Sushi is one of the first foods that spring to mind when we think about Japanese cuisine. This delicacy was one of the first Japanese dishes to be exported to the US after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and since then its popularity has steadily increased year after year. The word ‘sushi’ refers to any dish made with Japanese rice that has been seasoned with rice vinegar. Common varieties of sushi include makizushi (sushi rice and fillings rolled up in nori seaweed), nigiri sushi (shaped, bite-size mounds of sushi rice with single slices of raw fish or similar draped over the top) and inarizushi (sushi rice stuffed inside pockets of inari; a type of seasoned, fried tofu).
One of the three main noodle varieties eaten in Japan; udon noodles are thick, chewy, and traditionally made from wheat flour and brine water. Udon can be served in a number of different ways (mixed into stir fries, added to hot pots, served cold with a tsuyu or tentsuyu soup base on the side for dipping), but are most commonly used in noodle soups, where they are served in a savoury soup broth with different garnishes. Some of the most common udon noodle soup dishes include kitsune udon (‘fox udon’, topped with aburaage fried tofu), tempura udon (topped with tempura battered seafood and vegetables), and chikara udon (‘power udon’, topped with grilled mochi rice cakes).
Although tofu is mainly thought of in Western countries as a health food or vegetarian alternative, in Southeast Asian countries like Japan, tofu (particularly silken tofu) is enjoyed by everybody and is a common part of the traditional diet. To answer the question 'what is tofu?', it is soy milk that has been coagulated, with the resulting curds being pressed into blocks. These blocks come in differing levels of firmness, and can be eaten uncooked (perhaps with a couple of savoury garnishes), boiled in hot pots, or fried into tasty pieces of aburaage and used as a garnish.
If you enjoy crispy fried foods, then you will love tempura. Tempura are pieces or slices of meat, fish, and/or vegetables that have been covered in a special tempura batter and deep fried until they become crunchy and pale gold in colour. Unlike in the UK, where battered foods tend to be made from meats and fish, tempura tends to be made from either small shellfish like prawns, or vegetables like green beans, pumpkin, daikon mooli radish, and sweet potato. Tempura can be eaten by itself (perhaps with a little grated daikon and a small dish of tsuyu for dipping), or served on top of rice bowls or noodle soups.
While we in the UK might pick up a serving of chips or a hot dog during a sports match, the Japanese will pick up some yakitori. With a name literally meaning ‘barbecued chicken’, yakitori are small skewers of bite-size chicken pieces seasoned with salt or brushed with a sauce, or tare, of mirin rice wine, soy sauce, sake alcohol, and sugar. There are many different types of yakitori, but the most common varieties are momo (chicken thigh), negima (chicken and spring onion), and tsukune (chicken meatballs).
Possibly one of the most controversial dishes in all of Japanese cuisine, sashimi is raw fish or meat that has been expertly cut into thin slices and typically comes served with daikon radish, pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce. Sashimi differs from sushi in that all sushi is made with vinegared rice and does not always contain raw fish, while sashimi is almost exclusively raw fish and is never served with rice. The fish used to make sashimi must be as fresh as possible, both in order to minimise the risk of contamination, and because fresher fish makes for tastier sashimi.
Ramen is a noodle soup dish consisting of wheat noodles (also known as 'ramen noodles'), a savoury broth (soy sauce, salt, miso, and tonkotsu pork bone are the four main ramen broth bases) and toppings of meat, protein, and/or vegetables such as sliced pork, nori seaweed, spring onions, bamboo shoots, and others. Ramen is one of present-day Japan’s absolute favourite delicacies, costing very little and being widely available in restaurants and ramen bars (which are on almost every street corner). Indeed, Japanese ramen is so popular that there is a ramen-themed museum/amusement park in Tokyo.
This rice bowl dish is almost as popular as ramen in Japan and a common lunchtime choice among busy Japanese workers. Donburi is made by preparing (normally by simmering or frying) various meat, fish and vegetables and serving over steamed rice in large bowls (also called 'donburi'). While donburi can be made using just about any assortment of ingredients, the most common types include oyakodon (simmered chicken, egg, and green onion), gyudon (sliced beef and onion simmered in a soy sauce soup base), tendon (fried tempura pieces drizzled in tsuyu), and katsudon (breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets, or tonkatsu, simmered in tsuyu with onion and egg).
In the same way that Marmite divides the British nation, so too does natto divide the Japanese. This traditional Japanese food is made by fermenting soy beans in a special type of bacteria that is naturally produced in the human gastrointestinal tract. Natto has a strong smell similar to mouldy cheese, as well as a sticky/slimy texture that many find off-putting. However, many other people love these fermented soy beans for their full-bodied salty and savoury (or umami) flavour and their ample nutritional value. Is natto delicious or disgusting? It is up to you to decide.
No cold Japanese winter would be complete without oden. This winter hot pot dish, or nabemono, is made by taking an assortment of vegetables and proteins (including processed fish cakes, mochi rice cakes, boiled eggs, daikon radish, konjac yam and tofu), and stewing them in a light broth seasoned with soy sauce and dashi (a soup stock made from infusions of bonito fish flakes, kombu kelp seaweed, and/or other savoury ingredients) in a large hot pot at the centre of a table. Diners can then scoop out their favourite pieces and enjoy with karashi mustard and other condiments. As well as being a hearty main meal, the simmering hot pot also serves as a communal heater on cold evenings.