Japanese food has always been one of my very favorite types of food to indulge in. Really any Asian food, from Korean and Indian to Vietnamese and Thai food are all delicious, but there’s just something about the simplicity and vast assortment of gluten free options that keeps me loving Japanese food more than anything else. If you’ve ever wondered what some of the dishes are at Japanese restaurants, this should help you learn to decode common Japanese food dishes. During our time in Japan, I was able to sample some of the best, most authentic Japanese foods I’ve ever had, and I wanted to share my favorite quintessential Japanese foods you need to try on your next visit to Japan, or at your favorite Japanese restaurant!
Bento boxes are a single person meal, sold at convenience stores, many restaurants, train stations, or made at home. They feature small portions of many things explained in this post, like rice, meat, seafood, vegetables, sushi, teriyaki, miniature donburi, gyoza, inari, tempura, and other Japanese food leftovers a family might have on hand. In restaurants, they are commonly served in red and black lacquered trays with multiple small sections for each food type.
Chirashizushi is a dish consisting of fish and crab, mixed with fish roe and spicy mayo or other condiments, over sushi rice served in a bowl, generally topped with more fish roe, green onion, and sometimes other vegetables and pickled ginger.
Course: Dessert, Appetizer, or snack
Made from glutenous rice and similar to mochi, dango are generally served in odd numbers like 3 or 5. Most commonly, they are plain white or colored green, pink and white, and served on a skewer. Below to the right, the small trio of dango on a skewer were part of our appetizer platters at our ryokan (traditional inn) in Kyoto, and the photo on the left was a savory dango topped with teriyaki sauce and shredded seaweed, called nori, from a street food vendor in Tokyo.
Donburi, sometimes shortened to “-don”, means “bowl” and describes a large bowl of rice with vegetables, seafood, or meat. Oyakodon is a type of donburi that features chicken and egg and is sometimes called “mother and child” bowl, katsudon is one of the most popular and common types of -don and features a breaded pork cutlet over rice. Below is a tempura donburi, which is a tempura (lightly fried) vegetable or seafood dish covered in raw egg and a pumpkin & vegetable puree, which is more popular in Northern Japan, but can be found all over the country and in restaurants abroad.
Edamame are young soy beans, served in the pod, which have been steamed, boiled, or blanched. In the United States they are commonly served topped with sea salt, but in Japan they are generally served without any seasoning or condiment. To eat these, gently bite the beans out of the pod, and place the empty pods in the empty bowl provided with this dish.
Course: Appetizer or Main
Gyoza are a form of dumplings which are served fried, steamed, or sometimes in soup dishes. Pork filling is the most common, but vegetable and seafood gyoza are common too, particularly in the United States.
Ikayaki and Yakitori
Course: Appetizer, Main, or Snack
“-yaki” is a Japanese word that means “grilled, broiled, or pan-fried” and in these examples refers to skewered meats and seafood that are cooked in that manner. Yakitori (-tori means chicken) is grilled chicken served on a skewer which is a very common festival food in Japan. Ikayaki is grilled squid (ika means squid) on a skewer, and all manner of delicious foods can be found grilled, sometimes covered or dipped in a flavorful sauce like teriyaki, and served on a stick. There are entire restaurants dedicated to skewered foods around Japan. Below on the left is ikayaki from a festival in Osaka, and the photo below on the right is of grilled asparagus and tofu on skewers, from Gaijin Restaurant.
Inari (AKA Inari Sushi or Inarizushi)
Inari are pouches (called aburaage pouches or inariaage –aage means friend) made from fried tofu, sometimes called bean curd, filled with seasoned rice. This is a popular, filling form of sushi suitable for vegans and vegetarians.
While not a dish, this is a style of meal that contains multiple elaborate courses, and is very popular around Japan, particularly in Kyoto and Tokyo.
Course: Appetizer or Main
Kani, which is the Japanese word for crab, is a very common food in Japan, particularly along the coastlines of Japan and in cities like Osaka and Hokkaido. Imitation crab, which has been around Japan since at least the 14th century, is not the same thing as real kani, and is referred to as kani surimi. Kani is a popular and delicious component of soups, salads, hotpots (called nabe), sushi, and it is also eaten as a standalone food.
Course: Drink or Dessert
Matcha is a very finely ground green tea leaf that is used to make drinks like matcha tea, flavor things like matcha mochi, cakes, and matcha ice cream (as shown below from Kyoto), or other foods. I’ve even had matcha flavored rice noodles which were absolutely delicious. This light, delicate flavor is one of my personal favorite flavors.
Course: Main (eaten after the main course, but not as dessert)
Miso is made from fermented soy beans and is a component in many soups, including miso soup, as well as dishes like black miso cod, where it is used as a flavorful marinade. Miso soup in Japan is not eaten as an appetizer as it is in the United States, it’s eaten after the main meal.
Course: Dessert or snack
Mochi is made with a special type of glutinous rice, water, sugar, and a starch like cornstarch, an sometimes contains a flavorful center made from things like red bean, strawberry filling, or matcha. Made by pounding rice into a very soft, sticky, chewy and very smooth dough using a wooden mallet, the process of making mochi is an amazing sight to behold, as it takes at least two people, who work very quickly. Check out this really cool video of Japan’s fastest mochi maker, located in Nara, Japan. Mochi Ice Cream, which is mochi filled with ice cream, is the perfect dessert on a hot day.
Nabe (AKA Nabemono)
Nabe are hotpot meals served in a vegetable, soy, or fish based broth, featuring an assortment of vegetables like mushroom, cabbage, enoki, carrots, green onion, carrot, pumpkin, tofu, and other seasonal produce, all simmered together in a clay pot.
Course: Appetizer or breakfast
Nattō is a very sticky and stringy type of fermented soy bean that is often eaten alone or topped with green onion slices, inside onigiri, over rice, or dipped in soy sauce. It has a strong scent, a light flavor, and is really delicious, despite the fact that many visitors to Japan shy away from eating it.
Course: Lunch or dinner
Okonomiyaki (which essentially means “as you like it” and yaki again means “grilled”), is one of the most popular dishes and street foods in Osaka and other cities in Japan. Made from shredded cabbage as well as other vegetables and/or noodles, a light batter, eggs, and sometimes bacon, it is shaped into a pancake like shape, grilled, and topped with things like bonito fish flakes, dried seaweed, Japanese mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, and other condiments. We make a gluten free version of okonomiyaki at home and it’s one of our favorite meals!
Omurice is an egg omelette (omu) served over rice, covered in a sauce. Sometimes containing cheese and rarely containing anything else, this simple dish is delicious, easy to make and very popular in Japan. Sometimes they are served over large portions of rice in a bowl like a donburi, while other times, like the breakfast we had below in Tokyo, had a very small portion of rice underneath the omelet.
Onigiri are rice balls, usually shaped like triangles, usually wrapped in nori (seaweed sheets also used to wrap sushi). Sometimes they are just seasoned rice, other times they are filled with things like pickled plum, salmon, tuna & mayonnaise, as well as a large assortment of other fillings. These are very common around Japan, and can be purchased very inexpensively from places like 7/11 and Family Mart in Japan, because convenience stores are much nicer and full of restaurant quality food, unlike here in the states.
This noodle soup features thin wheat noodles, and usually contains meat, seafood or fish, as well as vegetables, fish cakes, poached eggs, nori, seaweed, miso or soy, and other vegetables like mushrooms. Instant ramen, which can be made using boiled water and a flavor packet to enhance noodles is very different from homemade ramen, which is much heartier, however both are popular in Japan and widely available in the United States.
Thinly sliced, ultra fresh fish served with soy sauce is one of the best ways to experience the flavor, texture, and temperature of sushi, without the additional calories or fuss of rice and nori.
Soba noodles are thinly sliced wheat noodles, which are typically served either in a soup, or on a tabletop bamboo mat with a dipping sauce, and can be eaten hot or cold.
Probably the most iconic and most easily recognizable Japanese food, sushi is raw fish and/or vegetables wrapped in seasoned rice and nori seaweed sheets, sometimes dipped in soy sauce and eaten with ginger, wasabi, or alone.
Americanized sushi tends to feature more fried components and more sauces like spicy mayonnaise than traditional Japanese sushi.
Taiyaki (which literally means “fried fish”) is a popular street food and dessert. With a texture like waffles, this lightly sweet dessert is made by pouring batter into a fish shaped mold, and filling it with things like custard, red bean paste, chocolate, or vanilla paste, then cooking it until the batter is like a fluffy waffle. Taiyaki ice cream follows the same process, but the batter is cooked without a filling, then cut in half once cooked and filled with ice cream.
Course: Main, Snack, or Street Food
Takoyaki, tako meaning octopus and yaki meaning fried, is fried octopus balls. These are made by pouring batter into a round cooking mould, adding a few pieces of cooked octopus into the batter, and cooking them either over a fire or frying them. They are then topped similarly to okonomiyaki, with a variety of sauces, mayonnaise, powdered dry seaweed flakes, and bonito fish flakes, and eaten with a bamboo toothpick. They are nearly ubiquitous at all Japanese festivals.
Course: Appetizer or Main
Tempura is a Portuguese cooking style adopted and adapted by Japanese people in the 1500s. Japanese Tempura refers to foods covered in a batter made from wheat or rice flour and then deep fried. The most common tempura is shrimp tempura, but seafood, meat, and vegetables are also common. Generally, tempura foods are dipped in a mix of dashi, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar, called tempura sauce, or tentsuyu.
Pictured below is tempura lobster in a white miso sauce on the left, and tempura shrimp alongside a tempura edible green leaf on the right.
Course: Condiment & Main Course Cooking Style
Perhaps the most recognizable Japanese cooking style and condiment, teriyaki sauce is made from soy sauce, mirin, and sugar to make a thick or thin, savory brown sauce. The cooking technique, also called teriyaki, describes food like fish, meat, tofu, seafood, or vegetables, grilled with teriyaki sauce. Below is teriyaki salmon served with an assortment of vegetables.
Course: Appetizer, Main, or Dessert
Tofu is made from soybeans, and is sometimes called bean curd. In Japanese cuisine, tofu can be found in everything from custards and soups to cakes, or deep fried and covered in sauce as an appetizer, like with agedashi tofu. Below, grilled, seasoned tofu on a skewer from our meal at Gaijin.
Udon is a Japanese soup made with thick cut wheat noodles called udon noodles, in a meat, fish, or soy based broth. Generally udon is served with seaweed, green onion, fish cakes called Naruto, and can be served with just about any other topping imaginable, like chili oil, mushrooms, or tempura flakes. Often times, udon soup is served with at least one piece of tempura shrimp (called ebi tempura in Japanese) and is an iconic Japanese food.
Course: Dessert or Tea
Wagashi are traditional Japanese sweets, often served with tea or after a meal, a similar concept to French petit four. Generally made with plant based ingredients like rice powder, plant and tea leaf extracts for flavor and coloring, they are also usually shaped like plant leaves, flowers, or other Japanese foods in miniature. The sakura blossom piece in the photo below of our meal from Syoka Restaurant in Nara, Japan is an example of a simple wagashi made from rice, similar to mochi, served at the same time as our main course.