“Time–he’s waiting in the wings, he speaks of senseless things. His script is you and me, boys.” -David Bowie, ‘Time’
It’s hard to believe that I’ve already spent over five months in Japan. In a way it feels like I’ve never lived anywhere else, but in others it feels like I’ve only just gotten here. I try not to think about going back to the United States, but it’s hard to ignore while watching so many people go home who stayed for only a semester. But anyway, in celebration of my halfway point in my term abroad, I’ve decided to dedicate this entry to some Japanese foods that are both well and less known in the United States. Since moving here, I have been introduced to so many foods that I had never heard of, and have even ended up growing fond of some that I did not used to like at all. This list is by no means comprehensive, but I’ve chosen a few of my favorites to highlight.
Probably the most well-known of all Japanese foods, at least in the United States, sushi is indeed incredibly popular in Japan. However, many Americans might be surprised to hear that sushi is a food saved for special occasions and is rarely eaten. Sushi bars are of course very popular, and I personally love going out for kaitenzushi, or “conveyor belt sushi,” in which customers eat off plates that ride on a conveyor belt that wrap around the restaurant in-between the tables. There is no hassle of ordering or waiting. After sitting down, and you could quite realistically pick up the first plate you see and start eating. When you’re done, your plates are counted (usually about $1 each), you pay your bill, and go on your way. It’s a great experience to share with friends, and definitely something to try if you come to Japan.
Probably my favorite Japanese food, okonokiyaki literally means “anything you like grilled.” It is sometimes called a Japanese pizza (an inaccurate description), but it is more like a cabbage pancake, made from a batter which can be cooked with meat, noodles, and even cheese or mochi rice cakes! Topped with mayonnaise, okonomiyaki sauce, and bonito (fish flakes), okonomiyaki is an Osaka specialty and is something I will be making regularly when I return to the US!
Anyone who knows me well knows that gyoza takes a close second to okonomiyaki in the world of Japanese cuisine. They are actually not uncommon in the United States, although the Chinese variation is more common than its Japanese counterpart. These dumplings stuffed with pork and fried with soy sauce make a perfect compliment to ramen or fried rice.
Most Americans have eaten instant or cup noodles, but you haven’t lived until you’ve had real Japanese ramen. Originating from China, ramen is made in-house, and each shop has their own special recipe. In Japan, it is considered polite to slurp one’s noodles, as it not only cools off the hot noodles, but it allows one to fully experience their aroma and flavor. It can actually be considered rude if you don’t slurp your ramen!
Also Chinese in origin, nikuman (meat buns) are a small, convenient food found in convenience stores across Japan. Usually stuffed with pork, nikuman are cheap and delicious! They come in a variety of different flavors including anman (sweet red bean paste), pizaman (pizza), and even chocolate! Their outer shell is thicker and more bready than the Chinese pork bun, and I think they taste best with hot mustard.
Originating in India, curry has many different flavors and various means of preparation and presentation. Enjoyed by Japanese children, curry in Japan tends to be slightly more mild from what I’ve experienced, and is served over rice usually with beef, carrots, and potatoes. It’s a wonderful meal on a cold winter afternoon!
One of the stranger foods to Americans would have to be Japanese takoyaki, or grilled octopus. Another Osaka specialty, these can be found at vendors along the streets of Namba and Dotonbori. Skilled chefs use metal sticks to rotate balls of batter and octopus to form spheres of mouth-scorching, heavenly goodness. Topped with worcestershire sauce, mayonnaise, and bonito, takoyaki is a must if traveling to the Kansai region.
This doesn’t even begin to cover all of the amazing foods Japan has to offer, and this entry is likely part one of several. I have always been considered a picky eater in America, but after coming to Japan, I honestly think it’s because I’m not a fan of American food! The presentation and simplicity of Japanese food is appealing, and it is always presented in a way that shows the care taken in preparing it. Certainly, there are some foods in Japan that I wouldn’t eat again if it killed me, but so far I have not had a distinctly negative experience. Here’s to five more months of delicious 日本料理！