MPi takes a closer look at traditional Japanese cuisine

Sushi
Sushi is the most famous Japanese dish outside of Japan, and one of the most popular dishes among the Japanese themselves. In Japan, sushi is usually enjoyed on special occasions, such as a celebration. During the Edo period, sushi refers to pickled fish preserved in vinegar. But nowadays sushi can be defined as a dish containing rice which has been prepared with sushi vinegar. There are many different types of sushi. Some popular ones are:

Nigiri

Small rice balls with fish, shellfish, etc. on top. There are countless varieties of nigirizushi, some of the most common ones being tuna, shrimp, eel, squid, octopus and fried egg.

Gunkan

Small cups made of sushi rice and dried seaweed filled with seafood, etc. There are countless varieties of gunkanzushi, some of the most common ones being sea urchin and various kinds of fish eggs.

Norimaki

Sushi rice and seafood, etc. rolled in dried seaweed sheets. There are countless varieties of sushi rolls differing in ingredients and thickness. Sushi rolls prepared ‘inside out’ are very popular outside of Japan, but rarely found in Japan.

Temaki

Temakizushi (literally: hand rolls) are cones made of nori seaweed and filled with sushi rice, seafood and vegetables.

Oshizushi

Oshizushi is pressed sushi, in which the fish is pressed onto the sushi rice in a wooden box. The picture shows trout oshizushi in form of a popular ekiben (train station lunch box).

Inari

Inarizushi is a simple and inexpensive type of sushi, in which sushi rice is filled into aburaage (deep fried tofu) bags.

Chirashi

Chirashizushi is a dish in which seafood, mushroom and vegetables are spread over sushi rice. It can resemble domburi with the difference being that chirashizushi uses sushi rice while domburi uses regular, unseasoned rice.


Note that "sushi" becomes "zushi" in word combinations in which "sushi" is the second word, e.g. nigirizushi.


Ramen (Ramen-ya in Osaka's Namba)

Ramen is a noodle soup dish that was originally imported from China and has become one of the most popular dishes in Japan in recent decades. Ramen are inexpensive and widely available, two factors that also make them an ideal option for budget travellers. Ramen restaurants, or ‘ramen-ya,’ can be found in virtually every corner of the country and produce countless regional variations of this common noodle dish. Ramen are typically categorized according to their soup base, although variations that combine the different bases are not uncommon. The main types of soup are:

Shoyu (Soy Sauce)
Shoyu ramen soup is a clear, brown broth flavoured with soy sauce (shoyu). The soup is usually made of chicken broth but often contains other meats such as pork, beef or fish depending on the region. Shoyu ramen is the most common type of ramen and is usually is served when the menu does not specify a specific type of soup.

Shio (Salt)

Shio ramen soup is a light, clear broth seasoned with salt. It is typically made from chicken broth, but may also be flavoured with other meats such as pork

Miso (Soybean Paste)
Miso ramen soup is flavoured with soybean paste (miso), resulting in a thick, brown soup with a rich, complex flavour. The style originated in Hokkaido where the long cold winters spurred the need for a heartier type of ramen soup, but it has spread to the point where it can be found pretty much anywhere in Japan.

Tonkotsu (Pork Bone)
Particularly popular around Kyushu, tonkotsu ramen is made of pork bones which have been boiled down until they dissolve into a cloudy white broth. The thick, creamy soup is also often flavoured with chicken broth and pork fat.


Ramen noodles
The second key aspect of ramen are the noodles, which are made of wheat and come in many different types. Typical ramen noodles are long and elastic, but countless varieties exist that vary from thin and straight to thick and wavy. Some ramen-ya allow you to customize your noodle order to some extent such as by allowing you to select a thickness (thin, regular or thick) or doneness (regular or firm).


Udon Noodles

Udon are thick Japanese noodles made of wheat flour. They are thicker than soba noodles, white and chewier. Udon is widely available at restaurants across Japan and prepared in various hot and cold dishes. Below is a list of udon dishes that tourists will commonly find at restaurants across Japan (Note that there are some regional differences in terms of naming and seasoning):

Zaru Udon (cold)

Zaru Udon noodles are chilled and served on a bamboo mat. They are accompanied by a dipping sauce and are dipped into the dipping sauce before eating. It is very similar to Zaru Soba, with the only difference just being the type of noodles.

Kake Udon (hot)

Kake Udon is a basic udon dish, served in a hot broth that covers the noodles. It has no toppings and is usually garnished with only green onions. Kake Udon is also known as Su Udon in the Osaka region.

Kamaage Udon (hot)
Kamaage Udon noodles are served in hot water, accompanied by a variety of seasonings and a dipping sauce. Some places have individual servings of Kamaage Udon in small wooden bowls while others serve family sized portions of Kamaage Udon in large shared wooden noodle tubs.

Tanuki Udon (hot/cold)

Tanuki Udon is served in a hot broth topped with leftover deep fried tempura batter (tenkasu). Tanuki Udon is not usually served in Osaka as tenkasu is often available for free at udon restaurants there.

Kitsune Udon (hot/cold)

Kitsune Udon is served in a hot broth with aburaage, thin sheets of fried tofu, placed on top of the udon noodles.

Tsukimi Udon (hot)

Tsukimi Udon (Moon Viewing Udon), like its soba counterpart, features a raw egg on top of the udon noodles, which is meant to resemble the moon.

Tempura Udon (hot/cold)
Tempura Udon is usually served in a hot broth with the tempura pieces placed on top of the noodles. Sometimes, the tempura is placed on a separate dish beside the bowl or tray of noodles. Tempura ingredients vary between seasons and shops.

Curry Udon (hot)
Curry Udon is udon noodles served in a bowl of Japanese curry. It is a popular dish to eat in winter as it is very warming. Because eating curry udon can be messy, some restaurants offer disposable bibs. When they are not offered, please take care when eating curry udon as the udon noodles are prone to splash curry on nearby clothes.

Chikara Udon (hot)
Chikara Udon is udon noodles served with the addition of a rice cake (mochi) in the hot broth. The Japanese word ‘chikara,’ meaning strength, is used as it is thought that the addition of mochi to the dish gives strength to the person eating it.

Nabeyaki Udon (hot)
Nabeyaki Udon is a dish that is cooked and served in a hot pot (nabe). The udon noodles are cooked directly in the nabe together with the broth and vegetables. Tempura is a common addition before serving, but the more typical ingredients include mushrooms, egg, kamaboko (a pink and white steamed fish cake) and various vegetables. Many shops will serve this dish only during the colder months of the year.


Where to eat udon
Udon can be found across Japan on the menu at specialty udon restaurants (udon-ya) and soba restaurants (soba-ya), casual dining restaurants such as family restaurants, izakaya and eateries around tourist sites. There also exist several popular, low-cost udon restaurant chains with outlets in the large cities and along national routes. A regular udon dish at an average restaurant typically costs between 500 yen and 1000 yen, but low-cost udon chains often sell meals for under 500 yen. At more upmarket eateries or for more elaborate udon dishes, expect to pay from 1000 yen to 1500 yen per person.

At some busy train stations, standing udon restaurants can be found for a quick meal between train rides. Ordering at standing restaurants is as simple as buying your meal ticket from the vending machine, giving it to the staff and enjoying your noodles while standing at the counter. Some of the low-cost udon chains work similar to a cafeteria line. Upon entering the restaurant, customers pick up a tray, order the dish from the staff behind the counter and then choose eventual side dishes such as tempura, rice balls or oden (simmered vegetables) before moving to the cashier at the end of the counter.

How to eat udon
Depending on how your udon are served, the way of eating differs. When udon are served with a dipping sauce, take a few strands of noodles and dip them into the sauce before eating them. Udon served in a soup, or sauce, are enjoyed by using your chopsticks to lead the noodles into your mouth while making a slurping sound. The slurping enhances the flavours and helps cool down the hot noodles as they enter your mouth. If there is a broth, it is drunk directly from the bowl, eliminating the need for a spoon. It is not considered rude to leave some unfinished soup in the bowl at the end of the meal.


Japanese Tea

Tea is the most commonly drunk beverage in Japan, and it’s an important part of the Japanese food culture. Various types of tea are widely available and consumed at any point of the day. Green tea is the most common type of tea, and when someone mentions ‘tea’ (ocha) without specifying the type, it is green tea which is being referred to. Green tea is also the central element of the tea ceremony. Among the most well-known places for tea cultivation in Japan are Shizuoka, Kagoshima, and Uji. The following is a list of the main varieties of tea that are popularly consumed in Japan:

Ryokucha (green tea)
Various grades of green tea are cultivated, differing on the timing of harvest and on the amount of sunlight the tea leaves are subjected to. The highest grade is gyokuro, which is picked during the first round of harvest and shaded from the sun for some time before harvest. Next is sencha, which is also picked during the first round of harvest but whose leaves are not protected from the sun. Finally, bancha is a lower grade of green tea whose leaves are obtained from the later rounds of harvesting.

Matcha (powdered green tea)

Only the highest quality leaves are used for matcha, which are dried and milled into a fine powder which is then mixed with hot water. Matcha is the form of green tea that is used in the tea ceremony.

Konacha (residual green tea)

Konacha consists of tea dust, tea buds and small tea leaves remaining after processing gyokuro or sencha. Although considered a lower grade of tea, konacha is thought to complement certain foods well, such as sushi. It is often provided for self-service at inexpensive sushi restaurants

Hojicha (roasted green tea)

Hojicha is processed by roasting the tea leaves, which gives the leaves their characteristic reddish-brown colour. The heat from the roasting also triggers chemical changes in the leaves, causing hojicha tea to have a sweet, slightly caramel-like aroma.

Genmaicha (green tea with roasted brown rice)

Genmai is unpolished, brown rice. Genmai grains are roasted and mixed with tea leaves to produce Genmaicha. The roasted genmai give the tea its yellowish colour and special flavour. Genmaicha is popularly served as an alternative to the standard green tea.

Oolongcha (a type of Chinese tea)

Oolongcha involves allowing the tea leaves to oxidize, and then steaming or roasting them to stop the oxidization process. Oolongcha is popularly served hot and cold at virtually all types of dining establishments across Japan. The tea is brown in colour.

Kocha (black tea)

Kocha leaves are even more oxidized than oolongcha, which gives the tea its dark colour. In the Japanese language, ‘kocha’ actually means ‘red tea,’ referring to the reddish-brown colour of the tea. Kocha is widely available at Western style cafes and restaurants.

Jasmine-cha (tea with jasmine flowers)

Jasmine tea is widely consumed in Okinawa, where it is known as sanpincha, but not so much in the other parts of Japan. The tea is made by combining jasmine flowers with a green tea or sometimes oolong tea base.

Mugicha (barley tea)

Mugicha is made by infusing roasted barley into water. The drink is popularly served cold in summer, and some consider it more suitable for consumption by children because it does not contain caffeine from the tea leaves.

Kombucha (kelp tea)

Kombucha is a beverage made by mixing ground or sliced kombu seaweed into hot water. The drink has a salty taste and is sometimes served as a welcome drink at ryokan.


Tea of one kind or another, hot or cold, can be found practically at all restaurants, vending machines, kiosks, convenience stores and supermarkets. At restaurants, green tea is often served with, or at the end of a meal for free. At lower end restaurants, green tea (or mugicha) tend to be available free for self-service, while konacha is commonly provided at inexpensive sushi restaurants. Kocha is usually available alongside coffee at cafes and Western restaurants.

At some temples and gardens, tea (usually ryokucha or matcha) is served to tourists. The tea is typically served in a tranquil tatami room with views onto beautiful scenery, often together with an accompanying Japanese sweet. While the tea is sometimes included in the temple’s or garden’s admission fees, it more often requires a separate fee of a few hundred yen. Last but not least, many types of tea are sold in PET bottles and cans at stores and vending machines across Japan.  


Japanese Alcoholic Beverages

Drinking plays an important role in Japanese culture and society. Drinking parties, typically held at restaurants and izakaya, is a common activity that is used to strengthen both social and business ties. A large variety of alcoholic beverages can be found in Japan. But some of the most popular ones are listed below:

Beer

Beer is the most popular alcoholic drink in Japan. The leading breweries are Asahi, Kirin, Suntory, and Sapporo. The art of brewing beer was imported in the early Meiji Period from Germany as a development project for the northern island of Hokkaido.

Rice Wine (nihonshu or sake)
Commonly called sake outside of Japan, nihonshu or sake (note that ‘sake’ is also the general Japanese term for alcohol) is brewed using rice, water and white koji mold as the main ingredients. Besides major brands, there are countless local rice wines (jizake). The alcohol content of nihonshu is typically about 10-20%. It is drunk either hot or cold, and it is usually filtered although unfiltered nihonshu (nigorizake) is also popular.

Shochu, Awamori

Shochu is a distilled spirit with an alcohol content usually between 20-40 percent. It is commonly made from rice, sweet potatoes, wheat and/or sugar cane. It is usually served mixed with water and ice, fruit juice and sparkling water, or oolong tea. Awamori is the Okinawan version of shochu. It differs in that it is made from long-grained thai-style rice instead of short-grained Japanese-style rice and uses a black koji mold indigenous to Okinawa.

Wine

Wine is gaining popularity in Japan, especially among women. While imported red, white, and sparkling wines from France, Italy, the United States and Australia are widely available, there also exists a sizable and increasing domestic wine industry. The most famous wine producing region within Japan is Yamanashi Prefecture.

Other liquors

Whisky is perhaps the most popular other western liquor in Japan and is often served on the rocks or mixed with water and ice. Gin and vodka based drinks are also commonly available at bars, restaurants, andizakaya.


Alcoholic beverages are sold in supermarkets, department stores, convenience stores, liquor stores (sakaya) and at vending machines (although machines in public shut off after 11PM). The legal drinking age is 20 years old, the same as for purchasing tobacco products. When drinking alcoholic beverages, it is customary to serve one another, rather than serving yourself. You should periodically check your friends’ glasses, and replenish them before they are empty.

Likewise, if someone wants to serve you, you should drink to make room in your glass if it is full, hold it up for the person while they pour, and then take at least one drink before putting the glass down. These customs apply to everyone in your party even if they are not drinking alcohol. At the beginning of a meal or drinking party you should not start drinking until everybody at the table is served and the glasses are raised for a toast, which is usually kampai.

Other toasts are acceptable, but avoid using ‘chin chin’ when making a toast, since in Japanese this expression refers to the male genitalia. While it is considered bad manners to become obviously drunk in some formal restaurants, for example in restaurants that serve kaiseki ryori (Japanese haute cuisine), the same is not true for other types of restaurants such as izakaya, as long as you do not bother other guests.