EASC Study Tour 2003: Topic of the Week #7

Food, Glorious Food in Japan
by Mary Hayes & Mayumi Nakano

Popular Dishes | International Cuisines | Okinawan Cuisine
Types of Eateries | How to Order | Resources

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We salivated while writing perhaps the most enjoyable TOW to date: what to eat while you're in Japan! This list isn't meant to be exhaustive, but rather a list of food experiences we have planned as well as others we recommend you try on your free time.

Popular Japanese Dishes

Bento or obento (boxed meals): Bento are available everywhere in Japan, and they are the equivalent of our brown bag lunch, though much more exquisite. Many varieties and sizes are available, but they usually contain some rice (white rice, onigiri, takikomi-gohan, chirashi-zushi, etc.) and at least a few okazu (side dishes) such as nimono (vegetables boiled and seasoned), agemono (deep-fried vegetables/meats), aemono (vegetables/seafood with special dressing), and so on. All the items are neatly placed in a box because the presentation is as important as the taste (bento is supposed to look appetizing). A bento box can be purchased for about $5, but the price can go up significantly depending on what it contains and where you purchase it. Due to their compactness and convenience, bento are a favorite choice of those who are in the middle of busy activities. For instance, bento are often eaten in a meeting (following this tradition, we will have a bento dinner during our meeting in Osaka!). There are a couple of special types of bento that articulate this point:

Donburi-mono: "Donburi" literally means a big bowl (used for noodles, etc.), and "mono" refers to an item or thing. Donburi-mono means a special rice dish served in a big bowl. The rice is topped with various combinations: katsu-don (pork cutlet, egg and onion), ten-don (shrimp tempura), oyako-don (chicken, egg and onion), tamago-don (egg and onion), gyu-don (sliced beef and onion), tekka-don (sliced raw tuna), etc. Donburi dishes can be ordered in many restaurants, including noodle shops, family restaurants, tempura shops, and gyu-don shops (there are fast food gyu-don shops!). A donburi dish costs about $3 - $10, depending on what and where you order.

Kaiseki ryori (ryori means cuisine or cooking): This refers to the elegant, multi-course meals Kyoto is famous for. Presentation is of the utmost importance. Kaiseki is a relatively recent development in Japanese cuisine; it derives from the tea ceremonies that were held in Buddhist temples in Kyoto in the 1700's. We will be served a kaiseki dinner at Yoshiima Ryokan (Inn) in Kyoto.

Noodles: Noodles of all sorts are a staple and passion for many Japanese. In fact, there's even a museum devoted to ramen - the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, where you learn about the history of ramen and try one of many regional ramen varieties in the 1950's era ramen food court. (This is something you could do on your free day in Tokyo.) The quality of a noodle dish depends on the quality of the noodles and the type of broth (dashi) that's used. A bowl of noodles costs about $3 - $10, depending on what and where you order. Various noodle dishes include:

Okonomiyaki: This looks like a pancake, and is prepared on a griddle in front of you. You pick your choice of meats--pork, beef and/or seafood--and this is added to a pancake-like batter with lots of shredded cabbage, an egg, and some other items (okonomi means "your choice" and yaki means "something that's preprared on a griddle"). After it's golden brown, you can top it with a special sauce, and maybe some small pieces of nori (seaweed), katsuo-bushi (bonito flakes), mayonnaise (Japanese style), and mustard. In Hiroshima, which is one of the famous okonomiyaki capitals (Tokyo and Osaka are also famous), we'll be trying a good Hiroshima-style okomomiyaki place. In Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, ingredients (usually including noodles) are served on the top of a thin pancake (or, to be more exact, between two pancakes). In Tokyo and Osaka/Kansai-style okonomiyaki, ingredients are generally mixed in a pancake (we like both styles--see some other variations). A plate of okonomiyaki costs about $5 - $10, depending on ingredients and where you eat.

Onigiri or Omusubi: Triangle or round-shaped rice balls with various ingredients inside (pickled plum, tuna salad, salmon flakes, cod roe, etc.); they are often wrapped with nori (dried seaweed). This most popular Japanese snack can be purchased anywhere (grocery or convenience stores, Kiosk in train stations, etc.), almost equivalent to sandwiches, hamburgers, or hot dogs in the U.S. One onigiri usually costs about $1.

Shojin Ryori: This is traditional Buddhist temple food--it's 100% vegetarian. (Shojin is a Buddhist term for asceticism in pursuit of enlightenment.) Since Buddhist monks are not allowed to eat any meat or fish (killing animals is considered sinful in Buddhism), they get their protein mainly from soy bean products such as tofu, bean curd, and yuba (the soft layer that remains and is skimmed off the top in the process of making tofu). Other ingredients include sesame, seaweed, and a variety of vegetables. Some shojin-cuisine dishes are designed to look like (and sometimes taste like) meat and fish dishes. We'll be going to a tofu/shojin-ryori restaurant that is located in the garden of Ryoan-ji, a famous Zen temple in Kyoto.

Sushi: Sushi refers to the vinegared rice that forms the basis for many sushi dishes. Some that you may encounter are:

There are a number of places where you can order sushi. You can go to a specialty sushi restaurant, buy a carryout set of sushi at the grocery or food vender, or even order it at a family restaurant. Of course, nice sushi restaurants will have the best, freshest sushi, but these are very expensive (you can easily spend $100 per person). A really fun place to have sushi is at a kaiten-zushi restaurant. Kaiten means revolving. As the sushi chef makes the various sushi products, he puts them on the conveyor. People sit at a counter on the outside of the conveyor and take the items they want as they come around (items cost $1 - 3). Plates are color-coded, so you just stack your plates until you're finished. The number and color of your plates are counted by a staff member when you're ready to leave. This is great fun and gives you a chance to try a lot of different things!

Takikomi-gohan or Gomoku/Kayaku-gohan (Japanese-style pilaf): Seasoned rice boiled with vegetables, meats, and/or seafood. It is often served in a set menu with a noodle dish, tempura, etc. in lieu of regular white rice.

Takoyaki: This dish tastes just like okonomiyaki because they share a lot of same ingredients. However, the main ingredient of takoyaki are small chunks octopus (tako means octopus) while okonomiyaki usually includes other types of seafood (shrimp, squid, etc.) and/or meats. Takoyaki also has its own unique shape--each piece looks like a Ping-Pong ball, made in a specially-shaped griddle. Osaka is famous as the birthplace of takyoyaki, and it has a number of takoyaki vendors claiming that theirs are the best (some of them come with sauce, some without; some include non-traditional ingredients). Many takoyaki vendors operate on street corners (there is a famous one on Dotonbori Street), but some can be found in shopping malls and department stores. Takoyaki is often sold in a package of 6, 8, 10, or 12 pieces, and a package of 6 costs about $2 - 4.

Tempura: Seafood and vegetables that have been individually lightly batter-fried. The quality of the tempura depends on the oil temperature and the lightness of the batter - it shouldn't be too chewy or greasy. There are restaurants specializing in tempura, but it is also often featured in set menus (usually costs around $10 - 20). Before eating, it is dipped in a special sauce with various garnishes (grated daikon radish, grated ginger, etc.).

Tonkatsu: If you need a fat fix, this is it. This is a tender pork cutlet that's been breaded and deep-fried, often served with a generous pile of fresh sliced cabbage. There are many restaurants that specialize in a variety of tonkatsu as well as other deep-fried dishes such as ebi-fry (deep-fried shrimp), beef-katsu (deep-fried beef), menchi-katsu (deep-fried hamburger), croquette, etc. Tonkatsu set menu (with sliced cabbage, rice, miso soup, and pickled vegetables) usually costs around $5 - 15.

Desserts & Snacks: There is no shortage of sweet things in Japan, though they are often not as sweet as American sweets. Candy and cookies can be found everywhere. Also, if you crave something salty or spicy, you may want to try those chips and other snacks that come in unique flavors such as butter & soy sauce, wasabi, curry, cod roe, etc.

International Cuisines
You may be surprised to see how liberal Japanese people are in terms of eating. There are restaurants specializing in different cuisines from all over the world: Italian, French, Chinese, Indian, African--you name it. Moreover, the Japanese have been adopting foods from different cultures and totally Japanized them. Chuka (Chinese food) has a long history, starting in Nagasaki during the Edo period. You-shoku (Western-style food) became popular after the Meiji Restoration. More recently, Ita-meshi (Italian food) became a big hit, followed by Thai, Korean, and any other ethnic cuisines. You see a lot of mixing between used-to-be foreign dishes and traditional Japanese dishes in restaurants and at home.

Okinawan Cuisine
Although locals have adopted the mainstream Japanese foods (and American foods), Okinawa has its distinct food culture. Common ingredients of Okinawan cuisine include pork, fresh fish, seaweed, goya (bitter gourd), tropical vegetables and fruits, and so on. Two popular local dishes are Chanpuru (stir-fried vegetables, eggs, meats, tofu, and/or noodle) and Okinawa soba (this is more similar to ramen than soba on the mainland, and its soup base is pork bones and bonito). For more information, please see the Resources section. On our first night in Okinawa, we will enjoy traditional Okinawan cuisine and dance.

Types of Eateries

Bakeries (pan-ya--pan means bread): They sell all kinds of freshly baked goods including familiar western-style breads and Japanese-invented breads such as melon pan (sweet bread that is shaped like melon--sort of), an pan (with sweet bean paste), curry pan (this was very popular last year), yakisoba pan, pizza pan, and many more. They also sell finger sandwiches (one of the participants from last year said he had the best sandwich of his life while in Japan). Many bakeries also serve as cafes, so you can enjoy fresh bread with a cup of coffee or tea.

Convenience Stores (conbini): They are open 24/7 and can be found on every street corner. Since they sell everything (bento boxed meals, onigiri rice balls, dessert, snacks, ice-cream, soft drinks, etc.), just be careful not to buy too much!

Family Restaurants (fami-resu): Akin to Denny's, Bob Evans, etc. (there are many Denny's in Japan although their menus are different from their American counterparts), these are gaining popularity in Japan as spacious, clean restaurants that serve a variety of food at reasonable prices. These places are easily identified, are most everywhere, and menus will always have pictures, so they're user-friendly establishments. Most are equipped to take credit cards.

Fast Food Restaurants: Don't assume Japanese McDonald's, KFC, etc. are same as their American counterparts! Their menus are wholly adjusted to Japanese taste buds. For instance, McDonald's serves unique hamburgers such as Teriyaki burger and shrimp burger as well as curry rice. Mr. Donuts serves not only donuts but also Chinese dim sum. Mayumi always says that fried chicken in Japanese KFC's tastes better and fancier! Another favorite of Mayumi: Mos Burger (they have what they call "Rice Burger"--rice buns instead of regular hamburger buns). Anne highly recommends McDonald's Chicken Tatsuta and Teriyaki McBurger--they're addictive!

Food Floors in Department Stores (depa-chika, literally means the department store's basement): Almost all department stores in Japan sell food items in their basements while restaurants are usually located on the top floor (at least one cafe or coffee shop is located on each floor). The floor is a food heaven (or a live museum of food cultures of Japan), with an unlimited number of small vendors specializing in foods of all kinds. This is a good place to do carryout (you can sometimes eat in, too), but don't forget to get utensils so you can eat in your hotel room later. Most of the items are heavily discounted at the end of the day, so you can often haggle for a better price. Note: Unlike a supermarket where you pay for everything at the cashier, you'll need to pay to each vendor every time you purchase something.

Izakaya: This is a type of drinking establishment that features good, a la carte food. This is the kind of place you order item by item or a bunch of different items for your table to share. There are a variety of izakaya, specializing in different types of food: traditional Japanese, ethnic, robata-yaki (grill at the counter), kushi-yaki (grilled food on sticks), kushi-age (deep-fried food on sticks), etc. Often you sit at the bar and point to what you want in the glass case while chatting with the sweaty but enthusiastic couple working the grill behind the counter. Some popular choices are grilled fish (yaki-zakana), grilled rice balls (yaki-onigiri), grilled chicken on a stick (yaki-tori), and grilled asparagus wrapped in bacon (asupara-bacon-maki). We are planning an evening at an izakaya in Osaka.

Kissaten (coffee shop) & Cafes: A great place to have a smoke, read some comics, or take a rest after an especially rigorous shopping day. There are all kinds of these, and they're everywhere. Some allow smoking, some are pretty and quaint, some have themes. Most offer light snacks - finger sandwiches, curry rice, spaghetti, etc. Most usually have a "cake set," which includes a piece of cake and tea or coffee. The coffee at these shops is delicious as each cup is percolated individually. Recently, old-fashioned kissaten are being replaced by more fashionable cafes and more affordable espresso bars. Starbucks is popular in Japan along with similar-style shops run by Japanese companies (e.g. Doutor Coffee, Excelsior Caffe--Mayumi's favorite--, Vie de France, etc.).

Supermarkets: Another great place to learn about food cultures of Japan. Their deli sections include boxed meals, noodles, sushi, tempura, deep-fried items, salad, nimono (vegetables boiled and seasoned), and more! We are planning to visit a supermarket as a group to shop for your own dinner.

How to Order: No Problem!
Many places in Japan have menus with photos or plastic food samples in the windows of the shop. Pointing to something is a very effective means of ordering. In many cases, you can order a set menu. This will include an entrée and several side dishes. In other cases - at a drinking establishment or at some sushi places, you order your food a la carte, and often one or two items at a time. There are some buffet-style restaurants (most of the breakfasts you'll be having are buffet), but the Japanese say "viking," not "buffet." One recommendation: Don't ask for substitutions. Restaurants are not really set up to accommodate deviations from the set menu.


Last updated: 4/25/03
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