I have a confession to make: when I told people I was going to Japan, I mainly talked about the sushi… (and the karaoke!). What an idiot. The length of this post is a testament to the huge variety of delicious food I experienced during my trip.
The detail that goes into the preparation and presentation of food – at any restaurant, from the more expensive down to the local pub – is impressive. Even in a simple meal, you’re likely to get many different dishes with artistically displayed food that is always fresh and absolutely delicious. Restaurants will often offer sets as well, which will include miso soup, rice and green tea.
Here are some of the amazing food experiences I’ve had in the past month while travelling around Japan…
Sushi and sashimi
Yes, there was sushi, and, yes, it was delicious. There is a huge selection of fresh fish on offer at any given sushi restaurant, and if you sit at the bar you can watch the chefs as they artfully prepare it. I would usually get a combo set, as it’s just too difficult for me to make an individual selection, and it’s really hard to go wrong with a bit of everything thrown in!
The best experiences involved going right to the source: the sashimi at the Omi-cho fish market in Kanazawa just melted in my mouth, while the sushi that I had at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo wasn’t too bad either.
Even the sushi I got in a bento box for the long train journeys would be super tasty – even though I rarely knew what was in them.
Beyond sushi and sashimi you also have some variations on the basic concept. There was the bara-zushi at Azuma-zushi inside Okayama train station, a dish created in the Edo period that consists of a plate of sushi rice covered in various kinds of fish and vegetables. You also have the simple donburi, essentially a bowl of rice with fish (or meat) served on top.
Hiroshima, it seems, is known for its oysters, and we had some delicious ones in Miyajima, a short ferry ride from the city.
If you don’t eat raw fish, you might prefer the battered and deep-fried tempura. And if you don’t eat fish at all, fear not: one of my Japanese friends who lives in Tokyo is allergic to fish, so it must be possible to survive on other food.
Of course, as it turns out, Japanese food is not just fish. Many of you will have heard of the Kobe beef, famous for the tradition of massaging the cows and feeding them beer to make the beef taste extra delicious. In fact Kobe beef is specifically from the region of Kobe, but it is part of a broader categorisation of Wagyu beef (wagyu in fact meaning “Japanese cow”). This kind of meat is beautifully marbled and simply melts in your mouth.
Shabu-shabu and sukiyaki
I had my first shabu-shabu in San Francisco last November, and so I made sure to seek this out in Japan. It’s a ‘hot pot’ dish in which you cook thinly sliced meat in a pot of broth, dip it in ponzu (a citrus-based sauce) or goma (sesame seed) sauce, and usually eat this alongside tofu, various vegetables, and noodles.
Sukiyaki was a new discovery in Japan, but a worthwhile one! Similar to shabu-shabu, you again cook thinly sliced meat but in a sweeter mixture of soy sauce, sugar and mirin (rice wine), again alongside tofu, vegetables, and noodles. You actually also dip the meat in raw egg, which seemed unappealing at first but was in fact delicious.
A simple dish, but one of my favourites: tamagoyaki is the little omelette that you can get on sushi or on its own, often at breakfast. It’s made of egg with rice vinegar and sometimes also sugar or soy sauce, cooked in a special rectangular pan and then rolled up before it’s sliced into pieces. I even bought a little tamagoyaki pan so that I can try to make this at home – although I will try it without the sugar!
I really didn’t expect to enjoy this but I went dutifully along to an okonomiyaki restaurant on one of my first days in Hiroshima. In the end, I did a very good job of eating almost all of it. Described as a “savoury pancake”, Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki is a layered feast of pancake, shredded cabbage, egg, spring onion plus your choice of meat on top; oh and noodles… Apparently in Osaka they use the same ingredients but they mix it all together in the batter. To top it all off, you add a healthy (or not-so-healthy) dollop of a thick umami okonomiyaki sauce, oh, and mayonnaise if you’re so inclined.
Vegetables and tofu
As you may have noticed, there isn’t a huge amount of vegetables in these dishes. You do get some in the sukiyaki and shabu-shabu but otherwise it’s usually limited to a tiny serving, and pickled.
I have eaten quite a bit of tofu while travelling in Japan, most notably at the Yudofuya restaurant in the Zen Garden of Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. Here they served yudofu, which is boiled tofu that you dip in a spicy sauce. Generally it doesn’t taste of a lot, but it feels like a nice healthy, clean protein to add into the mix alongside everything else you’re eating!
Izakaya is not so much a type of food as a place to eat it: Wikipedia calls it “a type of informal Japanese gastropub”. You generally order several smaller dishes and share these, tapas-style, as the kitchen brings them out as and when they are ready. It helps to have someone who speaks Japanese to order for you, as otherwise you may have to resort to pointing at pictures or just taking a wild guess. You may order things like edamame beans, yakitori (chicken skewers), or takoyaki balls (containing diced octopus, pickled ginger and spring onions and served with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise).
One of my favourites was an Okinawan izakaya in Osaka. We had the locally grown seaweed, deep-fried seaweed, pork belly… The highlight was the most delicious sweet potato I have ever eaten in my entire life. Okay, so the awamori may have affected my judgement (see ‘drink’ below) but I could have sworn there was cinnamon and sugar in the dish, while the chef insisted that it was just pure (purple) sweet potato. Dreamy.
Another favourite place has to be Gonpachi in Tokyo, also known as “the Kill Bill restaurant”. Eating there in a big group, my Japanese-speaking friend ordered a never-ending array of food (mainly, as it turned out, different parts of a chicken), while the setting itself was enough to make it special.
Kaiseki is the multi-course extravaganza that you can expect to be served when you stay in a traditional ryokan. Often you will eat it in your room, and you will then be wearing your yukata dressing gown while sitting on the floor on the tatami mats. There will usually be at least an appetiser, sashimi, several hot dishes… and, when you think you can’t eat anymore, they’ll bring you rice, soup and green tea to finish it all off.
Like a woman possessed, I sought out green tea everywhere I went: I drank matcha tea (the powdered green tea that is used in tea ceremonies) or matcha tea soy latte at every opportunity, even at Starbucks (they have Wi-Fi!). My favourite thing was the “cake set”, a bowl of matcha tea with a lovely little cake to go along with it; I ordered it at every possible opportunity.
In fact, I sought out not just green tea itself but anything that was green and could conceivably contain green tea: ice cream, Swiss roll, croissants, even KitKats!
Sweets and cake
Speaking of cake: I had no idea that I would enjoy the desserts so much in Japan – the little blobs you get on the Yo Sushi conveyor belt in the UK don’t exactly paint a flattering picture of cake in Japan. In fact, you rarely get dessert at a restaurant – you might get some fruit or a small scoop of ice cream – but I soon adopted the tradition of afternoon (and sometimes also morning) tea with a cake stop at a local café.
I’ve already admitted to my obsession with green cakes; my other colour of choice was pink: sakura cakes in various forms were all-pervasive during this spring season, although I still couldn’t tell you what cherry blossom actually tastes like! And then there was anything and everything with red kidney beans in it. Sounds odd but I found the sweet “bean jam” delicious. And beans are healthy, right?!
Finally I have to mention the “happy pudding” in Kurashiki – see last week’s post for more on this.
Just as I had limited my thoughts of Japanese food to sushi, I must admit that I had limited my thoughts of drink to sake. Now there is a lot of sake in Japan, and I certainly drank a good amount – but, of course, that’s not all there is.
In addition to sake, there is shōchū, usually compared to vodka, and distilled from rice, barley, buckwheat, sweet potatoes, or brown sugar. Another spirit is the awamori that comes from Okinawa, made from long-grain rice from Thailand. Without exception, when the people I met spoke of awamori, their comment would be “ahh it’s strong”. This also led to my being labelled a “strong woman” for being able to hold my liquor (is it okay that I’m a little proud of this?).
Perhaps more surprisingly, the Japanese are also increasingly proud of their grape wine. I tried both rosé and red, not bad at all.
Finally, I’m not sure how typical this is, but I had the most spectacularly served Irish coffee in the hotel bar in Hiroshima. There are few occasions when I think it’s appropriate to drink coffee and alcohol together – but I think your arrival in Japan after a 12-hour journey and plenty of jet lag is one of those occasions. The bartender brought a trolley full of whiskey to my table, where he proceeded to perform an impressive display of setting the whiskey on fire (sacrilege! But undeniably entertaining), adding the coffee and the lightly whipped cream on top. I’m not sure if I can drink another one of these in the future, as I can’t imagine the delivery will ever live up to this high standard.
As for my favourite place to enjoy these drinks, I think the award has to go to the tiny little bars in the Shibuya district in Tokyo, where each bar unusually had space only for about four people. Very intimate and cosy! Look out for the one with the magical bartender who can solve the Rubik’s cube in three seconds with just a flick of his wrist…
So, there you go: not just sushi!