In our sixth episode of the Nihongo Master podcast, we talked about a topic that’s really close to my heart: food, glorious food.
Food is the quickest way to the heart of any culture, but when it comes to Japan, you might struggle to decide exactly where to start! The food culture here is as diverse as it is rich, with dozens of individual cuisines making up the national culinary repertoire.
We headed to some of the grubby local diners of Osaka, some of the oldest restaurants in Kyoto, and some of the fanciest sushi joints in Tokyo to learn why Japan has such a stratospheric reputation when it comes to good grub.
This article is merely a recap of what we chatted about in the podcast — for the full thing, give Episode 6 a listen. You won’t regret it!
It’s not particularly famous outside of Japan, but kaiseki is a big deal on the culinary scene here. Basically, at a kaiseki restaurant, you’ll be sitting along a counter with room for only a handful of people, while a highly skilled chef cooks up a series of small dishes in front of you.
There can be anything from around 10 to a few dozen courses included, but you won’t have any say in what’s served. That’s because kaiseki meals are strictly omakase — a word which essentially means “chef’s choice”. The dishes which the chef chooses are based heavily on the seasons and daily availability at the markets.
Kaiseki has a rich history — in the podcast, we talked about it in detail. Long story short: this hospitality aspect harks way back to the very start of kaiseki in the courtly culture of imperial Kyoto. The cuisine started as part of traditional Japanese tea ceremonies which the upper classes would put on to entertain their guests.
Kaiseki can include various types of dishes — we got into them more in the podcast. Generally, there’s a specific sequence which the dishes usually follow, starting with a seasonal platter, moving through soups, sashimi, charcoal-grilled dishes, and more, before finishing up with a seasonal rice bowl.
If all that intrigues you, go and listen to our podcast, episode 6!
You know sushi right? This rice and fish dish is famous worldwide, but nowhere will you get it fresher than in Japan itself.
The best thing about sushi in Japan is that, unlike kaiseki, you can enjoy it on any budget. There are cheap places like sushi-go-rounds/sushi-trains where you can grab any dish from the conveyor belt for 100 yen, midrange places where you get to watch the chefs cook everything fresh, and high-end places which take that another level and make it a kind of theatre.
Sushi as we know it is very Japanese, but it actually has its roots in Southeast Asia — surprise, surprise! We talked about the history of sushi even more in the podcast episode, so I’m not spoiling the surprise here. It’s a pretty interesting story of how sushi did come to Japan — I highly recommend you to give it a listen.
The most prized fish among sushi connoisseurs is bluefin tuna. However, not all sushi toppings are fish either: there are dishes with raw beef, vegetables like cucumber and carrot, egg (such as tamagoyaki rolled omelet sushi), and if you go to some of the cheap modern chains you’ll even get stuff like cooked salmon with mayonnaise, or creamed corn sushi!
3. Shojin Ryori
Image Credit: kon_2710
We visited the temple to look at the food enjoyed by Buddhist monks of Japan — called Shojin Ryōri. Shojin basically translates to “devotion” while ryōri means “cuisine”: making this, the ‘food of the devoted’.
This type of cuisine has deep roots in Buddhism and its practices, and if you’re interested in why and how it came about, we explained it all in the podcast episode! Long story short, it comes from the belief of reincarnation, which led to their cuisine is plant-based, with the majority of dishes being either vegetarian or vegan friendly.
Not only was this food good for animals, but it was also said to be good for the soul: a clean, all-natural cuisine that became a part of daily purification rituals for monks seeking enlightenment. Normal people took on a lot of the philosophy and dishes of shojin ryōri too — it’s maybe part of the reason the Japanese have the second-highest life expectancy in the world.
There are a lot of fantastic dishes in the temple cuisine, and it’s making a bit of a comeback nowadays thanks to an uptick in the number of vegan tourists from the West. Because it’s all about clean eating, and clearing the body and mind of impurities, the fare is usually quite simple. To know what the dishes usually consist of, listen to the full episode on Spotify or Apple Podcast!
4. Street Food
There’s plenty of fantastic street food and fast food which come from here. Each region has its own specialties, but one city that really stands out is Osaka. This is the home of takoyaki, a kind of pan-cooked octopus dough ball, and okonomiyaki, a savory pancake loaded with meat, vegetables, and sometimes soba noodles. Fast food like this has long been popular in Japan because, as anyone who’s ever lived here knows, the Japanese are just so damn busy!
Street food in Japan all came from takoyaki — how, you ask? Well, you just have to listen to the full episode to find out!
There is other street food than octopus. There are loads of skewered meat like yakitori and kushikatsu. If you don’t know what they are, we talk about them and their differences in the episode. There are also loads of different varieties of old fast-food classics. Some of them are regional, for example the okonomiyaki from Hiroshima contains soba noodles, and has the pretty unimaginative name hiroshimayaki.
If you want to dive headfirst into this world of tasty street treats, head to Dotonbori in Osaka — a street food Mecca where you can try pretty much the whole range of Japanese fast-food.
We obviously couldn’t leave ramen out of this list. Anyone who pulled all-nighters at university to get their overdue papers finished will be very familiar with our final Japanese food. Although, if you’ve only ever tried the cheap packaged varieties which line the shelves of supermarkets worldwide, you’re really missing out. In Japan, and some trendy cities around the world, ramen restaurants take the simple concept of noodle soup and turn it into a fully-fledged cuisine.
In fact, there are over 10,000 ramen restaurants across Japan, of all shapes and sizes!
Many of these places have their own specializations and house recipes. It’s pretty obvious why ramen is such a popular and iconic Japanese dish, but you might be surprised that it technically isn’t even Japanese at all. What is the history behind it then? Check out our full episode to find out!
There are more than a few types of ramen — shio (or salt) ramen, shōyu (or soy sauce) ramen, miso ramen, and tonkotsu ramen which has a pork-bone broth. Specialised ramen bowls are even available at any and all ramen shops. How do you customise one? We talk you through all the steps you need in the full episode!
In every episode, we have a podcast recap after each section. Here is where we combine them all for our listeners to have a physical list — and for potential new ones to learn a few new words, too!
Omakase (お任せ) — chef’s choice dining, which can mean “I’ll leave it up to you” when ordering
Omotenashi (おもてなし) — classic Japanese hospitality
Sadō (茶道) — tea ceremony (also sometimes called chadō)
Wagashi (和菓子) — traditional Japanese sweets
Mochi (もち) — a paste made from crushed rice
Gohan (ご飯) — a cooked rice dish, although this world can also simply mean “meal” in general
Dashi (だし) — the foundational soup stock of Japanese cuisine
Sushi-ya (寿司屋) — sushi restaurant: actually the -ya suffix can be used for several foods to give the name of their restaurants, like “ramen-ya” and “soba-ya”.
Funazushi (鮒寿司) — Shiga Prefecture’s historic fermented fish dish
Nigiri (にぎり) — the rectangular pieces of sushi
Maguro (マグロ) — bluefin tuna
Tamagoyaki (卵焼き) — a Japanese rolled omelet
Sōryo (僧侶) — Buddhist monk (although there are many more words for various types and ranks)
Shojin (書人) — devotion
Ryōri (料理) — cuisine. This one is very useful, as you can also use it to talk about your country’s food too. Italian cuisine is “itaria ryōri” — American cuisine is “amerika ryōri”.
Sukiyaki (すき焼き) — a kind of Japanese hotpot dish usually eaten with beef, and a sweet sauce
Renkon (レンコン) — lotus root
Takenoko (タケノコ) — bamboo shoots
Takoyaki (たこ焼き) — batter balls with octopus inside
Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き) — a savory pancake layered with vegetables, meat and other fillings
Yatai (屋台) — street food stalls
Yaki (焼き) — a wide word for cooking over direct heat, including grilling and pan-frying
Kushikatsu (串カツ) — breaded and deep fried skewers
Chashu (チャーシュー) — braised pork usually served in ramen
Tsukemen (つけ麺) — a dipping noodle style of ramen
Shio (塩) — salt
Shōyu (醤油) — soy sauce
Futomen (太麺) — thick noodles
Hosomen (細麺) — thin noodles
Futsū (普通) — normal
Katame (固め) — firm
Yawarakami (柔らかみ) — soft
Okay, and that concludes our recapped culinary tour of Japan! This is merely just a consolidated version of the full episode, and what you read here is barely half of what we chatted about in the podcast. If you love food, especially Japanese cuisine, why not listen to Episode 6 of our Nihongo Master Podcast? Available on Spotify and Apple Podcast.