Sushi, Tempura, Ramen, Yakisoba … You probably know these dishes. But what about Ishikari-nabe, Hiyajiru, Funazushi, Fukagawa-meshi? Unless you decide to live in Japan for the rest of your life (and even then it may not happen), you’re never going to experience, or even hear of every dish the Japanese have invented. After all, this is the land that (according to my Japanese father) encourages the consumption of 30 different types of food a day, so they have built up quite a culinary repertoire.
The best way to experience Japanese cuisine is to go to Japan. Forget Paris and New York. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants then the two gastronomic powerhouses combined. And if ‘haute cuisine’ isn’t your thing, there are curry houses, soba and udon stalls and tempura joints ready to feed your appetite for 800 yen (around ten bucks) or less. The myth that Japan is an expensive place to visit doesn’t hold much water when it comes to eating.
Something that isn’t fiction is the Japanese love of seafood. Cooked, raw, (occasionally) still moving: freshness is key when it comes from the sea. Being an archipelago nation on the fringe of the Pacific aids this. So does having the world’s largest fish market: Tsujiki (in Tokyo). You can’t really go wrong with any seafood in Japan. You may want to start practicing dissecting a fish with chopsticks though. It sounds difficult, but once mastered it really is the best way to get every tasty morsel out of the fish.
In Japan, even the less adventurous will find fare to their liking. Teriyaki, sukiyaki, katsu-don, karaage: these are authentic dishes that will prove to tempting even for the timid. And for those who like a tipple with their meal, try out a Japanese izakaya. These establishments are restaurant/bar hybrids, offering tapas-sized dishes with Japanese beverages like sake, shochu, or Kirin lager (Japan’s oldest beer).
Japanese culture conforms to certain traditions. And nowhere is this more evident than in the kitchen. Ingredients are always fresh, traditional recipes are strictly adhered to and presentation is paramount. In Japan they will even go so far as not combining certain foods with others, often for reasons unknown. Case in point: I’ve always been told that one should not eat Unagi (eel) in the same meal as Umeboshi (a salty plum). And even though my father doesn’t know why, I adhere to the habit. The Japanese do have the longest life spans in the world, so who am I to argue with them?