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It’s my 32 second birthday, and I haven’t written anything in English for a while. Naturally, it is appropriate – then – to offer a list of 32 of my favorite Japanese dishes, meals, drinks, ingredients, or simply things that one can enjoy in Japan.
People often ask about my favorite Japanese foods, or new things that I’ve tried. Ramen and sushi are frequently asked about, too. I love ramen. I love sushi. But there is a world of Japanese cuisine that I’m just as smitten with that extends beyond these two genres of gastronomic performance art.
So, in no particular order, here are 32 of my favorite ingestibles from Japan. And this isn’t even exhaustive. Just wait till I turn 100. (I didn’t even have space for O-chazuke!)
- ごぼうGobo (Burdock root)
Skinny, Hairy, Lanky, Bougie: Burdock. It’s a root thing.
- 沢庵漬け Takuwan zuke
Yellow pickled daikon. Oh, sweet Mothers of Invention.
- 乾物 kanbutsu Dried goods for the pantry
Example: Dried squid for when your soups need that extra kick of sea brine and umami.
Example: Dried gourd strips for when you need to bind food items up, or tie them shut. Strong, elastic, practical, edible.
Example: Konbu varieties because dashi is the wellspring of creative cooking life.
I know what you’re thinking: yes, all cuisines have dried goods. Yes, they do. Such is the way of sustenance and subsistence. Have you filled your pantry with the dried goods sold in grocery stores here? Your cooking will never be the same. Ever.
- 寒天 Kanten
Seaweed makes for excellent jelly products that also happen to contain a lot of fiber.
- 茶碗蒸し Chawanmushi
Savory egg custard stuffed with an assortment of treasures like mushrooms, or herbs, or shrimp, or white fish, or whatever the doctor foraged/caught that day.
- 胡麻和え goma ae
A ‘dressing’ which is more like a ‘tossing’ which is like an imagine if you crushed up sesame seeds, mixed them with savory sauces and a hint of sweetness now rub it all over any vegetable of your choice kind of thing.
Word to the wise: goma ae is like peanut butter for adults and is the perfect addition to that boring fresh vegetable side dish you just laid down to rest.
- 紫蘇 Shiso
I don’t think we have a word to describe the flavor of shiso in English. It is a leaf thing, but not an herb. It’s like if mint had an electrically enigmatic cousin who you just knew had the knowledge of where the lucky charms are hidden but it would be taboo to ask and reveal your knowledge of their secret knowledge thereby putting everyone at risk. That’s shiso.
So, you like ginger, eh? Well, let me let you in on a little secret: myoga.
24. あら汁 arajiru
あら(ara) refers to the scraps of fish left over after butchering and preparing the “good” parts. 汁(shiru) means soup. Yes, the sh- in ‘soup’ often becomes j- because linguistics is probably not the reason you are reading this.
- たれ tare
The word ‘tare’ in Japanese cuisine can be so many things. It’s usually some variation on a soy-sauce based sauce. Also, can we stop calling soy sauce a sauce? It’s not very saucy, is it? Isn’t there a viscosity requirement for something to be considered a sauce? Anyhow, tares come in many varieties and are multipurpose. In sum, it is a viscous sauce made largely from fermented soy product liquid. Not to be confused with soy sauce.
- 大根おろし Daikon oroshi
Grated daikon. Sweet Potato of Time, what a difference this makes to some dishes. With a drop of ponzu on top? Good Gourd, someone turn on the AC.
- ポン酢 ponzu
If you’ve never heard of ponzu, just never let anyone make you do ponzu shots. I know drinking vinegar is a fad and all, but this might be a bit too citrusy for even the tartest cider vinegar enthusiasts out there.
- 焼き芋 yaki-imo
Japan’s equivalent to our hometown’s feel for corn on the cobb. If you’ve never had the pleasure of a freshly grilled sweet potato. End of sentence. Full stop. Fin.
- 洋麺屋五右衛門和風パスタ goemonwafuupasuta
Hey, I know this is gonna hurt so you might want to sit down. What if western pasta tasted better with a Japanese cuisine twist? Well, it does. And there’s a place to get it – named after the Robin Hood of Japan, Goemon! No. No. Goemon is not a pokemon. He was a bandit whose influence was so feared by the government that they slaughtered all of his relatives and relations. And now the dominant hegemony and capitalist empires have appropriated the heroic narratives of his life to proliferate some mighty fine pasta all across Japan.
- もんじゃ焼き monjayaki
I love this so much, once I even forgot I loved it. It’s so close to my heart, I slipped into taking it for granted – forgetting that it is one of the most fun foods to play around with. Sorry, Monjayaki. You deserved better.
- 塩昆布 shio konbu
Watch out crutons, there’s a new topping in town. Put shio konbu on your salads, your pastas, your ochazukes, your risottos…let this garnish your stairway to heaven. *Use in moderation*
- 糠漬け nukazuke
Like pickling projects? Like creating a system of organisms to preserve your food, or transform it?
Then nooking your veggies in Nuka is for you! I’m just waiting for the home foodie trend to graduate from sourdough starters to nuka beds for nukazuke.
- 会話の場、和 kaiwa no ba, wa
Japanese conversations are regulated by a sense of ba which could literally be translated as “place,” but functionally impacts conversation a bit more than where it takes place. It’s a bit closer to the sense that the conversation is a space, and that all speakers present contribute to that space as an event rather than the linear back and forth, incessant one-upmanship, and I-statement powerplay posturing of most English speaking conversations.
Don’t even get me started on 和, wa (harmony).
- デミグラス demiglasu
Yes. Yes, demiglace is a western thing. You’ll just find it done more often in Japan than in most western cuisine.
Also. Miso demiglace? Sweet Pickle does that hit the spot on a rainy November evening.
- 味噌 miso
To think I’d have gotten this far and forgotten to list miso. What a world of miso there is to explore. If you’ve only cooked with one type of miso, go get your mind blown. Go. Now.
- 分からない wakaranai
“I don’t know.” The Japanese language is much more accepting of people being honest about what they know, and what they don’t know. The English-speaking world could use more of that, instead of feeling that we need to defend our self-assumed status as omniscient and in the right while also being more informed on a scale which is linear with us at the extreme of more and everyone else at the extreme of less.
When asked a question in English, you’d rather be caught dead than to say, “I don’t know.” Likewise, you must defend whatever position you came into the conversation with at all costs – why? Pride? Power? A false belief in a stable, fixed, and singular identity which – by the way – was in the right before this conversation even started? Check. Check. And Check.
- ねばねば nebaneba
All things sticky, slimy, and gooey. So much wonderfully delicious and sticky foods to boost your gut biome. Slimy okra, slimy yamaimo, slimy soybeans, slimy mushrooms…the list goes on and on my friends.
- アイス aisu
Ice cream, itself, in Japan isn’t actually that good.
But the toppings and flavorings are absolutely dynamite.
Have you ever had a thick and mildly sweetened shoyu sauce/syrup on top of vanilla ice cream?
Sweet summer melon flavored ice cream with honeycomb on top?
- なんでも卵かけ putting raw egg on everything and anything
Udon? Throw an egg on it. Soba? Throw an egg on it. Rice? Throw an egg on it. Pork cutlet? Throw an egg on it. Pasta? (and I don’t mean jussss carbonara, I mean flippin any pasta dish) Throw an egg on it. Yeah, that Genovese will astral project with a little help from Gudetama.
Chocolate? Don’t know. Haven’t tried.
- 梅干し umeboshi
Dried plums…but not like any prune you’ve had. Umeboshi are smaller, and sour, and a little rough on the outside, but chewy on the inside, and chewing them results in juicy fruit snack experience.
Umeboshi’s are a journey. Get in for the ride.
(I know there was a section for ‘dried goods’ above, but these little plums deserved their own section.)
- タイ焼き taiyaki
The language of love cooked into a sweet-bean stuffed waffle that’s the shape of a sea bream.
- カレーパン karee pan
Curry, inside a doughnut-like bread which has then been lightly breaded with crumbs and sealed by the heat of a frying pan.
Don’t get the convenience store versions of this.
Go and get a legit curry bread somewhere.
It will bring a whole new meaning to the term “buddha belly.”
- 懐石料理 kaiseki ryouri
Look it up. Many of the reasons that Japanese cuisine is considered a world heritage can be found in this culinary tradition.
- 精進料理 Shoujin ryori
The first character compound involves “spirit+progress” which means “asceticism” or “devotion and diligence” depending on the context. The second character compound is “cuisine/cooking.”
Cuisine for ascetics. Think your palette is too needy for vegan food? Think again.
Also, Sesame pudding for dessert? Get. Out. Of. Here.
- 思いやり omoiyari
Omoiyari is about ‘considerateness.’ Empathy. The ability to imagine what limitations, restrictions, difficulties, etc. impact the other people you interact with. Having a trained and developed intelligence regarding, “what has/is the other person going through/ have to do in order for _____?” would really benefit my home culture.
That’s just one facet of omoiyari. If you’re intrigued, I highly recommend a personal investigation. Omoiyari makes the world a better place.
- ハイボール highball
Yes, that simple cocktail from the universe of yesteryear still holds court in Japan. Highballs and highball variations are everywhere.
Perfect on muggy summer nights.
- せんべい senbei
Have you ever had an octopus senbei (タコせんべい)? A shrimp senbei (エビせんべい)? They are at least the size of two of your faces.
Senbei’s come in all shapes, sizes, flavors, and wrappings. Oh, so much wrapping.
- 天ぷら tempura
Did I already cover this? No? Good. You probably know what tempura is.
But you probably haven’t experienced the world of tempura.
It’s like deep fried foods in the USA. Deep fried foods isn’t just chicken and pork.
It’s beer battered cheese curds.
It’s twinkies and oreos.
Now, think of how crafty the culinary arts are in Japan. Imagine the things they do with tempura. (see #26 ‘shiso’)
- ナッツ等 All things nuts, ginnnan, and a singular devotion to Montblanc
I never thought I’d get into things like mont blanc. Then I moved to Japan.
But, it doesn’t stop there.
There are just so many nutty things hidden in Japanese cuisine in places you might not expect.
So, you go to a grilled chicken joint.
You mostly get skewers upon skewers of delicious chicken bits or veggies.
When you leave, the thing you remember most – though – is the satisfying texture and aroma of the grilled innards of gingko tree nut. (銀杏Ginnan)
- マスク着用 Masuku chakuyou
Wearing a mask because
a. 会話の場、和 kaiwa no ba – Against all English language logic, solipsism is a joke and other people do in fact exist. The health and well-being of other people is our prerogative.
b. 分からない wakaranai – we still have very little understanding about this virus and no available cure for the masses. There is so much we don’t know about it. We know so little, we often don’t even know when we have Covid-19. So, better wear a mask, just in case.
c. 思いやり omoiyari – Does the person I’m talking to have kids? Are they pregnant? Is their partner pregnant? Do they live with the elderly? Do they live, actually, with anyone? Maybe I should wear a mask, because there’s a possibility that we’ll never know I’m contagious and passing this virus on to the people I meet who’s lives (and family lives) might be irrevocably changed or taken away as a consequence.
3. 日本酒 nihonshu
I did it. I turned the page. I took out the trash. I turned 32.
My body just does not process certain alcohols like it used to. (I love you whisky, and you too, whiskey, but, we gotta talk about ‘space.’)
Nihonshu (called ‘sake’ in English) happens to be really easy on my body.
It also has a wide sphere of flavor variety to offer the aforementioned needy palette. I don’t think you’ll really be able to get your hands on good ‘rice wine’ in the USA unless you have insane cash. Even then, I’m not sure you’ll get much variety. Most of the sake sold in the USA is actually made in California and mass produced for chain restaurants.
You’ll just have to come to Japan and ‘tour around’ (Challenge: Try buying sake from a different prefecture each time) to taste a whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. No one can tell us no, or which sake is ‘gold.’ It’s all a go, in this whole new world: nihonshu.
- ハヤシオムライス hayashi omlette rice
I didn’t grow up in Japan, but when I eat hayashi omlette rice I feel like I’m a 6-year-old boy eating grandma’s cooking in that tiny kitchen with the view of the trees and the squirrels messing up the bird feeders and that flooring and the wooden chairs which were just a bit too big for my frame and the chair arms would get in the way of my elbows and the cat would jump on the table and Mom and Gma would be talking by the sink and the flavor of nostalgia just overwhelms you. Did I mention the perfectly fluffed egg omlette? Oh, Tokimo, Sweet Potato of Time!
#1. 和菓子： wagashi
Traditional Japanese ‘snacks and treats’
Lude Jaw described it as ‘Elasticity inglutimate.’
You may be thinking, “Oh, but Huck! We alllllll know mochi.”
But, there’s much more to ‘mochi’ than mochi daifuku and mochi ice cream sold at your – well, not your neighborhood – but that neighborhood with the Trader Joe’s.
Further, you’ll find mochi in all sorts of unexpected places.
Footnote unhinged: Mochi is often used in savory dishes (nabe, monjyayaki), and it delivers a satisfying crunch if you play your cards right.
For starters, here’s a page that lists ten types of mochi.
Mochi, in a word?
In other words…
It comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors.
Sometimes mochi are very different feeling on the inside…
but, they’re all divine.
Thanks for listening.
And now, we’ll return to our usual broadcasting.