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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Yum! A little something for everyone. Thanks for this culinary education.
Lol, almost everyone! As I mentioned before, Japan is not so accommodating of vegan or vegetarian diets. The vegetarians I knew had to relax their standards or eat nothing but rice balls every day.
Very informative, good to get a better understanding of the delights on offer. Tends to be the same here in terms of how Japanese cuisine is seen; basically sushi with a growing ramen trend in the last few years.
The other element that some people will know is Fugu, the deadly puffer fish dish. I’ve read of how highly trained the chefs need to be to prepare it, is it something that is actually popular and readily available or is it a niche thing just for thrill seekers with money?
Seen quite a few articles lately about ‘sushi terrorism’ affecting revolving sushi restaurants with younger diners filming themselves interfering with the food on its way round, like drinking from soy sauce bottles or licking plates as they come past. Hope you didnt indulge!
Fugu is something that’s definitely available to those who seek it out. I’ve only had it twice maybe, one of many different dishes in a large meal. I liked it, but maybe I didn’t have it in the best context given that it has a very delicate flavor. There are specialty shops that primarily focus on fugu, and that’s probably the way to go to really appreciate the beauty of the dish.
In general, I recommend going to the singular specialty places (“we serve X and nothing else”) as the best way to experience a dish in Japan. There’s limited variety, but they put their effort into mastering two or three dishes.
Communal item licking? That’s just horrid. I guess Japan is not immune to the anti-social effects of social media. The practice is probably not as widespread as talk about it is, but still. Get your priorities together, people!
This is great!
Growing up I do not remember anything about sushi – however, there was a hibachi place located in New Market called Kanpai, and our parents took us there for every birthday.
When I got home from Syria in 1997, I began to work as a stock broker/financial planner while taking care of my father. I dated the college intern at the firm who introduced me to sushi, and I’ve never looked back.
There’s a few sushi places in Philly I’ll swear by (Zama #1, Sagami in Collingswood #2), but living in Sydney spoiled me: I’d take supermarket sushi in Australia over almost anything on the East Coast…and don’t get me started on Thai food.
Lest anyone think I’m an insufferable food snob, let me correct the record: I am an insufferable food enthusiast!
I haven’t been to too many sushi places in the States that were eyes-in-the-back-of-your-skull amazing, but plenty of places with tasty options to stuff yourself with.
There was an all you can eat sushi joint in Philly I used to go to. I’ve forgotten their name, but they closed years back anyway. Still, some solid stuff. Just..technically middle tier rather than top.
Now, Jiro’s, that is apparently the best of the best. My wife and I did consider going, and we enjoy getting swanky from time to time, but $500 per person just seems an awful lot to spend on something that’s going to be expelled rather humbly a few hours later. There’s good food and great food, but it’s ultimately all still food in the end! Maybe once I win the lottery…
By the way, has anyone seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi? One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Best… and tastiest!
These days it’s not hard to find an izakaya in larger coastal cities. But 15 years ago, they were not so common. Back then, my wife and I discovered a small izakaya in San Diego. Everything — the door sign, the decor, the menus– was in Japanese. They had English translation menus available. This place was awesome and we went back frequently.
Anyway, that’s where we discovered takoyaki. We always ordered that (plus the negi chasyu, kind of a fried pork with green onions — yum!). Now these days you can find takoyaki at boba tea shops around town, on the snack menu… I always heard the original Osaka takoyaki was served so hot, it was like accepting a dare to eat it. Like excessive panting with steam coming off of your boiling-alive tongue and palate was part of the process.
Thanks for sharing this culinary journey Phylum!
Yeah, California in general is a better place to go in the US for Japanese options. Any place with a good amount of people who know what to expect, you’ll have more supply to meet that demand.
Piping hot food and tea is an expectation everywhere in Japan. For stuff like ramen, it’s one reason that slurping is considered acceptable–it’s easier to eat when its so hot. But with takoyaki, I simply have to wait it out a bit, lest I lose all my taste buds to scalding hot oil.
Incidentally, despite being a great place for food lovers, coffee in Japanese restaurants is often burnt. I even went to a place that served Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee and it was burnt! Their love of the extra-hot doesn’t always translate to other cultural products.
But thankfully I know a barista at a place that takes their coffee seriously…
One final comment (if you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you…):
Has anyone read The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy?
It was written by a Penn grad I met back in 2007, right around the time when looking at a particular item to explain world history was popular. Think: Salt: A World History, Around the World in 6 Glasses, etc.
I’d recommend all of them.
Sounds really interesting!
I’m not the most adventurous eater…I’m happy to eat to live rather than live to eat. Part of it is my upbringing…my mother was a very conservative cook. I don’t think I tried rice till high school.
That being said, I love sushi…or what passes for it here in flyover country. (I love being mid-continent, but there are disadvantages.) I’ve never tried any that I don’t like, so I’m sure the good stuff out there is great. It’s making the (room temperature) leftovers in my lunchbox seem very, very mundane. I should have read this after lunch.
Interesting. My mom was a pretty conservative cook too, but even as a kid I would usually eat anything given to me. I didn’t love lima beans, but I ate them. My family jokingly called me “Mikey,” inspired by the iconic Life cereal commercial, except they would say: “Give it to Mikey, he eats anything!”
No rice til high school? My wife would be very, very sad to read that! She’s a rice addict. Even if we have a delicious dinner of carbonara and freshly baked bread, she’ll inevitably crave just a little bit of white rice.
Jiro Dreams of California Rolls, Then Screams
…As He Veers Into a Nightmare About Totino’s Pizza Rolls
There are a few Japanese dishes that would translate rather easily to fully vegetarian versions.
There’s houtou, which is a type of noodle soup made with miso broth and pumpkin. I just made this yesterday, though admittedly I used fish stock. But you could substitute the fish stock with kombu, shiitake, and/or consomme powder if you like. Other ingredients include: miso paste (preferably red), shimeji mushrooms, carrots, abura age, konnyaku (a special yam processed into a chewy pate), napa, daikon, green onion, and preferably kaboucha, the japanese pumpkin. Real houtou uses a special kind of thick noodle, but we use frozen udon, and it’s a tasty substitute!
And also takikomi gohan: a wonderfully earthy way to cook rice. In a rice cooker, combine uncooked rice with your dashi stock of choice, and also add soy sauce, burdock root, daikon, carrots, konnyaku, shiitake and other mushrooms, abura age, and really anything that might enhance the earthy flavors.
JPO(Junior Police Officers) trip to California, we’re ordering breakfast at the hotel next to Knots Berry Farm. Like a bunch of provincials who never left the islands, one of us(that would be me) asks the waitress for “shoyu”, which is the local slang for soy sauce. Fast-forward to adulthood, I’m at work, and somebody stole my food, again. “Oh, thanks, whoever, you saved me the soy sauce.” Everybody looks up. “Brah, you local, or what?” a coworker asks, incredulously.
I’m amazed that they let eleven and twelve-year-olds control traffic. Unsupervised. I don’t think that’s a thing anymore.
And how do you describe the flavor of konnyaku? It really doesn’t have one.
Tim Heidecker is The Popular Island. Interesting career. Legit singer-songwriter.
And my favorite thing about Jiro Dreams of Sushi are the apprentices who are forever on rice detail.
Yeah, Hawaii has some legit connections to Japan. We went there for our honeymoon, and right by our hotel (near Waikiki) there were various shops. For some of them, we had to speak in Japanese just so we knew they would get the order right! Goes to shoyu the value of cross-cultural communication.
My favorite part of Jiro is the fact that they massage each piece of octopus for like 40 minutes. The end result has got to be crazy tender, and just shows the effort and affection they put into the food.
MrDutch and I joke how if we found ourselves stranded on a desert island and all we had was the fish in the surrounding waters to eat…. We’d both be dead within 4 days. Ha! He’s allergic to shellfish, but has learned the hard way to just stay away from eating any and all creatures that swim in water, so he’s screwed there. Me? I find all seafood quite revolting, from the smell to the texture.
So sushi and I are not on even passing acquaintance terms. I chalk it up to my British lineage – adding salt and pepper is my level of exotic spices. Very plain and boring food for plain boring me. I will say this though – one of the places I worked in North Orlando had a couple of Japanese restaurants nearby some of the folks loved to frequent. I took a huge leap the first time I went and got some type of tempura bento box, and was very pleasantly surprised at the whole experience. Cute presentation, like I was served an artist’s creation that should be in an art gallery, the tempura was this lovely airy crunchy freshly hot bliss, a lot of variety of little bites to sample for a lunch. I wound up going with my coworkers often to these places for lunch after that!
It’s been quite awhile since I ate Japanese that wasn’t a Japanese steakhouse – those I know!! But Japanese food is just like Chinese, or Italian, where it’s probably been so bastardized Stateside to cater to American tastes they barely resemble what they originally were.
So I definitely enjoyed your Anthony Bourdain-like travel through authentic Japanese cuisine, Phylum, nicely done. 🙂
That’s great that you good some excellent tempura! In my experience, it can be a somewhat…tempura-mental…dish in the US.
I do generally love how much care Japanese people put into food presentation, even at home. My wife insists on plating everything artfully, and it’s only partially because she’s thinking about photos for Instagram!
Ya know, I hated seafood for a good chunk of my life…until I went to Japan. Everyone has difference preferences, but at least one reason why a lot of people don’t like seafood is because they encounter the stuff that’s not so fresh. Like when I was a kid, I associated going to Philly’s Chinatown with a really strong fishy smell coming from the shops, and it turned me away from seafood entirely.
At this point, I can readily enjoy some stinky fish, like mackerel bought in VA. But I had to start with stuff like ultra-fresh salmon in Japan. It’s a lot less “fishy” in the stereotypical sense. And I got into raw fish well before I dipped into cooked fish, because it’s a lot less aromatic.
Another tactic is to try some sea urchin (which I do like, but it took me several attempts over several years to finally get into), and then the fish will be magically delicious by comparison! As my old lab partner once said: “Looks like pus, feels like snot, tastes like an old boot.” Just make sure your husband doesn’t scarf down the snot-boot. 😀
Wow, you really know how to make sea urchin sound undeniably appetizing! 🙃
Credit goes to my lab partner here…but I will say that one of my creative writing teachers wrote that I, and I quote: “have a gift for the grotesque.” And I still have that paper with feedback as a keepsake! 😅
“You almost got me to watch Superbabies: Baby Genuises 2. Who knows. You may be right. But I simply don’t want to know. It’s entirely up to you. You can either accept this C+ or pick a new topic.”
This is my favorite thing a professor wrote on a paper. I saw a Neverland Ranch subtext in the 2004 sequel to Baby Genuises.
This is how I snuck through the backdoor of next-level academia. Swing for the fences. I lasted a semester.
I envy people who can talk in front of groups of people. I’m a little less tortured about it. I really would have loved to teach and stay in school forever. Because out in the real world, you will bore the crap out of people with your minutiae.
What a crappy teacher.
Hey, while that one creative writing teacher totally got me, my first one…not so much.
Our first in-class assignment was to write about what we would like to achieve as a writer. I used the opportunity to write an obviously over-the-top maniacal screed about how I longed for nothing less than world domination! And he wrote that I was…very ambitious.
Later, after handing in an admittedly dark story with more than a little debt to Dostoevsky, I was called in for the talk about if everything was okay, and if I need someone to reach out to, etc etc. I guess the funnier bits of the story didn’t land there either.
So it meant a lot when my other teacher totally got what I was trying to do, and instead of cringing or throwing up her hands, she actually pushed me to work on my stories and tighten them up to better realize my vision.
I had to switch to non-fiction soon after that, as I was getting deeper and deeper into behavioral science. But it was a great moment of mentorship, and I remain grateful for it.
Inspired by Bill’s recent post, I’m just gonna leave this here:
And now I want ramen and Pringles.
I am genuinely intrigued by the ramen flavored Pringles. Maybe not so much the Pringles flavored ramen.