I was recently talking to my roommate from my grad school days, and was gushing about all the great food I was able to get in Japan.
His response? “I dunno. I love sushi and ramen… but I need a little more than that for good cuisine.”
To be fair, people judge according to what they know. And he’s never been to Japan, so he only knows about Japanese food from what he can get in a PA college town.
Japanese food options are much more popular in the States today compared to when I was a kid.
I always think back to the sushi scene in The Breakfast Club and marvel how much has changed.
But compared to other world cuisines, the options are usually still quite limited.
So what do people eat in Japan?
Let’s start with the most popular items that people in the US might name:
I like California rolls, dragon rolls, and all the other weird, elaborate constructions that are available in American sushi restaurants.
But people from Japan tend to say, “that’s not sushi.” American sushi is a valid cultural mutation, one that can be quite tasty.
But let’s be honest, the chili aioli and cream cheese and tempura flakes and other wacky mixes of ingredients—they’re not included to accentuate the flavor of the fish. They’re there to hide the flavor of fish. American sushi is made for people who don’t like fish, or to compensate in regions where the seafood isn’t all that fresh. That’s fine, but it’s the opposite of what sushi is supposed to be about.
The staple sushi in Japan is nigiri zushi, the type with a big slab of raw fish over a small mound of rice.
Sometimes there’s a little wasabi, and sometimes not. Some people dip their sushi into soy sauce before eating; some do not.
If you want to test out how good a sushi place is, see how the chefs fare with nigiri. It’s ultra-simple, so the ingredients need to speak for themselves. If your eyes don’t roll back in pleasure after eating a big slab of raw salmon, well…then switch back to the elaborate rolls and special sauces for the rest of the meal, then keep your eyes peeled for better sushi restaurant options.
Like this one!
Here’s a pic of some great sushi I had in Yokohama on our first night back in Japan.
Also, Boston folks: the sushi I had at Douzo Sushi was some Japan-grade goodness.
2. Hibachi (?)
Simply put, Japanese people don’t eat hibachi.
In 1945, a man in Kyoto started a steak restaurant. He used a hot plate to cook the steak, and so it was called a teppanyaki (iron plate grilling) restaurant. Thing is, his steak teppanyaki didn’t do so well with Japanese customers, but it started to take off with tourists visiting Japan. The restaurant then started to make a spectacle of the cooking process, lending an exotic “Eastern” feel to some standard Western fare.
Steak teppanyaki restaurants took off in Okinawa due to the large American military presence there, and they eventually found their way in the US.
At some point someone misnamed the grilling style “hibachi”—which is a traditional bowl for charcoal grilling—and for some reason the name stuck.
So if you ask a Japanese person if they like hibachi, they will be thinking of something quite different from what you mean. If you take them to a hibachi place in the US, they will say, “Oh, teppanyaki. I like it, but isn’t this really American food?”
When most people in the US hear the word “ramen,” they think of cheap instant noodle cups with flavor packets.
That is a minor tragedy.
Ramen is one of the great restaurant noodle soups, to rival pho and laksa lemak. Most US cities nowadays have at least a few ramen restaurant options. I’ve had some truly excellent ramen in NYC and San Francisco.
And I can get some pretty good ramen here in the National Capital Region. Why just pretty good? Mainly due to the broth. The best ramen is served piping hot. Maybe US restaurant chefs fear a lawsuit due to burned mouths or spilled broth? I don’t know the reason. I just know that tepid broth does not a great ramen make.
If you’re ever in Yokohama, I highly recommend a visit to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.
Below the museum section, there are seven restaurants serving unique regional variations of ramen. You can get half-sized bowls in order to try a few different styles.
Really, really good.
Tempura is like the fish and chips of Japanese restaurants around the world.
It’s simple, hearty, and fairly common as an option. And just like fish and chips, most places in the US don’t get it quite right. Tempura is deep fried, but it shouldn’t feel heavy or greasy. Nothing beats some perfectly cooked tempura with soba noodles on a cold winter day.
When I was studying in Tokyo, a fellow student asked me if I wanted to go get some takoyaki.
“What was that?” I asked.
“Well, it’s balls of grilled batter filled with chunks of octopus and smothered in sauce and mayonnaise. It’s from Osaka.”
Honestly, it sounded rather wretched to this Philly redneck, but I went with him anyway.
And damn if those little octo-balls weren’t delicious.
I’ve had takoyaki in the States, and so far no place I’ve been to has gotten it right. It’s a fast food and isn’t complicated as long as you have the right ingredients and grill. But if it’s your backup dish rather than your main focus, your octo-balls will go from a delicious novelty to a barely passable curiosity.
I spoke before about the wonders of 7-Eleven and other konbini (convenience stores) in Japan.
But one thing that seemed odd and somewhat gross to me whenever I went there was the vat of broth they had at the counter, with these weird spongy things floating around like some shared embryonic space.
A Japanese friend informed me that it was “oden,” and that it was really delicious. To be honest, I’ve never tried the konbini version of oden, but I can confirm that oden as a food is indeed delicious. It’s now one of my favorite winter dishes.
It’s somewhat like a soup, except the broth is mainly there to keep the other contents warm and to enhance flavor.
The stars of the show are the dumplings, tofu balls, fish cakes, eggs, daikon slices, and other treats served in the broth.
Oden was actually one of the first fast foods in medieval Japan. It dates back to the 14th century, though it was originally grilled and skewered chunks of tofu. The simmered variety emerged in the late Edo period (late 19th/early 20th century), once restaurants began to serve oden options.
It’s most common to eat oden at home though. The nabe pot is placed on the table, and family members pick what they want out of the pot.
Skewers of grilled marinated chicken. So simple, and yet so delicious.
This place we went to in downtown Yokohama was so good, we went two nights in a row!
Teishoku is just a set meal, with a main dish and some small side dishes.
The most common is some sort of grilled fish, rice, pickled veggies, and miso soup. But there are endless varieties of teishoku sets to get.
We got a few on our last trip. Aside from the excellent buckwheat noodles, this one here featured tonkatsu, or breaded pork cutlet. Tonkatsu was this restaurant’s specialty, and my God, it was so delicious that I brought it up every subsequent day. “Sorry, I’m just thinking of that tonkatsu again.”
This one featured a fish stew that simmered for two days before being served. Absolutely delicious. Also, some excellent fried chicken pieces and miso soup to make it all magical.
(Miso soup is a food I’ve had many, many times in American restaurants, and yet have never been impressed. The best miso soup uses the best quality ingredients, most important of which being the best dashi stock to give a complex, smoky flavor. Using cheap dashi that looks and tastes like fish food is…yeah)
The best US teishoku I’ve had was in New York City. They even have a Japanese teishoku chain restaurant there: Ootoya. It’s a swankier and more expensive experience than the family chain in Japan, but the food is great, so I won’t complain.
I can talk about food forever, but it’ll have to wait until some other time!
More to come later!
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