The View from Japan
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Japanese foodFood

While Japan’s diet isn’t as healthy as it used to be, it’s still healthier than what most Americans eat. Here are some of the foods you may encounter:


Curry was apparently brought to Japan by the Dutch traders who came into Nagasaki during the Edo period (1600-1867). Much of the curry in Japan is pretty mild, though it varies from one restaurant to another. It’s usually eaten with rice and thus referred to as “curry rice.” Not recommended for adults is instant curry for children, which is actually more sweet than spicy.


Eel (unagi) is somewhat of an acquired taste. I once hated it, but now I can’t get enough. Eel are cut in two and roasted on skewers, or served on top of rice. Many Japanese believe that unagi gives one stamina to withstand hot days, so it’s a very popular dish during the summer. While the eels are supposedly filleted, it pays to watch for small, sharp (though edible) bones while eating. Even if you find that you enjoy unagi, you probably won’t want to eat it very often, since it’s rather expensive.


Chinese dumplings with somewhat of a crescent shape, often found at ramen restaurants or other shops that purport to serve Chinese food. The outer wrapping is a wheat dough, and the inside often contains shredded cabbage, mixed with meat or other things. They may be served steamed, pan fried, or deep fried, and may be dipped in hot pepper oil and vinegared soy sauce.


Developed in Osaka after World War II, okonomiyaki (“as-you-like-it grilled”) has often been described as “Japanese pizza”. It consists of meat, vegetables, and whatever else comes to mind, mixed with a batter and then fried like a pancake. It’s topped with sôsu (a brown sauce, not unlike steak sauce), dried seaweed, mayonnaise, ginger, shavings of dried bonito (katsuobushi), or some combination of those. Some restaurants bring you the ingredients and you can fry it yourself. There are also variations on the recipe, such as Hiroshima style, where yakisoba is sandwiched between a thin pancake and a layer of fried eggs.

Pork Cutlet

Tonkatsu, a breaded pork cutlet, is sometimes served on a plate with a mound of shredded cabbage, and, if you like, then covered with sôsu. It’s also served as katsudon, quickly cooked with a soup made of bullion, egg, soy sauce, salt, onions, and sugar, and placed on top of a bowl of rice.


While ramen noodles originated in China, there are some variations on the broth recipe that originated in Japan. The best ramen is said to be Sapporo ramen, which is usually served in what is essentially miso (fermented soybean) soup, though tonkotsu (pig bone—the main ingredient) ramen from Kyushu also has its fans. Paitanmen is ramen with cabbage and ginger; tantanmen is ramen served in a spicy soup, which is considered to be a Chinese recipe.


Soba literally means “buckwheat” which is what these noodles are made of. Soba noodles may be served cold (mori-soba or zarusoba), then dipped in soy sauce mixed with other seasonings, or hot, in a soup with vegetables and perhaps some tempura.

The term “soba” is a bit confusing because, at Chinese-style restaurants in Japan, it refers to noodles which do not contain buckwheat. You may encounter yakisoba, yellowish noodles that are fried with beef or pork, cabbage, and sôsu. Quite good, but it’s not clear why it’s referred to as soba.


You have probably never thought of spaghetti as a Japanese dish. Just as American pizza is said to be quite different from its Italian counterpart, the Japanese have taken a number of liberties with spaghetti that never crossed the minds of Italians—or Americans. There are countless restaurants in Japan devoted solely to numerous varieties of spaghetti, from the familiar “meat sauce” spaghetti, to spaghetti mixed with cod roe (tarako), mushrooms and dried seaweed, or tuna or shrimp in white sauce. Spaghetti is routinely served with Parmesean cheese and Tabasco Sauce on the side.

Just as Americans are surprised when they order pizza in Italy, Japanese are seldom aware of how different their spaghetti, often served in restaurants adorned with Italian flags, is from its European ancestor. One Japanese told me how he had looked forward to eating spaghetti with white sauce in Italy—and couldn’t find any there.


You’ve surely heard of this one, but may not know just what it is. It consists of thinly-sliced beef, boiled together with various vegetables, tofu, and transparent noodles called shirataki. As served at my in-laws’, all the ingredients are boiled together on a gas-powered hotplate in the middle of the table. Each person has a small bowl, containing a raw egg and some soy sauce, in which we place the sukiyaki before eating.

Sushi & sashimi

Contrary to what you may have heard, sushi is not merely “raw fish”. There may be raw fish included in sushi, but the necessary ingredient for sushi is lightly vinegared rice. The rice may be rolled around cucumber, fish, or various other ingredients, with dried seaweed around the outside (makizushi); in a molded mound topped with egg, boiled shrimp, raw fish, etc. (edomaezushi); topped with some of these ingredients and served in a bowl (chirashizushi); or in other forms.

Raw fish by itself is known as sashimi. Sashimi is often served at sushi restaurants. Sometimes non-fish types of sashimi are available, such as beef or horsemeat.

Sushi places can be rather expensive, but there are also kaiten (“revolving”) sushi shops, where the prices are lower. The name refers to how the sushi is served. Plates containing one or more pieces of various kinds of sushi are placed on a sort of conveyer belt, which circles the sushi chef’s area until someone at the surrounding counter picks it up. The color or design of the plate indicates the price of the sushi on it.

The sushi on the conveyer belt tends to be limited to the most popular kinds; other varieties can be requested of the chef directly. There may also be bowls going around on the belt with packages of fruit, desserts, or instant soup mix, and hot water spigots on the counter for tea- or soup-making. Kaitenzushi is great for a quick meal, but expect to spend at least ¥1000 before you start to feel something approaching full.


This is vegetables and seafood deep-fried in batter. This dish was supposedly introduced to Japan from Portugal late in the 16th century. Reportedly, the name comes from the Latin tempora, referring to fried vegetables eaten on days when meat was avoided for religious reasons. Often served on rice (tendon) or in soba or udon noodles.


These are white noodles, thicker than soba and made from wheat flour. They are usually served hot in many of the same ways as soba. Udon are notorious for digesting very quickly; you might feel full at first, but within a couple of hours you’re hungrier than you were before you ate the udon!


Grilled strips of beef, dipped in a kind of barbecue sauce prior to grilling. Usually the grill is at your table and you cook the meat (and some vegetables) yourself. Yakiniku is often associated with Korean restaurants, but not all yakiniku restaurants are labelled as Korean.


See Soba.


Chunks of chicken skewered on small wooden sticks and broiled over a fire. Often seen in tiny restaurants along the street or in food stands at festivals.This short summary barely scratches the surface of Japanese cuisine. The food in Japan is quite varied, so you’re sure to find at least a few items you’ll like.

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Copyright 2004 This page last updated August 4, 2004 . E-mail Tim