Japanese Food 101 – It’s Not All About Sushi


Ask a regular guy on the street to name a Japanese dish, and you’re almost guaranteed to get one of these three answers: sushi, sashimi, or teriyaki. Some might also say miso soup (or something like lo mein, which is Chinese, but thanks for playing). However, there is a wide variety of washoku (Japanese cuisine) that you need to try if you haven’t already. Here are just a few of my favorite Japanese dishes:


By Ocdp (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Ocdp (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

You may have seen my previous post about me and my taste for donburi, so you already know about my love affair with gyuudon. Deliciously-marinated beef and onions laying over a bowl of rice just can’t be beat.


Okonomiyaki by Jennie Faber, on Flickr (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Okonomiyaki by Jennie Faber, on Flickr (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Known as a type of “Japanese pancake,” okonomiyaki literally means “grilled as you like it.” Take a batter consisting of eggs, flour, and a few other ingredients depending on the region, and add a variety of meats and veggies like scallions, cabbage, and pork. Sprinkle some delectable bonito flakes, okonomi sauce, pickled ginger and Japanese mayo on top, and enjoy. This dish is particularly famous in Osaka and Hiroshima, but I’ve had some damn good okonomiyaki in Tokyo and New York as well.


Photo by Keith Pomakis on 2004-09-18. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Photo by Keith Pomakis on 2004-09-18. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Takoyaki means “grilled octopus” and is sometimes described as an octopus ball, but that description tends to freak people out (and makes people consider, ‘how do octopi reproduce, anyway?). It’s actually very similar to okonomiyaki in that it’s a batter with octopus, scallion and picked ginger tucked inside, but instead of a pancake shape it’s rolled into a little ball. It has similar toppings to okonomiyaki as well, including bonito flakes, Japanese mayo, and takoyaki sauce.

See also: Otafuku NYC: The Best Place in New York City for Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki.


By typester from Kamakura, Kanagawa (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By typester from Kamakura, Kanagawa (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

My nickname growing up was “Onigiri-chan,” and if I could only eat one thing for the rest of my life, this would be it. Commonly seen in anime/manga and also known as omusubi, onigiri are rice balls wrapped in seaweed. You can find anything from tuna/mayo, to ume (pickled plum), to kombu (kelp) and more stuffed inside. 7-11s and other convenience stores in Japan sell a wide variety of onigiri, usually for $1-$1.50 each, which also makes them a great snack on a budget.

My favorite? Tuna/mayo, kombu, salmon, or tsukemono (Japanese pickles), though I’ve been told my takuan (pickled daikon raddish) stuffing isn’t a standard onigiri filling. Whatever!


*撮影者:小太刀 *ころそば 冷たいかけそばです。 (via Wikimedia Commons)

*撮影者:小太刀 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Soba are buckwheat noodles that can be served in a variety of ways; usually in a hot soup or cold with dipping sauce. There are all kinds of ways to make the noodles themselves, as well as the soups or sauces they’re dipped in. They can be grilled, smothered in sauce and mixed with meat and vegetables to make yakisoba, a popular street food at matsuri (festivals).

My favorite? Sansai (mountain vegetables) soba, which includes veggies like bamboo shoots in a tsuyu broth.


via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

Udon noodles are similar to soba, but thicker, whiter, and slimier. They’re made from wheat flour and can also be served hot, cold, or fried in yakiudon. My preference is soba but my fiance’s is udon, so try both and decide which one you like best!

My favorite? Kitsune udon, a hot soup style with fried tofu on top.


By ayustety from Tokyo, Japan (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By ayustety from Tokyo, Japan (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tonkatsu is a panko-fried pork cutlet, cooked golden brown, served with tonkatsu sauce over it. It’s usually served with a side of cabbage and rice, but is also delectable covered in curry or as katsudon. I’ve never met any meat eater who hasn’t loved this dish.

My favorite? Katsu curry; the fried pork cutlet smothered in Japanese curry sauce with rice and cabbage.


via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not talking your Cup Noodles ramen… I’m talking the real, delicious good stuff, swimming in a variety of broths alongside meat, vegetables, and egg. Ramen is actually of Chinese origin, but was adopted by Japan and each region has made it their own.

My favorite? Shoyu (soy sauce) ramen with pork, hard-boiled egg, scallion, bamboo shoots and seaweed.

Japanese Desserts

Japanese desserts are also so much more than green tea ice cream. I highly recommend:


Anmitsu by jetalone in Akasaka, Tokyo (via Wikimedia Commons)

Anmitsu by jetalone in Akasaka, Tokyo (via Wikimedia Commons)

This is a light and refreshing dessert. Included are agar jelly cubes, red bean paste, canned fruit like mandarin oranges, cherries and pineapple, and vanilla ice cream in the canned fruit juice.


By yomi955 (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By yomi955 (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Usually a fish-shaped “waffle” stuffed with azuki paste, but if red bean isn’t your style, you can also get it stuffed with fillings like chocolate or custard.

What are some of your favorite Japanese foods? Please share them!


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  • Jen

    When I’m in the US I miss this kind of Japanese food. Most of the restaurants near where I live in the US only have sushi and tempura and not this kind of stuff. The other foods that I like are omurice and Japanese curry. Yum!

    • http://www.tokyotako.com allie

      Thanks for commenting, Jen! I don’t know where in the US you live, but I guess I’m pretty lucky to live near NYC… when I’m feeling “homesick” for Japan and Japanese food, I know that a few spots that make me feel better are just a train ride away.

  • http://japan-australia.blogspot.com/ Japan Australia

    So many great Japanese dishes. I love tempura, miso katsu, yakisoba and yakitori. A lot of my favourites also go very well with a nice cold beer.

    • http://www.tokyotako.com allie

      An ice cold beer… or two or three ;)

  • http://www.otakufood.com/ Dani

    Good post, Japanese food is definitely a lot more than just sushi and teriyaki. Great dishes there, but don’t forget about my absolute favorite, Japanese curry!

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