When booking our flights to Japan I considered adding some elasticated shorts to my meagre wardrobe. With only three weeks to satisfy 4 years of Japanese food cravings, sacrifices had to be made. Mainly around the waistline. Japanese cuisine is more varied than one might think encompassing so much more than just sushi and tempura prawns. After two months of the battle of the chilli, I was ready for a break.
Four years ago, I lived in Miyagi prefecture, approximately 400 kilometres north of Tokyo. In the summer months I cycled to work along dead country roads bordered by rice paddies and vegetable patches, growing everything from aubergines to zucchini, each embracing the rising sun. Different prefectures have their own speciality produce, examples include Fukushima peaches and Aomori apples, which will set you back a penny or ten. But the quality of the perfectly formed, unblemished produce is extraordinary. The greatest fellowship of centennials is in Japan, where fish and rice are king. Fish comes raw, preserved, pickled, barbecued, fried, even made into a delicious fish cake. Japanese rice is a glutenous short grain breed, which is can be cooked or processed into flour. If rice doesn’t tickle you maybe noodles will. There’s a huge misconception that all Japanese food is healthy. The Japanese have a word which encompasses all of their fried food, ‘aagemono’, and the different styles of batters, crumbs, and coatings demonstrate just how seriously they are.
Anyone who knows me will know I have a weakness for fried chicken. Anyone who lived with me in Japan will know why. Karaage is special. I often bought a stick of karaage on my way home from work as a cooking snack. Generally made from chicken thigh, marinated overnight, and fried in a rice flour batter, karaage always hits the spot. It’s also everywhere. At restaurants, bars, cold in bento boxes, hot by the convenience store check out, squeezed with lemon, served with Kewpie mayo, or naked, it is only too easy to get your hands on these juicy bites of tenderness.
2. Sushi and sashimi
When I arrived in Sendai to meet my supervisor for the first time, I was 21. Naturally, I was also hung over. I wasn’t the only one. Sadistically I had managed to coax half of the new recruits of Miyagi prefecture to come out with me the night before. We gawked out the window avoiding shameful eyes. After one last group meeting in Sendai, we were separated, and protection of the herd was no longer available. My supervisor took me for lunch. I sat awkwardly on my haunches in a skirt. Our sets arrived. A tray was laid on the table in front of me. A fat white tentacle winked at me with its giant sucker. It was my first experience with raw fish which was quickly mistranslated as I was ’scared of fish’. Laughing, my supervisor ensured that everyone who we worked with, knew this detail. I eventually got over the initial mortification and over time eased myself in with sushi, eventually working my way toward sashimi. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, raw fish and I became close friends.
There are many different types of donburi. Donburi, often abbreviated to don, is a bowl of rice topped with deliciousness. A few common favourites are;
Katsudon, a panko crumbed pork cutlet topped with egg
Tendon, topped with a tempura mix
Unadon, marinated grilled eel, similar to teriyaki
Oyakodon, which loosely translates as ‘mother and child bowl’, consisting of chicken, egg, and leek
My favourite has to be gyudon which is stewed thin slices of beef and onion, or butadon, the pork alternative. Load up on shredded pink ginger for a burst of liveliness, and shichimi (the red seasoning) for a touch of heat, and you have yourself a hearty and satisfying bowl. I always order an ontama (half-cooked egg) on the side so I can dunk my beef in the runny yolk.
The origin of the word ramen reputedly comes from the word lamein, a corruption of a Chinese word which means ‘pulled noodles’. Ramen noodles are traditionally made from flour, water, oil, and a type of mineral heavy alkaline water called kansui. Kansui can also be substituted for egg. Ramen typically has a richer flavour and chewier texture than soumen or soba. Toppings vary, most common are chashu pork, fish cakes, and fermented bamboo shoots. This sounds quite average on the surface, but the secret weapon is the broth. There isn’t only one flavour of ramen broth, generally speaking there are four main types, tonkotsu (meat bone), shio (salt), shouyu (soy) and miso. Ramen shops and local regions will have their own specialisation, such as the notably delicious butter ramen in Hokkaido. The flavourful savoury broth with the firm noodles is a treat, provided you don’t burn yourself. Ramen is always served extra hot, and slurping is mandatory.
5. Matsuri food
The best Japanese junk food can be found at pop up stalls, kitted with gas-powered hot plates or coal fire grills. Favourites include yakitori (skewers of marinated barbecue chicken), karaage (fried chicken), yakisoba (fried soba noodles), takoyaki (octopus pancake balls), and okonomiyaki(see below). On my last trip I came across something they called hashiyaki, essentially a griddled okonomiyaki pancake wrapped loosely around a pair of disposable chopsticks, topped with seaweed, ginger, kewpie mayo and sauce. Once the pancake begins to fall off the chopsticks, you split them to scoop up the rest.
Beyond the five foods above, here’s a little list of other things worth looking out for
Aisatsu aren’t food, but they’re an important aspect of Japanese culture. Aisatsu is a general term for formalised greetings in Japan. Nobody will blink if you don’t engage, but they will probably love it if you make the effort. In restaurant environments, the three main ones are:
Itadakimasu – before you begin to eat
Goshisou sama deshita – after you have eaten
Kampai! – for clinking glasses.
Dumplings. Also known as the way to my heart. Filled with seasoned pork, wrapped, pan-fried.
You can buy it in packets as a roux cube or a microwavable packet from the supermarket, or at any good junky restaurant. Japanese curry is repugnant in appearance, but the love it gives you will warm anyone up.
Convenience stores (known as konbini in Japan) do convenience food much better than their worldwide counterparts. I wouldn’t normally think about a pre-made sandwich, unless I was looking for disappointment. But head to any convenience store in Japan and you can easily find yourself lost in the excellent choices available. Best picks are cold tsukemen (noodles served with dipping sauce), bento boxes (essentially a rice based packed lunch), onigiri (rice, shaped into various shapes, flavoured or stuffed) and anything from the hot counter (fried, steamed, and sometimes boiled in soup). Just close your eyes and point.
Konyaku or konjac is hard to describe. It’s a plant derived product which can be processed into a jelly like substance with little flavour. It’s not eaten for the flavour, rather for the texture and its low calorie properties.
Okonomiyaki is junk food at its finest and translates as, ‘grilled as you like’. It’s worth mentioning there are two distinct versions. In Kansai it’s a griddled pancake consisting of mainly cabbage, onions and whatever other filling you like (meat or squid are favourites, mochi and cheese is a great alternative). The filling is mixed into the batter and fried on a hot plate. The Hiroshima version is similar but often contains noodles and is built in distinct layers. Both served with kewpie mayo of course, a thick tonkatsu-esque sauce, seaweed and dried bonito flakes.
Winter food. Essentially a light broth in which you stew konyaku (see above), daikon, and a mish mash of different fish cakes and beancurd items.
Miso is a salty fermented bean paste used in cooking as well as for soup.
Glutenous rice is pounded into a lightly sweet substance somewhere between a marshmallow and a gummy bear. Often combined with other flavours such as peanut, seseme seed, red bean, mung bean, even strawberry or chocolate.
The three are all related. A large pot full of soup is placed on the table on a camping stove. Your choice of vegetables, protein, and noodles arrive at your table which you cook in the steaming pot.
Soba noodles are a brownish grey in colour, made from buckwheat flour. Their flavour is earthier than white or yellow noodles. They are great served cold as they stand up better to the salty flavour of the salty tsuyu dipping sauce.
The one and only. Tempura is a style of fried food with a distinctive pale yellow ultra light batter. Pumpkin is great veggie choice and of course you have to try the prawn.
Pork cutlet, coated in panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried, served with delicious special tonkatsu sauce. Tonkatsu sauce is brown, thick, and tastes not unlike condensed worcestershire.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Umen noodles are a local speciality of Shiroishi city, Miyagi prefecture, where I used to live. The legend goes that a son had a father with gastric problems. The son produced a ‘healthy’ noodle containing no oil so that his father could continue to eat noodles. Umen look like a stumpy, creamier coloured version of soumen, and are often served with a warm dipping sauce made from cold tsuyu and hot nabe.
Choose your meat, and then your cut. Rib eye, sirloin, liver, tongue, and all other bits find their way on to the menu. The meat is prepared for cooking and you have the pleasure of barbecuing it on the table yourself. Find somewhere offering jingisukan, a variant of yakinikku, and you’ll find yourself in a completely unrelated hats off to the Mongolian mogul consisting of all you can eat mutton barbecue.