When people think of Japanese food, the first few things that might come to mind are sushi, noodles, and green tea. Although all of these things are amazing, Japan has many other noteworthy, yet relatively under-discussed dishes that go beyond the typical food associations that are made with the country. Japanese cuisine not only consists of their traditional foods, but also adapts from and riffs off of dishes from other cultures in their own way.
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Tokyo with one goal in mind: to eat as much food quantity-wise and variety-wise as possible. So not only did I chow down on foods that we all know and love, but I also explored the best places to get acquainted with some foods that you might not be familiar with. If you ever find yourself in the city of Tokyo, check out these restaurants and eats:
1. Gyoza from Ippudo
Many Asian cuisines do their own spin on the dumpling. While mandu and potstickers are great, there’s just something about the Japanese gyoza that makes it a little pouch of pork perfection. For crispy mini gyoza, head over to Ippudo in Ginza or Ebisu.
#SpoonTip: Try some of their ramen while you’re there.
It’s no secret that in Japan, presentation is everything… at least when it comes to food. Although their coffee is on par with a cup you could find in the U.S., it is always served in a picturesque manner. Even if you order a simple iced coffee, you can expect a chic metal cup and miniature pitchers with milk and liquid sugar.
3. Tonkatsu from Ponta Honke
Tonkatsu is a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet, often served in a set with shredded cabbage, miso soup, and rice. It is best eaten with a katsu sauce, a tangy cross between ketchup and soy sauce. Ponta Honke in Taito, Tokyo prepares an incredible, not-too-oily, lightly battered tonkatsu.
4. Vending Machine Drinks
One of the coolest things about Japan is that even their vending machines are fabulously high-tech and enticing. You can find them lighting up street corners and in every subway station. Sure, the drinks inside them are American equivalents of our Diet Coke, but it’s worth popping some yen inside the machine just for the fun of it.
5. Ramen from Afuri
I’ll admit that ramen is a classic dish that I essentially promised would not be on this list. However, if you’re on the hunt for a traditional ramen with a slight twist, head to Afuri for a lighter, citrusy take on your typical bowl of noodles.
6. Curry from Curry Up
When people go for curry, they are usually thinking Indian or Thai. However, curry is one of the most popular dishes in Japan (typically served looking exactly like the curry emoji) and is somewhat thicker and less spicy than Indian or Thai curry. Curry Up in Shibuya offers a wide range of Japanese curries and even allows you to try two types at once.
7. Crêpes from Breizh Café
Japan and France surprisingly share many commonalities in the cooking realm — both are meticulous in nature, for one. Japanese cuisine has been influenced by that of France within the past few decades, so it isn’t uncommon to stumble upon a French bistro in Tokyo. If you ever need a brief break from curry and noodles, try Ebisu’s Breizh Café for both sweet and savory crêpes.
8. Tempura from Tempura Tensei
A common side dish to any Japanese meal is tempura. Tempura is an assortment of seafood and vegetables that have been battered and deep fried. Tempura Tensei in Minato is the perfect place to get top-notch tempura.
9. Pasta from Supajiro Azabujuban
Like the crêpe, pasta clearly isn’t a traditional Japanese food, but is one that has been adapted to fit seamlessly into the local fare. At Supajiro Azabujuba, you’ll find both classic Italian pastas and unique ones with a Japanese twist.
10. Ice Cream from Japanese Ice Ouca
The Japanese are known to be adventurous when it comes to flavors and food pairings, and one of the best ways to experience this is in ice cream form at Japanese Ice Ouca in Ebisu. With flavors ranging from sakura to soy bean, you can complete the eclectic experience with an entire sweet potato that they offer as a topping.
11. Soba from Honmura An
Soba, the Japanese name for buckwheat, is a dish consisting of thin noodles served with a chilled dipping sauce or sometimes in a hot broth. It’s a saltier, dip-and-eat alternative to your typical bowl of ramen. Check out Honmura An Tokyo for a soba meal served in style.
12. Agedashi Tofu from Honmura An
A popular appetizer in Japan is agedashi tofu, a silky tofu that has been dusted in potato or cornstarch and deep fried to golden brown perfection. It is served in a broth made from dashi, mirin, and soy sauce. Order the agedashi tofu from Honmura An before chowing down on the rest of your meal.
13. Convenience Store Snacks
Okay, while convenience store snacks aren’t the most glamorous thing you’ll find in Japan, little bites like green tea Kit Kat and cookies and cream Pocky are still delicious and worth trying. Whether you’re waiting for a train or walking around the city, pick up one of these little pouches and see why it’s the one thing people bring back from Japan for friends as omiyage, a souvenir gift.
Since sushi is pretty much the quintessential Japanese food, at least in the eyes of an American, you have to sample it when in Tokyo, regardless of the fact that it’s not the most out-of-the-box thing to eat in Japan. Since you are in Tokyo, you can expect pretty much any sushi joint you stumble upon to serve fresh and delicious fish.
15. Eel from Hitsumabushi Bincho
If there was ever a time to be adventurous and try eel, it’s most definitely when in Tokyo. Hear me out — if you’re a fan of crispy chicken or bacon, you should definitely give unagi, or eel a try. Unagi comes atop a bed of rice and has a sweet soy sauce drizzled over it. If you’re up for the challenge, order the unadon at Hitsumabushi Bincho in Ginza.
We could keep this list going until the cows come home and still not even cover half of the amazing restaurants and foods that Japan has to offer. However, this list is a great way to start chipping away at the monstrous (yet delightful) beast that is Japanese cuisine.