Japanese food recipes

Beyond Sushi: Discover Japan's Exquisite Cuisine


With its strong cultural identity, time-honoured ceremonial traditions, and beautiful, bountiful landscapes, Japan boasts some of the finest cuisine on the planet. Discover the best of the country’s elegant fare in our in-depth guide.

Japanese cuisine is nothing if not authentic. Many of its signature dishes have been around for centuries, unchanged by cultural shifts or global food trends. Like nowhere else on Earth, Japan has resisted globalisation when it comes to gastronomy, with local people holding true to an age-old diet that favours seasonal, super-fresh produce over fatty, preserved foods imported from overseas.

Famously nutritious Japanese food may be, but it’s also vibrant, colourful and utterly delicious. And make no mistake, there are still indulgences to be had here, with deep-fried street eats and mouth-watering desserts tempting even the most health-conscious of travellers towards sheer gluttony.

If you’re a great lover of Asian cuisine, you’ll be swept away by the tastes and flavours of Japan. Here, we explore some of the country’s must-try dishes, from classic ramen to delicious yakitori.

Explore Japan's Signature Dishes and Culinary Styles

Japanese food is as diverse as it is seasonal, with a spectacular array of local flavours to discover. Below, we’ve put together a guide to the country’s most famous dishes, so you have an idea of what to look out for on the menu.

Ramen

japanese food guide

Of the countless plates synonymous with Japanese culture, ramen is the most popular and widely-available – so it’s impossible to miss wherever you travel across the nation. Despite being Japan’s bread-and-butter dish, ramen actually hails from China, and was imported to the country via the port of Osaka centuries ago. Several variations of ramen exist, including Shoyu (soy sauce), Shio (salt), Miso (soybean paste) and Tonkotsu (pork bone), and the dish is normally accompanied by a choice of toppings, such as braised pork, bamboo shoots, sliced greens and an egg. Forget fancy restaurants when looking for ramen, because the best places to find it are the affordable ramen-ya eateries scattered across Japan.

 

Takoyaki

japan food guide

A street food favourite in the historic city of Osaka, takoyaki really is a morsel of pure flavour for seafood lovers, its name literally translating as ‘grilled octopus’. This unique street eat comprises of slices of grilled octopus combined with a filling of pickled ginger and green onion, formed into small balls and individually deep fried. Even if you’re no great fan of octopus, it’s a joy to watch it being made, with the local vendors of Osaka’s Dotonbori neighbourhood using a traditional technique passed down through the generations. You’ll find takoyaki sellers throughout Osaka, and we think it’s an unmissable dish that perfectly captures the coastal spirit of the city.

Teppanyaki

japanese food guide

Traditional Japanese Teppanyaki is as close as food gets to theatre. There are few greater culinary pleasures than taking your seat in a teppanyaki restaurant, with the open kitchen acting as the chef’s stage for the evening. Whether you order a grilled fish noodle dish or a sizzling platter of soy-soaked pork, expect a colourful display as your meal is cooked and prepared with gusto before your eyes. Teppanyaki harks back to Japan’s ceremonial legacy, with the process of creating something as important as the final result. Osaka is arguably the capital of teppanyaki cuisine in Japan, so seek it out on your visit for a real culinary extravaganza.

Kaiseki

japanese food guide
Accounting for more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other type of Japanese cuisine, kaiseki is the ultimate fine-dining experience in Japan – with outstanding presentation, memorable service and some of the finest produce on offer in the land of the rising sun. Kaiseki was born out of the principles of Shojin ryori, a type of Zen Buddhist cuisine that comprises a balanced blend of vegetarian ingredients, intended to bring balance to body and mind. Kaiseki takes this strong ceremonial theme one step further, incorporating high-grade meat and fish to create dishes of exceptional quality. While kaiseki restaurants tend to be expensive, you can sample this type of cuisine more affordably in the traditional ryokan inns of Kyoto.

Monjayaki

japanese food guide
Monjayaki, or okonomiyaki, is a type of Japanese pancake that’s become a beloved street food staple of Tokyo. More robust and hearty than a French-style crepe, monjayaki pancakes are always served savoury, often accompanied by a blend of chopped vegetables, like chilli, spring onion and cabbage, as well as a choice of meat (usually bacon) and cheese. Some variations also include seafood, like prawns or seared tuna, but these are usually reserved for restaurants rather than coming from street food vendors. Delicious with a cold a beer and a side of Asian salad, this is a true taste of local flavour in the Japanese capital.

Unagi

japanese food guide
Put simply, unagi is freshwater eel that has a rich, fatty flavour. While this might not sound all that appealing, it’s an exceptionally popular dish across Japan, and is a mainstay in the restaurants of Tokyo – for good reason. Unagi is often prepared in a style called kabayaki, in which the fish is basted in a savoury sweet sauce, grilled and served with a portion of rice and a side of powdered sansho, a type of Japanese chilli pepper. This combination works perfectly to cut through the rich flavour of the eel, particularly if you eat it with other accompaniments, like Asian salad.

Soba

japanese food guide
Soba noodles are an ancient staple of Japan, hailing from the country’s mountainous regions where hardy buckwheat grows in abundance. Wherever you see soba, expect a dish comprising of long, thin noodles that are slightly firm, often served as part of a soup-based dish with sliced meat, seafood and vegetables. One of the most popular dishes that contains soba noodles is served cold and crammed with vegetables, with a hot broth served separately that you can dunk into from time to time. The great thing about soba is that it’s much healthier than other flour-based noodles, perfect for any health-conscious travellers out there.

Tonkatsu

Japanese food guide
Although Japan is fiercely proud of its home-grown dishes, it has allowed some influence from Western cultures, and this is evident in one dish in particular: tonkatsu. Invented during the 19th century when Japan re-opened its doors to the world, this tasty dish features a deep-fried pork cutlet as its main ingredient – an altogether Western feature on a Japanese plate. Any Western similarities end here, however, as the meat is served with a portion of rice, a sticky sweet-savoury sauce and chopped cabbage. It’s also notably smaller and more refined than most plates you’d find in the Western World, but still melt-in-the-mouth delicious.

Yakitori

japanese food guide
One of the biggest misunderstandings people have about Japanese cuisine is its formality. While there are numerous haute-cuisine style eateries out there, like Kaiseki restaurants, many of the country’s favourite dishes are served in a more informal setting. Take yakitori, for example, a delicious chicken skewer cooked to order over charcoal. These wonderful savoury snacks are served in special restaurants known as yakitori-ya, often with a bottle of ice cold beer, but they’re also popular at izakaya, Japan’s version of the British pub. You’ll also find yakitori being prepared by local street food vendors, and they make the perfect impromptu snack as you take in the sights.

Tempura

japanese food guide
Tonkatsu isn’t the only Japanese dish with a Western influence; tempura, a light, deep-fried style of cookery, is believed to have originated from Portuguese sailors, visiting Japan on trade missions centuries ago. Wherever tempura comes from, the Japanese are in love with it, and you will be too once you’ve sampled traditional batter-coated seafood, vegetables and meat, topped with sesame seeds and served with a spicy chilli dipping sauce and grated radish. By far one of the most popular tempura dishes in Japan is ebiten, or deep-fried prawns – look for it whenever you see a restaurant specialising in tempura.

Shabu-Shabu

japanese food guide
Shabu-shabu is perhaps one of the most playful dishes in Japan’s culinary repertoire, its onomatopoeic name supposedly derived from the sound the dish makes. Essentially, shabu-shabu is a cook-your-own meat dish - the diner is given a bowl of simmering broth and a plate of thinly-sliced beef or pork, which they dunk into the broth to cook. This is Japanese gastronomy at its most decadent, and the perfect type of food to graze over for an hour or so as you enjoy a bottle of delicious local sake.

Sushi

japanese food guide
We couldn’t showcase Japanese food without exploring the country’s signature cuisine: sushi. Sushi is Japan’s biggest foodie export, but while it is now readily available in the UK, there’s nothing like trying it for yourself in its country of origin. Slabs of raw fish pair with delicious seasonal vegetables and perfectly cooked rice, creating refreshing savoury morsels that are a joy to eat. One thing that often surprises people about sushi when visiting Japan is that it’s not the high-brow cuisine we’re led to believe in the West, but a humble street food staple that’s enjoyed by everyone. Don’t miss it on your visit.

Discover Japan’s Sweeter Side

japan food guide

While Japan’s most-famous signature dishes may be universally savoury, many people are surprised by the quantity of sweet treats on offer throughout the country. From Kyoto to Osaka, local people are partial to all things sugary, be it cakes or crepes, mochi or dango.

Here to tell us more about Japan’s collective love for desserts is Emma, founder of food and lifestyle blog, Supper in the Suburbs. Emma is a self-confessed obsessive when it comes to Japanese fare, and here she fills us in on what makes the country’s sweet treats so tempting:

“One part of Japanese cuisine that is often forgotten about is the sweeter side. From sugary breakfast treats to delicious desserts and sweet snacks, there are tonnes of confections to choose from. Traditionally these are made with rice and sweet red beans (mochi, daifuku) but, as Japan continues to be influenced by the west, fusions like souffle cheesecakes, crepes and fruit sandos (fruity sandwiches) are becoming increasingly popular!

“One of the most exciting things about Japanese puddings are the combinations of flavours - salted caramel and miso is an unexpected but moreish pairing, yuzu and blueberry is much more classic combo, and of course you have to have matcha flavoured desserts too!

“As with most food in Japan puddings and other sweets are beautifully prepared. They are often a real work of art.”

Experience Culinary Japan with Scenic

scenic sushi

However adventurous you are when it comes to sampling local cuisine, you can dip your toe or dive right in with Scenic. Our luxury escorted tours in Japan offer an all-encompassing experience of this beautiful country, with a handful of special Scenic Enrich and Scenic Freechoice dining events providing the perfect introduction to Japan’s legendary gastronomy.

Whether you want to sample fresh sushi, seek out unusual street food or explore places integral to local life, like Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Fish Market, the choice is yours with Scenic. To learn more about our unforgettable escorted tours in Japan, download our latest Asia and the Far East touring brochure or call us on 0808 274 5893.