The Road Less Traveled for Japanese Food
Japanese dishes like sushi, sukiyaki, and shabu-shabu are often familiar to non-Japanese people. But there is a lot more to Japanese food than what is usually served in the West, so I’d like to use this blog post to introduce favorite foods and observations from international friends who actually live in Japan.
“I love sushi! I go to Japan a lot. I don’t want to eat sushi in my own country because I worry if the fish is fresh” (Malaysia/Female/30s)
“I’ve known about and had sushi for a long time. Things like Dragon roll, California roll.. but since living here, I’ve realized that’s not what is served in Japan” (USA/female/20s)
Sushi is probably the main symbol of Japanese food overseas, but the sushi served in other countries is usually not the simple sashimi and vinegared rice that is eaten in japan, but fusion food that includes mayonnaise, avocado, teriyaki sauce, etc. That doesn’t mean that fusion sushi is worse, just that it is interesting to try the original style, the original sushi, from Japan.
One thing that probably is objectively better about Japanese sushi vs other countries is the freshness of the fish. Sashimi and sushi are big deals here, and there are huge fish markets and restaurant supply chains making sure the raw fish you eat is the freshest in the world. So whether it’s the original sushi or the foreign fusion sushi than can now even be found in Tokyo, pay attention to the taste of the fish itself. You’ll be surprised!
“I was surprised by how delicious raw egg is!” (Quebec/Female/20s)
At first, foreigners can be surprised that Japanese eat raw egg, and worry if it’s safe. It seems that eating raw eggs is rather rare in most of the world. But once you see how common it is in Japan, and realize that it’s perfectly safe here, you may become addicted and see your egg consumption go way up. Over rice, over sukiyaki, there are a lot of ways to use raw egg, and they are all healthy and delicious!
“Before coming to Japan, I had never heard of it, but okonomiyaki is a delicious treat, especially with drinks at an izakaya!” (Netherlands/Male/30s)
Fluffy dough with plenty of vegetables, seafood and meat, okonomiyaki has been described as a Japanese pancake or Japanese pizza, but both comparisons don’t really get across this unique Japanese dish. Healthy, affordable and easy to make even at home, it’s a popular food all over Japan with different regional styles (try the Hiroshima style with delicious yakisoba noodles), and many different possible ingredients (one of my favorites is with kimchi, which was introduced by Japan’s long-standing and large ethnic Korean community).
Even if you’ve had okonomiyaki overseas, it’s likely that it was the standard Osaka style, which while delicious, is just one among an almost infinite variety to be found in Tokyo and regional areas.
“I didn’t know about oden until I came to Japan, but it’s absolutely delicious and great for cold winter nights!” (UK/male/30s)
One of the lesser known Japanese dishes overseas is oden, but it’s very popular here and a symbol of winter time. A stew with ingredients that at first seem strange and foreign, once you give it a try, it’s a hearty dish that warms your body without making you feel heavy. Full of healthy vegetables, fish cakes and eggs, it will fill you up while still keeping you healthy.
“I was never into fried foods living in Shanghai because they were so greasy, but after being in Japan, I’m a huge tonkatsu and tempura fan!” (China/Female/30s)
Tonkatsu, tempura, fried chicken, fried oyster, and other fried foods are often found in Japanese izakayas (traditional drinking establishments), and unlike many fried foods elsewhere, a lot of care and effort is taken to keep the items from feeling greasy, but rather light and fresh. There is a huge variety but my personal favorites include tonkatsu, fried oysters, and fried squid yakitori.
"Japanese soy sauce ramen had a different taste from the soy sauce ramen I ate in Munich. It was sweeter in Munich. I also liked it, but I love Japanese ramen " (Germany/Female/20's)
These days the quality of ramen overseas, especially in large international cities like NY, Sydney or Hong Kong, is excellent, rivaling good ramen in Japan. But it is usually two or three times more expensive than a similar quality in Japan, and good ramen with infinite regional and individual restaurant variations is easy to find anywhere in Japan. Not just ramen, but noodles of all kinds, udon, soba, yakisoba, they are all delicious and worth a try. Cold soba is one of my favorites, and a wonderful treat on a hot summer day.
And finally, there is one food that is worth a try, just as a culinary adventure. Don’t worry, it isn’t some strange animal, it’s fermented soy beans, natto!
"Natto is probably a big divide among foreigners living in Japan. Some people never learn to like it even after decades of living here, while others take to it right away. I like it because it’s healthy and the taste, when acquired, is unique and delicious” (France/Female/20s)
It is a rite of passage for foreigners in Japan to at least try natto, and their Japanese friends and coworkers look forward to seeing the look on their faces when they first have it. It’s kind of gooey and sticky and has a shall we say unique smell and mouth feel, but is a favorite among most Japanese people, and one of the things we think of as unique to Japan. So give it a try if you feel a little adventurous! But it’s also the only food on this list that is not likely to be a surefire hit.
Regardless, if you find yourself in Japan, or at a good, authentic Japanese restaurant overseas, try something new! I think you won’t regret it. And if you would like to shop for a variety of unique Japanese ingredients, snacks, foods and beverages, please take a look at the Food and Drink section of Allegro Japan, a wonderful new one-stop-shop for Japanese products where I work.