In my normal life, I eat a mostly vegetarian, Mediterranean-focused diet. I swore of red meat almost 10 years ago and prefer to consume an array of vegetables and fruits with proteins like fish, eggs and beans to a meat and potatoes diet.
That all changes when I’m on vacation.
Throughout my travels, I’ve forked things into my mouth I never would in my daily life. Haggis (Scotland, unsurprisingly). Boar meat (Italy). Fried bullfrog (China). Kangaroo (Australia). When I travel, I want to explore every facet of that culture, from its customs, to its houses of worship, its nightlife, its nature and, yes, its food. So it was little surprise that I found myself happily slurping up ramen in beef broth and poking at delicate pork dumplings in Japan. The food I tried in Japan is actually probably not all that adventurous to most people, but most of it is a departure from my daily diet, so it was for me. Here are my recommendations for the top five foods to eat in Japan.
An obvious one, yes, but what you’ll find in cities such as Tokyo is that the sushi trains that have become popular in Western countries like Australia are also aplenty. Brendan and I did eat at one of the “trains” on our last day due to having limited time and just wanting a quick bite.
But we ate at one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to in Kyoto. Dirty and sweaty from a day of touring the temples, we stumbled up the stairs to an intimate venue where the host/waiter graciously asked us to remove our shoes and escorted us to a tiny room in the back where we sat at one of those traditional tables that is low to your seat (we didn’t actually sit on the ground, though the rest of the venue was set up that way). He pulled a curtain between our table and the one next to us and preceded to bring us sake unasked and the bevvy of dishes we ordered, with an extra one thrown in to try. I ate from a beautiful sushi platter filled with sashimi of fresh eel, tuna and salmon, and my stomach sang. It was light and perfectly prepared in both visuals and in taste.
This was another gem of a restaurant we found in an alleyway in Harajuku. A sparse menu, the shack seated guests around the kitchen area and then along a row in the back. We ordered cold Kirin and two plates of steamed and fried pork dumplings, a meat I never eat (a note that unlike in Australia and America, you’ll be hard-pressed to find vegetarian or seafood dumplings in Japan). I pronounced on Facebook after the meal that they were the best dumplings I’d ever had, meaning no disrespect to my former favorite Taiwanese dumpling house, Din Tai Fung.
This is not the stuff you ate in college. Well, it sort of is, but it has a lot more stuff in it. This was another interesting find, as I’d looked up another ramen restaurant in Roppongi but, due to navigational ineptitude, I couldn’t find it. What we did find was a really sweet dental hygienist and her coworker closing up their office for the night who walked us 15 minutes to another ramen restaurant. The woman then preceded to give us her phone number in case we got lost again and needed help. I told you the Japanese are awesome.
Anyway, back to the ramen. The restaurant was cozy and lit in brown hues. It was filled with music, the clinking of sake glasses and cigarette smoke (yes, you can still smoke in restaurants in Japan, one bummer to the place — unless, like me, you sometimes smoke on vacation/when intoxicated). I ordered a heaping bowl of noodles that sunk into a dense beef broth atop which floated half-boiled eggs, green onions and dried seaweed. As you can see from the pictures, I left no noodle unslurped. Oh, and that’s another thing: it’s OK to slurp your soup in Japan, as it shows you are enjoying your meal.
4. Japanese sweets
I’d never really tried Asian desserts until I moved to Australia. And there I found a world of sticky rice, red bean shaved ice, green tea roll cake, Korean pastries and avocado-chocolate drinks. Asian desserts don’t seem to feature as much chocolate or dairy as Western ones and use some savory, somewhat subtle ingredients. My friend Gavin had told me to try the desserts in Tokyo for their uniqueness both in taste and how they are crafted. All over Japan, you’ll find not only French-inspired bakeries but candy shops with boxes of “Wagashi,” traditional Japanese confections. There are pastries filled with sweet potato, jellied sweets and steamed buns. They are all most delicious.
5. Green tea ice cream
Ok, so I could have lumped this in with Japanese sweets, but it really deserves individual mention. You’ll find green tea flavors all over Japan, but there is something distinctly refreshing about a cone of green tea soft serve on a scorching summer day in Japan. It’s not as sweet as I imagined it would be, but had a creamy lightness that almost made it seem like you were eating something sorta good for you. You’re not, so go easy, tiger.
I’d love for you to add to this list of top foods to eat in Japan if you’ve been there. Or, share some of your favorite foods from your travels.
*Green tea ice cream image by LWY