yaki meaning "grilled", this savory pancake is literally, well, "grilled how you like". The batter and toppings vary throughout the country, but if you want the traditional version, head to Osaka where the dish is said to have originated. We ordered okonomiyaki in Osaka and were rewarded with a generous portion of flower and egg batter filled with cabbage, yam, pork belly and green onions. No wonder this round, topping-heavy dish is often called "Japanese pizza".
Sometimes referred to as "octopus balls", this popular Japanese snack is a lot more delicious than the name implies. These balls made of batter are stuffed with chopped octopus, then topped with flavorful sauces, pickled ginger, tempura and green onions. You'll find these crowded stands in markets by day, and on busy streets at night.
Green Tea Ice Cream
The tea in Japan is different than the loose leaf variety you may be used to. Instead of leaving them whole, the leaves are ground into a fine powder called matcha. In Japan, green tea is not just a beverage. There is green tea flavored EVERYTHING! Lip gloss, KitKat bars, and yes, ice cream. You'll find a bevy of soft serve shops all doling out the same specialty - green tea flavor. If you've never tried it before, beware that it can actually be quite bitter. Try it paired with vanilla for a sweeter experience!
I'm not talking about those packages of dried noodles you lived off of during your college years. Picture freshly made noodles, broth with a depth of flavors, tender pork and a soft boiled egg cooked to perfection. Piled high on top is roasted vegetables, green onions and fresh ginger. Okay, gotta stop now. My mouth is watering.
The packaged square variety is a distant cousin to this culinary star, which is becoming popular around the world. But just like sushi, there aren't many better places to try it than in Japan. Tokyo has noodle shops on nearly every street, so try a few!
Tip: Most ramen shops have a vending machine of sorts, from which you will purchase a ticket. Hand the slip to one of the workers and they'll whip up your dish in front of your eyes.
This mixture of fried noodles and vegetables is a common street food. For a fun meal, pick a restaurant where you can belly-up to your very own hotplate. We had meat and eggs added and cooked it ourselves before indulging in fried noodle yumminess.
These steamed pork buns are light, fluffy and are a perfect snack to warm you up on a cold day. Pick up a couple at one of the countless 7-elevens for a snack on the go.
I know, I know, no surprise here. But it made the list because you just can't go to Japan and not try sushi. It would be like going to Italy and not eating pasta. Compared to other meals in Japan, sushi is not all that expensive. So order it often! Try a conveyor belt restaurant where you can pick each piece off the moving counter beside you. And if you're in Tokyo, make the journey to the famous Tjujuki Fish market where you can order the freshest fish in all of Japan. And best yet, take a sushi-making class and make your own rolls like we did!
This hot soup comes brimming with thick noodles and is both simple and satisfying. The best part? The price tag is usually under $5 USD, making it a great lunch option for budget travelers.
Tonkatsu (pork katsu)
Truth be told, I'm really not a pork person. I'm also not really a fan of deep fried things. So there's two reasons I thought I wouldn't like tonkatsu - deep fried pork cutlet. This popular Japanese dish surprised me though. While staying in the small mountain town of Hakone, we wandered into a traditional Japanese restaurant. I ordered a chicken dish (which was delicious) and Ben ordered pork katsu. It arrived on a bed of rice, shredded cabbage and smothered in a tasty brown sauce and I found myself stealing bite after bite. Hey, I shared my meal too!