Before coming to Japan I knew very little about Japanese food, beyond sushi – of which I’d only had a vegetarian version – and maybe teriyaki. Now after two weeks here (yes, you know I’m writing this after leaving Japan, let’s not try to pretend otherwise), I can confidently state that Japanese food is the dog’s bollocks. And frankly, I wouldn’t care if it was literally the dog’s bollocks, because the chefs would probably manage to make that extremely tasty.
OK, basics first, one of my first pieces of advice (received from scarf guy) was ‘sit down sushi is very expensive, but go round sushi is very very cheap, and still good fish!’
Also any meal that comes with a conveyor belt has to be more fun, right?
I ate in a couple of different sushi restaurants, and while you can pick things off the conveyor, it’s more usual to select what you want on a computer screen (with a handy English option) and have it whizzed out to you at the same price. I ordered a mix at random as I had no idea what I would like, if anything, since I’m not an enormous fish eater. This was a revelation. I can’t believe I’ve never had sashimi sushi before. It’s amazing (OK, apart from the fish egg thing top right, that was just weird). Sadly part of the reason I’ve never had sushi before is because I live in Dorset which, although it has ready access to fish, is not exactly known for embracing international cuisine, so I might struggle to fulfill my cravings at home.
With other, less well known Japanese food, you’ll often see displays of plastic food in the window. Apparently there’s a factory somewhere in Japan where you can see these models being made and get a free piece of plastic lettuce as a souvenir. That’s gone straight on my list of places to come back to.
Okonomiyaki is an Osaka specialty (but you’ll find it elsewhere as well), which is tasty as hell, if not particularly photogenic. It’s basically an egg and cabbage batter pancake with stuff mixed in. I went for pork. It’s then topped with brown sauce and mayonnaise for the haute cuisine touch, and piles of bonito flakes which start curling up immediately on the hot plate. Bonito flakes are bits of dried fish, a description which totally doesn’t do them justice. Bonito flakes are like FISH BACON!
Well, that might be a little strong. I’m sorry bacon. You’re still number one.
Tonkatsu = breaded pork fillets. Explains itself really doesn’t it? This one was served with rice and egg, plus bonus side dishes of miso soup and unidentifiable pickled things. You will get a lot of these. I like them, but aside from color I really can’t tell the difference between them all.
Ramen. Mmm. Chaa shu kotteri ramen to be precise. Noodle soup so good I had to go to this restaurant twice (Karako in Kyoto, for those who want to know. It’s in the lonely planet guide) For a country that is so famous for fish and beef I’ve had a lot of very good pork. This pork slice was so soft that I just poked it with a chopstick and it fell apart.
Takoyaki = fried octopus balls. That is, balls of batter with a piece of octopus inside rather than octopus… um… balls. Also served as Daichitako, which is the same thing, but served in a soup. I bought these as a dare to myself expecting then to be gross, but they were really not bad, the octopus was way less rubbery than I’ve had it anywhere else. Even if you don’t want to try them it’s worth seeking them out to watch them being made
Tempura (and more miso soup and pickles!) = lightly battered deep fried stuff. Tempera plates usually involve shrimp, but I have to admit that though Asia is changing my mind about fish I’m still not a great shellfish fan, so I went for the mystery vegetable platter instead. You’re supposed to dip the pieces in the tempura sauce but I ended up dipping them in the miso soup instead because it had more flavour. I was probably breaking a hundred years of Japanese food etiquette doing that.
Yakitori = things on sticks! You can choose to have them either with teriyaki sauce or just salt and pepper. Having had both I think I prefer the salt. This was another mystery platter, since I was in a place with no English menu. The middle stick was just fat, and I think some of them were chewy enough to be organ rather than flesh. Still all good though.
Hey look, something familiar! The most famous, exclusive, expensive types of beef in Japan are Kobe and Wagyu. This is not either of those (at least, I assume it isn’t, since I was able to afford it), but it was still really really good beef. I wasn’t even asked how I wanted it cooked and it came out perfect – so if you’re one of those weirdos who likes well done beef you might want to try and tell your waitress that.
By the way, there’s a prize* if you can guess where I ate this. I bet it’s not where you expect
Sweets in Japan generally involve sticky rice and beans, like much of Asia. I like the red bean (azuki) ones, but this one was mung beans and was kinda disappointing. Pretty though. Also, to make up for it the Japanese like chocolate a lot more than their fellow Asians. Hurrah!
I’m really ashamed to say I didn’t try this, but there are vending machine restaurants in Tokyo. I think you make your selection and then wait in the restaurant to have it brought out. Not sure, it was really busy so I didn’t bother. Next time, as always.
If after all that you still aren’t sure about Japanese food, or you end up walking yourself into hangry** exhaustion and need something familiar, I’m happy to report that Japan also does really good Western food, particularly Italian. I had a stewed beef cheek risotto that I will dream about for months, and i had it in a shopping mall, above a train station, because Tokyo has good food everywhere. And if you’re concerned about Japanese food being too expensive, my costliest meal was around £17. More often I was spending £5-8 per meal. Obviously it’s possible to spend a hell of a lot more, but it’s certainly not compulsory.
I’m very sorry if this post caught you at a hangry moment. Go eat some beans on toast to make yourself feel better.
*actual prize may not exist
**not a typo. Hangry = hungry and angry. It’s a serious affliction