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Food in Japan: How to order like a local

| Words by Zoe Crane |

Everything you wanted to know about Japanese food but were afraid to ask. Our guide to Japan’s most popular dishes, and the ingredients used to make them, will have you ordering like a local in no time.

Japan is famed for its fresh and seasonal cuisine, and Tokyo alone houses 160,000 restaurants. Dishes range from the familiar to the exotic with options like sushi rolls through to ramen and delicate plates of sashimi. Each region in Japan has its own specialty dishes and culinary delights. To get you started here are some of the most common dishes in Japan and what to expect when you order them.

A visual guide to the most common Japanese dishes

Donburi: Literally meaning bowl, Donburi is a bowl of rice topped with simmered fish, meat or vegetables cooked in a sauce.

Bento: A single box which has been prepared to take away which usually contains rice, meat or fish and vegetables, which are either pickled or cooked. Commonly found in convenience stores, railway stations and department stores, there are also dedicated bento shops.

Gyoza: A small dumpling filled with meat (usually pork) and vegetables they can be pan fried, boiled or deep fried.

Kaiseki: Also known as Kaiseki Ryori is known as Japan’s finest food. It is a set menu of many courses emphasising seasonality often served in high-end Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and top restaurants.

Okonomiyaki: A savoury pancake typically from the Kansai or Hiroshima region, Okonomiyaki restaurants sometimes present diners with a bowl or raw ingredients for them to grill at tabletop grills. Ingredients include the batter along with cabbage, meat, seafood, vegetables or cheese topped with sauce and mayonnaise. These can vary by region or customer choice and sometimes noodles are added also.

Ramen: Wheat noodles in a meat, or sometimes seafood broth, often flavoured with miso or soy, and containing toppings like sliced pork, nori (dried seaweed), kamaboko (a steamed fish cake), green onion. Each region has its own version of ramen.

Shabu shabu: Paper thin slices of meat (most often beef) that are cooked by the diner in boiling water and served with dipping sauces.

Sukiyaki: A hot pot style dish usually consisting of thinly sliced beef and vegetables, sometimes with tofu and noodles also, which are simmered at the table in a pot with soy sauce, mirin (rice wine) and sugar. Ingredients are dipped in raw egg before being eaten.

Soba: Thin buckwheat noodles which can be served chilled with a sauce to dip them in, or in a hot soup. Produced mainly in Hokkaido, Soba is the traditional noodles served in Tokyo. Toppings may also be added, usually raw.

Sushi & Sashimi: Sushi is the combination of sushi rice (rice that has been vinegared) and any other ingredient. While raw fish is most common, cooked fish, meats, vegetables and even fruits are often used. Raw fish, or other meats, served without rice is known as sashimi.

Udon: Udon is a type of thick noodle made from wheat, most commonly served as kake udon, which is the udon noodles in a soy sauce and mirin broth, topped with chopped scallions.

Yakisoba: Fried wheat noodles which are cooked in a thick sauce with meat and vegetables. Yakisoba pan is a bread roll similar to a hot dog roll filled with fried noodles and topped with mayonnaise and pickled ginger.

Tempura: Deep fried seafood or vegetables in a light batter. Commonly served salted or with a dipping sauce, it is also used in dishes such as udon or soba noodle soup.

Teppanyaki: Teppanyaki is food cooked on a flat iron plate. The food will either be cooked in front of you or cooked elsewhere but kept warm on a hot plate on your table. The most common ingredients are meat, vegetables, egg and noodles.

Tonkatsu: Pork, either fillet or loin, which is battered in bread crumbs and deep fried. As well as being served alone, it is also often served in a sandwich or curry sauce.

Yakiniku: A traditional Japanese BBQ, Yakiniku involves cooking meat, seafood and vegetables on a mesh over a direct flame.

Yakitori: a Japanese street food, yakitori is skewered meat (usually chicken) grilled over charcoal and is normally consumed by young office workers alongside beer or shochu (a Japanese liquor).

If your mouth is watering for a trip to Japan, see our small group tours to Japan or our private tours in Japan.