Everyone speaks a little Japanese now – nigiri, maki, sashimi, nori, toro… The only problem is that sushi, delicious as it may be, is only one tiny facet of Japan’s varied cuisine. Here are a few other things worth looking out for when you’re there.
Eating meat was banned in Japan for a long while, and for some Buddhist monks it’s still strictly verboten. Luckily, they have the joys of shōjin-ryōri to sustain them, Japan’s vegetarian temple cuisine, honed over centuries. The best places to try it are either at a temple (or one of the traditional restaurants which cluster around them) or at a cookery class.
Mariko in the historic city of Kamakura runs an excellent English-language class on shōjin-ryōri (alongside classes on other types of Japanese food), which provides both practical insight into how to make it and a glimpse of its fascinating history. Of course, you get the joy of eating what you made at the end, too, and maybe even attempting to recreate it at home.
This is classic Japanese comfort food, simple and filling. It’s just rice (anything with “-don” on the end is rice with a hearty topping), chicken, egg, onions and a light sauce, but as with a lot of Japanese food, it’s the attention to the quality of the ingredients that makes it so appealing. Oh, and the deliciously dark humour of the name: “mother and child bowl”.
This is pretty much as close as Japanese cuisine gets to junk food. The dish is based on a thick batter mixed with shredded cabbage, to which you add whatever you fancy (the name is literally “grilled whatever-you’d-like”), such as bacon, mochi, seafood, even cheese. Then, once it’s cooked, you cover it in a mouth-watering soy- and Worcestershire-based sauce (okonomi sauce), Kewpie mayonnaise, seaweed and bonito flakes. It’s best eaten in the Kansai region, especially Ōsaka; Tokyo has its own version of the dish, monjayaki, which is much gloopier and eaten with a tiny spatula rather than chopsticks.
Although the name’s the same, do not confuse Ōsaka-style and Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki. The latter is a completely different beast, layered, complex and definitely best prepared by professionals. Like Ōsaka-style it can be adjusted according to your tastes, but the essentials are: a thin layer of batter, fried noodles, a thin omelette/fried egg, shredded cabbage, okonomi sauce and seaweed. If any of your friends are from Ōsaka or Hiroshima, be prepared: you will be asked which you prefer, and “they’re both delicious”, while true, will placate neither of them…
Kabocha chiffon cake
This deliciously light cake made from squash is just one example of Japan’s innovative fusion food. Blending Japanese ingredients (locally grown vegetables, adzuki beans, tofu) and gastronomic perfectionism with Western baking traditions produces some surprising and tasty results.
Kyoto is particularly great at this, and it’s well worth spending an afternoon becoming acquainted with the ancient capital’s very modern café culture. Among the best is Sarasa, a small local chain serving international and Japanese food, often in beautiful buildings. Kisakiya, in the north of the city, is run by a young mother and serves mostly vegan and macrobiotic food, with cakes and cookies to take away.
Now this one does lose a little in translation, but honestly, octopus balls really are delicious. These are small balls of batter mixed with spring onions, pickled ginger, tenkasu (small pieces of tempura batter), flakes of seaweed and small pieces of octopus. They’re served with similar toppings to okonomiyaki, but are far more deadly: the inside is molten, so woe betide the rookie who bites in without letting it cool first. “Takoyaki parties”, where you make them with your friends, are pretty common, but if you’re a little squeamish about tentacles you can make your own version – sausage-yaki, mochi-yaki, even choco-yaki.
Japanese sweets are so much more varied than just amusingly named chocolates (see “Melty Kiss”) and bizarrely flavoured Kit Kats. Wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets), as well as being delicious, are beautiful. There are the artisanal, seasonally significant ones served during the tea ceremony; squishy, gooey mochi made from rice flour and often adzuki beans; dorayaki, sweet bean paste sandwiched between small pancakes; and more other varieties than you could count. They’ll be different in every region and every month – try to find a local sweet shop (or even a large train station or department store) to wander around and let your mind boggle at the amazing variety and exquisite craftsmanship.
Okonomiyaki is only one example of Japan’s dizzyingly varied regional cuisine. Head down to Okinawa and you’ll find purple sweet potatoes, Chinese-, Korean- and American-influenced dishes, and the superfoods which have led to more centenarians per capita than anywhere else in the world. At the other end of the country is Hokkaidō, where most of Japan’s dairy is produced, so among their signature dishes is butter ramen (surprisingly delicious). Other Hokkaidō-specific delicacies are Jingisukan (grilled mutton, named for Genghis Khan) and of course, Sapporo beer.
To really get the taste of sushi out of your mouth, head to the nearest festival as soon as possible. Here you’ll see the loud, messy, exciting heart of Japanese cuisine. Every stall will specialise in one or maybe two foods.
You may want to ease in with more recognisable dishes like yakisoba, yakitori, sausages or ringo-ame (toffee apples – strawberries and other fruits are popular, too). Then you could step up to the slightly more unusual ones like yaki-mochi (fried glutinous rice cakes), kakigōri (shaved ice with palpitation-inducingly sweet syrups) or takoyaki. Before you know it you’ll be happily devouring ika-yaki (grilled, skewered squid with a soy-based glaze) like the best of them. With all this on offer, who even needs sushi?