Get ready to indulge your senses and explore the rich tapestry of flavours, textures, and traditions that define Japanese cuisine with Ben Groundwater. The celebrated columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, accomplished feature writer, broadcaster, and author of the acclaimed guidebook "Neon Lights in Tokyo", has been exploring Japan, and its unique cuisine, for over 15 years.
There is no way you should ever limit yourself to just 10 different dishes when you’re in Japan. This is quite possibly the most exciting, most consistently delicious and most diverse food scene on the planet. Why stick to just 10?
Not only does Japan have its own varied and tasty styles of cuisine (many of which are listed below), but there are also extensive options available from around the world, some of which – Italian, for example – have even been improved upon by talented local cooks.
However, you can’t eat everything. And so, with just a small amount of time in Japan, here is what you should be sampling. The best of the best. The crème de la crème. The 10 dishes you just have to try.
You can’t skip Japan’s most famous delicacy, even though it’s not quite as ubiquitous in its homeland as you might expect. Still, there is genuine love and respect for sushi in Japan, and also incredible skill, as you will realise upon visiting any high-end, omakase-style sushi bar. The nigiri at these places is mind-blowing in its exquisite flavour and texture, driven by the laser-like attention to detail of the chefs.
Yes, all the noodles, because you can’t choose between the legends here, between ramen, the noodle of true obsessives, and soba, so pristine and beautiful, and udon, hearty and filling. Or at least, I can’t. When you’re travelling in Japan you should seek out all examples from the noodle world, served hot or cold, with hearty soups or clear broths, with side dishes or given solo starring roles.
What is yakitori? It’s chicken on a stick. Bits of chicken, stuck on skewers, grilled over charcoal. However, that basic description sells this style of cuisine well short, because in practice yakitori is a refined art, as chefs take all sorts of interesting cuts of poultry and vegetables and grill them over artisanal binchotan coals to absolute perfection.
Here’s another simple concept – grilled beef – launched into the stratosphere. At typical Japanese yakiniku joints, diners gather around small grills and cook their own cuts of wagyu, everything from sirloin and rib to tongue, oyster blade and more. It’s a social, relaxed and enjoyable way to eat, though the beef can be seriously high-end.
OK team, it’s time to get out of your comfort zone and sample a classic Japanese beer snack that is far greater than the sum of its parts. Though, it’s going to be a challenge. Shiokara means “salty-spicy”: it’s raw squid that’s chopped up and mixed with a paste of salty fermented squid guts. It won’t be everyone’s idea of a good time, but if you do enjoy the taste, you will love shiokara with a cold beer.
Pasta, in Japan? Is that legit? We are here to tell you this is 100 per cent legit. The Japanese have a great love of noodles, and pasta is simply an extension of that, a style of cuisine that has been mastered, and many would say improved upon, by local chefs. This is actually your entry point into a world of foreign foods made with great skill in Japan, everything from classic French pastries to Valencian paella to Neapolitan pizza and more.
This is an easy sell. Katsu is crumbed, deep-fried meat. You’re in, right? And just wait until you discover tonkatsu, the king of the katsu world, a chunky pork schnitzel that is served with shredded cabbage doused in sesame dressing, with rice on the side, and usually a cold beer. Though, you could also have your katsu with curry sauce (katsu kare). Or, on rice with an eggy sauce (katsudon). Can’t lose.
It’s no surprise to find that coffee is a big deal in Japan. The coffee culture here has evolved immensely over the last 100 years or so, though you can still find purveyors of all the historical styles, from the old-fashioned “kissaten” coffee shops, to the American-style chain stores, to the new-wave espresso joints, to the hipster boltholes doing artisanal pour-overs. It’s all good.
There’s little point trying to properly understand the sake world – unless you have, say, a spare 10 years or so for study and experience. It’s just too diverse and complicated. Instead, just drink this delicious Japanese rice-wine, either at an izakaya – a laidback sake bar with good food – or from the source, by visiting a sake brewery. And don’t miss other boozy Japanese beverages such as local beer, whisky, and awamori.
It’s nice to finish with a sweet treat, in this case, wagashi. These are the delicate, beautifully crafted morsels that are typically served alongside matcha tea, though also occasionally to end a kaiseki meal. They’re so gorgeous, it almost seems a shame to eat them. Almost.
Join travel and food writer Ben Groundwater on his next exclusive foodie tour.