10 Foods You’ve Got To Eat In Japan That Aren’t Sushi
Consider this your bucket list.
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One of the greatest things about Japan is the country’s ability to turn appreciation of pretty much anything into a full-blown obsession, and their love of food is no exception. Spend any amount of time there and you’ll realise eating is a national past time, so to really experience Japanese culture here are 10 very accessible foods you have to try when you visit (and nope, there’s no puffer fish).
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One of Japan’s most versatile foods, mochi – aka chewy ‘rice cake’ – is also one of the deadliest. Each year people die from mochi suffocation, which is sadly ironic given that it’s eaten during New Year’s as a sign of long life. Though it’s served as both a savoury and a sweet dish, arguably the best way to eat mochi is in ice-cream form. Available at most combinis (Japanese convenience stores), Yukimi Daifuku is highly recommended; they’re tidy palm sized ice-cream balls covered with a chewy sweet, powdery mochi skin.
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Okonomiyaki aka ‘Japanese Pancake’
Given that its name comes from ‘okonomi’ which means ‘however you like’ (‘yaki’ means grilled), defining okonomiyaki can be tricky. Toppings, fillings and batters vary depending on the region, but the most common strain is Kansai-style which features flour based batter, eggs, green onion, vegetables, cabbage and your preferred meat. A spin-off of the classic okonomiyaki is the more watery Kanto area dish ‘monjayaki’ which is as delicious as it is unappealing to the eye.
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Takoyaki is essentially doughy battered balls (each around the size of a golf ball) filled with tiny chewy octopus chunks and covered in a combination of mayonnaise and takoyaki sauce (similar to Worcestershire). Don’t let the description put you off; a plate or two of takoyaki is the perfect way to slow down the effects of a few too many after-work Asahis at the local izakaya (Japanese pub).
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Ramen, one of the most iconic Japanese foods, is obviously a must try when you visit. Every prefecture, city, store and chef has a different interpretation of this omnipresent dish, which involves noodles in a meat broth with a choice of toppings like sliced pork, egg, dried seaweed and green onions. That said, ramen is all about the broth. The most classic ramen flavours are soyu (dark soy sauce broth) and shio (watery salt broth), while popular up-and-comers include miso and curry broths. Many ramen shops even let you order via a machine, where you select your broth, choose your toppings, then receive a card which you hand to the chefs, almost completely eliminating human interaction, if you’re into that.
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A crispy, thick, warm buttery crust filled to brim with slightly sweet fluffy cheese lava, Japanese cheese tarts are insanely popular and definitely worth waiting in line for. Chain store BAKE are the cheese tart dons, born in the snowy cheese-loving city of Sapporo, Hokkaido. There are now BAKE stores across Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, China, Korea and Thailand. If you ever needed another reason to love cheese, pop by the designer flagship BAKE store in Jiyugaoka to find out what it’s all about.
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Kit Kats could pretty much be considered their own food group in Japan. Thanks to a clever marketing campaign linking Kit Kat to the Japanese phrase ‘kitto kattsu’ (which loosely translates to ‘you’ll win’), Kit Kats have become a good common luck gift for students undertaking university exams.
If you were feeling so inclined, it’s possible to eat a different Kit Kat every day for an entire year. Japan has produced over 300 regional and seasonal flavours including a golden leaf edition that was released in 2015, and just this month the ‘Kit Kat Chocolatory’ in Ginza, Tokyo unveiled their latest creation, Kit Kat sushi. If you want to dip into the Kit Kat culture but the options seem overwhelming, stick to the Japanese classics like macha, sake and purple sweet potato.
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Umeboshi aka Salty Plum
Don’t let their sweet-looking pink skin fool you, umeboshi plums are powerfully sour and salty. Technically more of an apricot than a plum, umeboshi are typically pickled and eaten on rice for breakfast or lunch. The best and most tastebud-friendly way to try the umeboshi is via an onigiri (rice ball) which you can pick up from pretty much any convenience store or supermarket across the country.
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Natto is to Japan what Vegemite is to Australia – Japanese people love it, while almost everyone else finds it questionable. Natto is slimy fermented soybeans covered in a membrane that has a strange consistency and an aroma that takes a little getting used to. Natto is staple in many Japanese diets thanks to its supposed health benefits, which includes the prevention of heart disease. It’s often eaten in sushi rolls, over steamed rice, or for those who want to take their slime eating game to a whole new level, with raw egg.
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One of the most popular meals in Japan is in fact curry. Japanese curry is a less attractive (and generally less spicy) version of its Indian counterpart. Curry is actually so common in Japan it’s considered a more of a national dish than sushi and miso soup. The main forms of Japanese curry are curry over thick udon noodles, curry filled bread pastries and the classic curry rice ‘karē raisu’. Pop into one of the many Curry House CoCo Ichibanya fast food restaurants dotted across every street corner of Japan to try it out.
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Meiji is the Cadbury of Japan. In terms of bar sales Kit Kats may be the biggest players in the Japanese chocolate game, but Meiji chocolates are the most ubiquitous. From the classic milk chocolate bar to the Dunkaroo-esque Yan Yan, to the iconic Kinoko No Yama chocolate mushrooms, there are as many ways to eat Meiji Chocolate are there are people who actually eat it. Like most things, your local combini is your most convenient Meiji supplier.
(Lead image: sanmai/Flickr)
Visiting Japan has never been easier, with the recently launched daily direct flights from Melbourne direct to Tokyo’s Narita Airport.