25 Japanese foods we love – from tempura to miso

CNN  — 

Japan is often called a “Galapagos” when it comes to technology, as the country’s cultural isolation tends to produce innovations found nowhere else in the world. The same can be said about its food.

Japan is a culinary wonderland thanks to its unique heritage, a national obsession with cuisine and an almost religious embrace of freshness and perfect production.

The result is the following 25 edible treasures that we can never get enough of:

1. Tonkatsu

Breaded, deep-fried until crisp and golden brown, then drizzled with a sweet and piquant sauce, meat doesn’t get any better than tonkatsu. At Tonki, they don’t take reservations.

The lines are long, but the succulent hire tonkatsu, served with a mound of shredded cabbage to assuage your guilt, is well worth the wait. 

Maisen is also an unbeatable stand-by.

2. Sushi

Sushi is easily the best ambassador for Japan.

Without a doubt, sushi is one of Japan’s greatest gastronomical gifts to the world. Almost poetic in its simplicity, good sushi relies on two things: the freshness of the ingredients and the knife skills of the chef.

Whether you like your raw fish draped over bite-sized balls of vinegared rice, rolled up in toasted nori seaweed or pressed into fat rectangular logs, delicious sushi can be found in every price range.

The sushi at Sushisho Masa in Roppongi (a nightlife district popular with foreigners in Tokyo) is nothing short of perfection. Each exquisite piece is served with flair, and specific instructions on how to eat it. At around ¥20,000 ($200) per person, it’s a splurge, but perfection doesn’t come cheap.

How to eat sushi like a Japanese native

3. Chirashi-don

Chirashi-don combines the simple elegance of fresh raw fish with the laid back informality of donburi, the quotidian rice bowl. The specialty at Uogashi Senryo in Tsukiji is kaisen hitsumabushi, a kind of chirashi donburi tossed with various morsels of raw fish and topped with creamy uni sea urchin and ruby red ikura salmon roe.

Eating it involves a procedure that borders on ritual.

The fish and rice are first mixed with soy sauce and wasabi, and later with pickled vegetables. When most of the mixture has been eaten, dashi broth is poured over the remaining third, which is consumed as a soup.

4. Tempura

Wooing the world through the international language of deep-fried deliciousness, tempura is one of Japan’s most popular culinary exports. Actually, this iconic Japanese dish finds its roots abroad – in Portugal.

When Portuguese missionaries and traders arrived in Nagasaki in the mid-16th century, they brought with them a taste for rich foods and the technique of deep-frying. Christianity may have been slow to catch on in Japan, but tempura was an instant hit.

At Kondo, deep-frying is almost an art form: Here are greaseless morsels of tender asparagus, delicately crisp kisu fish and plump scallops still pink in the center.

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5. Ramen

More books, blogs and movies have been dedicated to ramen than any other noodle dish in Asia. No wonder: Ramen’s intoxicating combination of fat and salt sends powerful messages directly to the endorphin-producing parts of the brain.

It’s very, very difficult to choose just one ramen shop, but Enji is one of our newest favorites for tsukemen, ramen noodles dipped in a thickly concentrated fish-and-pork-bone-based broth. 

Adventures in ramen: Japan’s ever-changing soup scene

6. Wagyu

Kobe may be the most famous wagyu but there are other fine options, like Mie prefecture's Matsusaka beef.

Nothing quite compares to that first bite of lavishly marbled wagyu. It’s like butter, meltingly tender and decadent. Once you’ve had wagyu, other steaks seem downright stingy in their leanness.

At first, those fine white veins of fat may seem shocking, but compared to regular beef, wagyu actually contains higher levels of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, which help reduce the risk of heart disease.

At least that’s what we keep telling ourselves. Blacows offers a taste of luxury in their juicy 100% wagyu burgers (from ¥1,300, or $130).

Ultimate Japan wagyu beef guide

7. Te-uchi soba

Most of the buckwheat noodles on the market are mass-produced, inoffensive yet forgettable. Once you’ve tasted te-uchi hand-rolled soba, though, it’s easy to understand why soba chefs take great pride in making the perfect noodles.

Served cold as zaru soba, or in a hot bath of dashi broth, their mildly nutty flavor and firm-to-the-bite texture are addictive.

Matsugen offers expertly prepared, traditional te-uchi soba in a stylish modern setting. The bukkake soba for ¥1,200 ($12) is garnished with a dozen aromatic herbs and served with a sesame dipping sauce.

Japan’s wanko soba challenge: The ultimate all-you-can-eat noodle binge

8. Sanuki udon

Like so many revolutions, the rise of Sanuki udon began with a book.

Shikoku’s special brand of thick wheat noodles had long been revered by udon connoisseurs in western Japan, but the release of Kazutoshi Tao’s four-volume “Osorubeki Sanuki Udon” (“The Astounding Sanuki Udon”) sparked a craze that spread like wildfire across the country.

What makes Sanuki udon special is its chewy and silky texture. Slick, slurpable, and immensely satisfying, Sanuki udon noodles offer the firm bite of al dente pasta combined with the pliant density of mochi rice cakes.

At Tokyo Mentsudan, you can watch the noodle makers at work as they roll, cut and cook the udon in huge vats of boiling water. A bowl of kamatama udon splashed with dashi and a side of tempura or oden will only set you back ¥700 ($7).

9. Japanese curry rice

Apples and honey in curry? Indian chefs would be quick to declare heresy. However, Japanese curry diverged from its roots on the subcontinent long ago and has evolved into a celebrated dish in its own right.

It’s commonly served atop white rice, or in a kitschy silver tureen, with a side of tart and crunchy rakkyo pickles. Beloved by schoolchildren and salarymen alike, its particular blend of sweetness, gentle spice and soothing, viscous mouth-feel has made curry rice one of Japan’s most popular dishes.

Manten in Jimbocho is wildly popular among curry rice junkies.

10. Gyoza

Life challenge: Knowing when to stop eating the addictive bite-size dumplings.

Although technically Chinese, gyoza are now a key part of Tokyo culinary life. Bite-sized and rich, these dumplings are normally filled with a mix of pork, cabbage and nira chives, then dipped into a tangy blend of soy sauce and vinegar.

Unlike most Japanese foods which come in somewhat skimpy portions to help you know when to stop eating, it’s pretty easy to keep ordering round after round of gyoza until you are about to burst.

The gyoza capital of the world is Utsunomiya up in Tochigi, but in Tokyo, the best gyoza experience is Harajuku Gyoza Roh and its sister establishment in Sangenjaya (Taishido 4-4-2, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo; +81 03 5433 2451).

The best part about Gyoza Roh is that you can get garlic-free gyoza – a rarity in the city.

11. Yaki-imo

Come wintertime, Tokyo’s streets are filled with the nostalgic, nutty aroma of roasted sweet potatoes, and a plangent call emanating from the yaki-imo trucks can be heard in every neighborhood.

Yaki-imo usually disappear around late spring, but the curiously named daigaku-imo (university potatoes) sugar-crusted sweet potato snack can be found all year round. Take a look around your local grocery store, or the basement food courts in department stores like Takashimaya, to get your daigaku-imo sweet potato fix.

12. Takoyaki

The term “octopus balls” doesn’t do justice to this delectable snack from Osaka.

A crisp exterior surrounding a gooey center of octopus, pickled ginger and scallions, takoyaki carries the heft of a meal in a few ping-pong-sized globes of dough. Brushed with a sweet sauce and sprinkled with nori, they’re a favorite at festivals and as a late-afternoon snack.

Osaka, where takoyaki was first popularized, has a museum dedicated to octopus balls. It’s also the best one-stop destination to sample from five of the most famous takoyaki brands in town – Kougaryu and Aiduya are two of the shops that have set up counters at the museum.

13. Onigiri

Tasty, filling and cheaper than a cup of coffee at Doutor, these usually triangular rice balls are the ultimate fast food. The fact they’re available at every convenience store means you’re never far from a snack.

Onigiri come stuffed with anything from spicy cod roe and pickled greens to grilled slices of beef with mayonnaise.

In depachika department store basement food courts, you can find them filled with seasonal ingredients such as fresh takenoko bamboo shoots in the spring or matsutake mushrooms in the fall. Onigiri can be found anywhere and everywhere, but we’re partial to the rice balls at ampm (they use 100% domestic rice).

14. Natto

Natto is easily the most divisive food in all of Japanese cuisine. Like blue cheese or durian, these fermented soybeans have an aggressively pungent aroma and idiosyncratic flavor that people either love or hate.

Detractors complain of its stinky smell and slimy texture, but fans are addicted to its potent umami-rich goodness. It’s delicious tossed with raw tuna and kimchee, or folded into the pork filling for gyoza.

For those still wary of natto, Yamanashi-based natto producer Sendaiya has found a way to sneak it into tasty baked doughnuts.

15. Yakitori

Ice-cold beer and salty chicken skewers are a golden couple in Japan's culinary world.

Washed down with an ice-cold beer, these grilled chicken skewers are ideal for outdoor grazing and summertime snacking.

Yakitori most often refers to grilled dark meat, but a typical meal also includes prized treats such as lightly seared breast meat smeared with wasabi, as well as livers, hearts, buttocks, gizzards, skin and more. Most places slather the ingredients with a thick syrupy sauce made from soy, rice wine and mirin, but gourmets prefer their meats sprinkled only with salt.

Indulge in rarer and pricier delicacies like grilled suzume (sparrow), uzura (quail), and the show-stopping chochin (ovary and fallopian tube) at Toriyoshi’s Nakameguro branch, or their Ginza location (1F Ginza Corridor Gai, Ginza 7-108, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 5537 3222). 

Take a bite into Japan’s KitKat obsession

16. Okonomiyaki

These fat, savory “pancakes” can be made with any number of ingredients – thin slices of pork belly, octopus, shrimp and even cheese – in a variety of combinations. Hence the name okonomiyaki, which loosely translates as “as you like it.”

They’re often cooked on a hot griddle at your table. At several places, you can make them yourself, but it’s probably a job best left to the pros.

Monjayaki is okonomiyaki’s gloopy, soupy cousin. The best place to try it is in Osaka, where you’ll find dozens of restaurants specializing in monjayaki and okonomiyaki.

Mizuno in Osaka’s Dotonbori is a beloved family business in their third generation.

Tokyo’s Oshio (Tsukishima 1-21-5, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 3532 9000) is good for first-timers.

17. Miso

Where would Japanese cuisine be without miso? This salty fermented bean paste forms the base of so many soups, sauces and marinades. Every region in Japan has its own special recipe.

You can sample them all – from sweet and smooth Saikyo Miso to dark and brooding Hatcho Miso – at Tokyo’s Sano Miso (Kameido 1-35-8, Koto-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 3685 6111).

We hear it’s the best miso shop in town.

18. Taco rice

This American-Japanese hybrid originated in sunny Okinawa, where the meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato sauce of tacos somehow ended up on a bed of white rice.

The result is surprisingly great. Even without the crunch of the taco shell, the flavor blends perfectly with the Japanese rice to create a hearty meal perfect for summer days.

Opened in 1956, Charlie’s Tacos has long been popular among Americans stationed in Okinawa. It’s been dubbed the first taco place in the prefecture.

19. Nabe

Oden is one of the most popular nabe dishes.

Nabe is the embodiment of communal dining in Japan. On chilly winter nights, you can almost feel the love rising from this bubbling pot of goodness.

One of the most popular nabe dishes is oden. The dish is a common find in convenience stores during winter. It’s usually a simmering cauldron of gooey, gummy and chewy textures that include various fishcakes, soybean fritters and stuffed dumpling-like foods.

But you’ll also find tender daikon radish chunks, konnyaku (“devil’s tongue” root jelly), hard-boiled eggs, beef tendons and even wiener sausages all stewed until they absorb the tasty kelp-based stock.

At Yoshiba, savor your soup like a sumo wrestler with chanko nabe, a calorie-laden hodge-podge of fish, meat and vegetables, finished with thick udon noodles and egg.

20. Tamagoyaki/Dashimaki tamago

Eggs in Japan show up in runny scrambles on top of rice bowls and omurice plates, and in raw pristine form in chopped sashimi dishes like maguro yukke, a sort of tuna steak tartare.

Perhaps the most cherished and versatile egg dish, however, is the simple Japanese omelet made by adding a little dashi broth into the egg mix.

Cold rubbery slices of tamagoyaki show up in Japanese bento lunchboxes and cheap sushi platters in convenience stores across the land, but a freshly made dashimaki tamago at a first-rate restaurant is a revelation: silken and pillow-like with a deep savory flavor that comes from the delicious stock.

Try it at Yamacho (1F Ebisu Oak Bldg, Ebisu 1-1-5, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, +81 03 3443 1701), where the broth is also deployed with amazing results in their udon noodle dishes.

Welcome to Sendai, beef tongue capital of the world

21. Taiyaki

Japan may be known for its beautiful pastries and cakes but, oddly enough, one of its best-known traditional treats is shaped like a sea bream. Taiyaki is a hot waffle-like pastry stuffed with sweet azuki bean paste, chocolate, cream or sometimes cheese.

The shape stuck when it was introduced to the humble populace who couldn’t afford the actual fancy-schmancy tai fish a century ago.

The taiyaki by Aji-saki in the basement of Ikebukuro’s Seibu department store commands a line that snakes around corners from morning ‘til night, and it gets longer when they bring out the sweet-potato-stuffed taiyaki after 5 p.m.

22. Kabayaki

Sweet and smoky, unagi grilled in kabayaki sauce is even better when served with rice.

Kabayaki is a skewer of unagi eel that has been filleted, dunked in a thick, sweet soy-based sauce and then grilled.

We can’t verify the purported stamina-enhancing properties that make it popular in summer, but we love it for its intense, smoky-sweet flavor. Connoisseurs swear by Obana in Minami-Senju, one of the oldest unagi shops in the city.

23. Ochazuke

Chicken soup for the Japanese soul. Ochazuke is about as far from haute cuisine as you can get.

It’s a bowl of plain white rice and green tea mixed with dashi kelp broth, usually topped with salmon flakes, nori or umeboshi pickled plums: just the thing you crave when you’re feeling sick, hungover or down in the dumps.

This humble dish gets a stylish makeover at Bar Zuzu, where ochazuke is made with healthy brown rice and toppings like soy-sauce-marinated tuna (¥690, or $6.90).

24. Matcha sundae

Not everyone has the daily luxury of enjoying a kaiseki dinner and a proper matcha tea ceremony. Thank goodness, therefore, for matcha sundae.

A matcha sundae usually consists of layers of sweet azuki bean paste, chewy mochi rice balls and crunchy toasted rice, topped with some silky matcha ice cream.

Matcha in Uji, Kyoto, is so superior that the town’s name has become a synonym for matcha in Japan.

Famous tea shops in Uji including Tsujirihei Honten and Nakamura Tokichi now have outposts around Japan and the world.

25. Beef tongue

If there is one cut that triumphs others at a yakiniku session, it’s gyutan – grilled thin slices of beef tongue. In addition to a strong beef flavor, beef tongue, when grilled, is fragrant with buttery grease and has a slightly chewy texture.

Sendai is said to be the capital and birthplace of gyutan. Inspired by a beef tongue stew cooked by a French chef, the then-apprentice chef Keishiro Sano decided to prepare it differently to suit Japanese tastes.

He later returned to Sendai and founded Aji Tasuke, a restaurant famous for its grilled beef tongue and oxtail soup.