Finding Zen in Yakitori: 12 Delicious Dishes to Try in Japan

December 13, 2013 by

Asia, Food, Drink & Travel, Places to Go, Things to Do

“Washoku,” or traditional Japanese cuisine, was recently added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list, putting the official seal of approval on the country’s incredible food culture.

Any first time visitor to Japan will no doubt be overwhelmed by the sheer variety of delicacies available, whether they go to an upscale restaurant or visit a tucked-away izakaya. One of the best ways to experience Japanese cuisine is to seek out the neighborhood izakaya and try a variety of enjoyable dishes – from takoyaki to yakitori. Here are some of those must-try foods that are guaranteed to make your visit to Japan memorable.

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1. Takoyaki

Takoyaki – crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside

Takoyaki – crisp and crunchy on the outside, soft and gooey on the inside

Takoyaki is a popular dish that dates back to 1935 when it was invented by a street vendor. The dish consists of wheat-based batter mixed with octopus meat, tempura and green onions. It is cooked in a specially molded pan which gives it a spherical shape. These are served topped with katsuobushi (shaved bonito fish) flakes. Takoyaki is served piping hot so you will see the bonito fish flakes actually curling up due to the heat. Most izakayas in Tokyo will offer takoyaki on the menu, but if you are seeking the original, head to Kansai or Osaka (specifically Karitoro Takoyaki in Juso) for what many say is the best version of this dish. Expect to spend around 300 – 500 yen on average for a serving of 6-8 takoyaki.

2. Black Sesame Seed Spicy Ramen

Undoubtedly the most flavorful ramen I've ever eaten. And make sure you slurp as loudly as possible - it is good manners and adds to the taste!

Undoubtedly the most flavorful ramen I’ve ever eaten. And make sure you slurp as loudly as possible – it is good manners and adds to the taste!

“Black sesame seed spicy ramen” – the name by itself conjures up an exotic sounding dish. The broth is what makes this dish a star. It can be based on shio (salt), shoyu (soy sauce), or miso. Miso is a relative newcomer, invented in Hokkaido, and tends to be thicker and heartier. Ramen noodles are cooked in a miso-based broth, with plenty of black sesame paste for added flavor. This is topped with chasu (braised pork) and accompanied by toppings like boiled egg, nori (dried seaweed), spring onion, chilli sauce, and best of all – fried garlic bits. You put all the toppings into your ramen, mix it well and slurp it all up. Slurping is considered good manners in Japan – it means you like the food and it’s a huge compliment to the chef.

Kohmen has branches all over Tokyo in Roppongi, Harajuku, Shinjuku and Ebisu and is a great place to try this dish. Look for Kogashi Thantanmen (literally translates to “painful ramen of black sesame flavor”) on their menu. Expect to spend 700 – 1000 Yen for a big bowl of this soul-warming soupy ramen.

3. Umi Budo

Umi Budo (Sea grapes) – briny, crunchy and piquant!

Umi Budo (Sea grapes) – briny, crunchy and piquant!

Umi Budo (Sea Grapes) are often called the green caviar of the sea and rightly so. These come from a type of seaweed that is considered an Okinawan delicacy since they grow mainly in the southern sea near Okinawa. Each strand of seaweed resembles a bunch of tiny grapes. When you put one of these in your mouth and chew on it, the bubbles burst open with a salty crunch and you can actually taste the sea. Its texture is a marvelous combination of briny ocean and crunchy seaweed.

This dish should always be served as fresh as possible. The plant is farmed and harvested in Okinawa and shipped to other parts of Japan, but not every restaurant or izakaya will have this on their menu. The best way to enjoy this food is closest to the source. Try Little Okinawa in Ginza or make this a good reason to travel to Okinawa where umi budo is served at every restaurant and izakaya around the corner. Expect to spend 1000 – 1500 Yen on a serving of Japan’s famous “green caviar of the sea”.

4. Sushi

Melt-in-your-mouth pan seared salmon nigiri sushi

Melt-in-your-mouth pan seared salmon nigiri sushi

Sushi will follow you everywhere in Japan. People eat sushi all day – for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or as a snack. If you are in Tokyo, it is likely the fish was chosen fresh from Tsukiji market that very morning. In fact, one of the best places to try sushi is at Tsukiji. The market opens at 5AM for its famous tuna auction along with daily handling of over 2000 tons of marine produce. After the morning’s hustle bustle and barter over fresh fish, the neighborhood sushi restaurants open up for business and start serving sushi to customers from 5am until they run out.

Sushi Dai is a popular place for breakfast. Each morsel is made with just the right amount of wasabi and soy sauce and will melt in your mouth. Expect to spend 1500 – 4000 Yen depending on whether you choose a la carte or go with the chef’s special omakase course.

5. Karaage

Chicken karaage (Deep fried chicken!)- need we say more?

Chicken karaage (Deep fried chicken!)- need we say more?

“Deep Fried Chicken” to the uninitiated, chicken karaage is extremely popular in Japan as a quick snack. Heavily influenced by the Chinese style of cooking which involves deep frying marinated pieces of chicken, karaage can be made with chicken breast, thigh, wings or cartilage. The marinade contains a generous amount of fresh ginger and soy sauce which gives the dish its familiar punch. Potato starch is typically used to coat the chicken before frying and the light finish makes it a surprisingly non-greasy food to snack on.

Taste authentic karaage at Torian Tokyo, one of the few places to be run by a karaage specialist from Oita (the city that made karaage famous). The restaurant offers mostly standing with a couple seats and takeaway. Expect to spend 300 – 500 Yen depending on whether you get the cartilage, bone-in or boneless versions.

6. Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki - Japanese pizza

Okonomiyaki – Japanese pizza

Okonomiyaki may look somewhat like your typical pizza, but your first bite will tell you otherwise. Popularly known as “Japanese pizza”, okonomiyaki literally means “as you like it”, which is why it resembles a pancake made with unique ingredients and toppings that you fancy. The batter consists of eggs, flour and cabbage and is mixed with seafood, meat, vegetables and pan-fried on a griddle until done. This dish is always served piping hot with ubiquitous mayo and ketchup.
If you want to try making a version of this yourself, head to Okonomiyaki Honjin in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Expect to spend 800 – 2000 Yen depending on how many of these you tuck into.

7. Fugu

Bowl containing shaved skin of fugu (pufferfish / blowfish)

Bowl containing shaved skin of fugu (pufferfish / blowfish)

For the truly adventurous and brave of stomach, a very exciting dish to try in Japan is Fugu (known as pufferfish or blowfish). But beware, this is no ordinary fish. Its internal organs are poisonous and fatal if consumed! This is one of the reasons Fugu is considered a rare delicacy and has long been a famous and controversial dish in Japanese cuisine. It is the only food to be officially banned for consumption by the Emperor of Japan, and now chefs need to obtain licenses in order to serve it. The most dangerous part of a fugu is the meat, which can get contaminated with the poisonous toxins from the fish’s organs. If you really want to try fugu, a safer alternative is to get the shaved fugu skin that is less toxic.

Fugu is traditionally served as thinly sliced sashimi or boiled in a soup and served as chirinabe (hot pot). One of the best places to try this food is at Tsukiji Yamamoto in Tokyo. This is an expensive food, so expect to spend anywhere from 10,000 – 40,000 Yen for a fugu feast.

8. Gyoza

Steamed Gyoza doused in spicy red-chilli-pepper oil

Steamed Gyoza doused in spicy red-chilli-pepper oil

Gyoza (potstickers) was originally a Chinese preparation but is a popular dish to eat in Japan. Steamed or fried, these pockets of awesomeness are filled with shrimp, pork, chicken or vegetables and are bound to push your salivary glands into overdrive. Try the ones that come with red-chilli-oil which will set your tongue on fire but you won’t be able to stop yourself from polishing them off. Gyoza can be eaten fried, steamed or in a soup.

Suito Pozu in Chiyoda is a great place to try this popular dish. Established in 1936, this corner shop serves all types of gyoza. Expect to spend 200 – 400 Yen for a plate of these heavenly potstickers.

9. Omu-Soba

Omelet with Soba noodles and miso sauce

Omelet with Soba noodles and miso sauce

An omelet filled with soba noodles? That sounds like an odd combination, but is a surprisingly tasty one. This two-in-one dish consists of yakisoba (yaki – fried, soba – noodles) wrapped in a soft omelet. Yakisoba is similar to Chinese chowmein, but the Japanese have made this dish their own by adding additional spices and condiments. Noodles are stir-fried with vegetables like cabbage, carrots, scallions and pork and seasoned with salt and pepper. Wrapped in an omelet, the finished dish is topped with a sweetish savory tonkatsu sauce reminiscent of Worcestershire sauce. This is true comfort food when eaten in winter.

You can find this dish at most izakayas and restaurants in Tokyo and around Japan. Expect to spend 400 – 600 Yen for a serving of this unique and fun-to-eat food.

10. Oden

Soul-warming Japanese hotpot stew made with vegetables and dumplings

Soul-warming Japanese hotpot stew made with vegetables and dumplings

The ultimate comfort food, oden is a Japanese stew made with boiled eggs, vegetables, fish cakes and meat simmered in a dashi broth flavored with mustard for added spice. Dashi broth is a clear, subtly flavored broth prepared by boiling katsuobushi (bonito fish) and kombu (sea kelp) in water.

Oden is a very popular dish during winter in Japan. Otafuku in Asakusa has been around since 1916 and is guaranteed to tantalize your taste buds with their offerings. Expect to spend 2000 – 4000 Yen on their legendary oden dishes.

11. Sanma Shioyaki

Salt-grilled Pacific Saury fish

Salt-grilled Pacific Saury fish

This food highlights one of the simplest and purest forms of Japanese cooking. Shio means salt and Yaki means grilled. Using only salt for seasoning and grated daikon (radish) and a lemon wedge as accompaniments, Pacific Saury fish are grilled/broiled whole and served fresh. You may be wondering how this might taste, but the juicy fish combined with a hint of salt is all you need to realize a dish does not have to be complicated in preparation in order to be delicious. What makes this dish unique is that the broiled fish is eaten whole – head, guts and all!

Sanma shioyaki appears on the menu when autumn commences. Warayakiya in Roppongi or Uoshin in Akasaka are both great places for enjoying this unique dish. Expect to spend anywhere from 1000 – 3000 Yen depending on the season.

12. Yakitori

An assortment of grilled delicacies! From L-R: bacon-wrapped asparagus, grilled chicken cartilage & hearts, chicken yakitori with asparagus, tsukune (chicken meatball grilled on a stick)

An assortment of grilled delicacies! From L-R: bacon-wrapped asparagus, grilled chicken cartilage & hearts, chicken yakitori with asparagus, tsukune (chicken meatball grilled on a stick)

And now we come to our favorite food of all – Yakitori! One must not even consider leaving Japan without having tried these juicy morsels of meat which are grilled to perfection on a skewer. The secret of delectable yakitori is in the charcoal used. Binchotan or “Japanese white charcoal” is called the king of charcoals because of its high carbon content that ensures it is odorless when fired up. All the pure flavors of the meat are intensified when grilled over binchotan. The meat skewers are served with shio (salt) sprinkled on top or glazed with a sauce (tare) made of shoyu and mirin.

A very popular place with locals for yakitori is Toriki in Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo. Also featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show “No Reservations”, Toriki specializes in grilling all parts of a chicken. Bird Land in Ginza is a great place to try a variety of yakitori including an option of omakase (chef’s choice of menu). Expect to spend 6000 – 8000 Yen on the omakase options. For less expensive choices head to Tokyo’s popular Yakitori Alley (near Hibiya station) where skewers cost from 200 – 300 Yen each.

Dining in Japan is truly a unique experience. No matter where you go, be it an upscale, trendy restaurant or a nondescript mom-and-pop-owned izakaya, the Japanese will wow you with their service, their passion for food and their mouth-watering cuisine.

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-Trupti Devdas Nayak

Photo credits: All photos are by Trupti Devdas Nayak

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