Chris' Guide to Japanese Food

Japan isn't a meat and potatoes kind of culture. In fact, there's little meat and almost no potatoes in any traditional Japanese dish. Fish and seafood provide protein while rice and noodles provide starches. Common vegetables include radishes, cabbage and seaweed. I will update this page if I try anything else strange or unusual (dorm food doesn't count).

Below are my opinions of various Japanese foods I've eaten, and lived to talk about.

Green means this dish tastes good (even though it may look bad).
Orange means this is a dish I probably don't want to eat everyday.
Red means even I don't like this dish.

For the Unadventurous

These are the Japanese foods I believe would be the easiest for a finicky North American to enjoy. No raw sea creatures or anything with tentacles.

Gyoza Originally a Chinese creation, this fried dumpling can be filled with meat, seafood, or vegetables.
Gyudon Fried beef strips and onions served on rice. Makes a convenient snack considering how many gyudon shops there are around.
Makizushi Little rolls of cucumber, crab or fish wrapped in rice and seaweed.
Miso Soup Served with every meal, everywhere. Made with miso (soy bean curd), and seaweed.
Okonomiyaki A Hiroshima specialty. Okonomiyaki looks kind of like a pizza. Pan fried, made with cabbage, seafood or meat, and noodles.
Ramen Chinese noodles. Usually served hot in a soup. Ramen shops are about as popular as Starbucks coffee shops back home. The proper way to eat these hot long noodles is to slurp them loudly.
Soba Japanese noodles. Either served in a soup or cold. These long noodles are also slurped. Soba can also be fried with cabbage and meat (yakisoba).
Tempura Battered deep-fried vegetables and seafood. Served either in a soup with noodles, on rice, or on its own with dipping sauce.
Tsukemono Japanese pickled vegetables. The Japanese pickle everything from cucumbers to radishes to cherries. The tastes range from sweet to very very sour. The colours also range from dark blues and greens to bright reds and yellows.
Tonkatsu Breaded deep-fried pork cutlet. Served with heap loads of shredded cabbage and a thick brown sauce.
Udon Japanese noodles. Thicker than soba or ramen, Udon is served most commonly in a soup but can also be served cold.
Yakiniku Fried strips of meat served with a sweet or spicy sauce. Great for BBQs.

For the Adventurous

These are the foods I believe the general North American population would be hesitant to try, for whatever reason. There are also some foods here that I thought looked innocent enough, but ended up tasting far worse than anything I've had back in Canada.

Chikuwa Fish paste molded into a hollow cylinder. Ryan described it as looking like those old BMX bike paddings.
Fugu The dreaded poison globefish. I'm sure everyone has seen that Simpson's episode where Homer eats some fugu and almost dies. No? Well, some of the fugu fish's organs (liver, reproductive organs) contain one of the deadliest natural poisons on Earth. One must have a license to serve fugu in Japan (although a black market does exist). I've eaten fugu on numerous occasions and I can assure you, I am still alive.
Ika Slimy disgusting-looking squid! Look out for those tentacles! Ika is served dozens of different ways from ikayaki (grilled) to ika sashimi (raw).
Ikura The only sushi topping I don't like. Ikura is salmon roe. Bright reddish-orange balls that explode in your mouth with fish-yolk goodness. Everytime I go out for sushi, I try ikura, and everytime I reconfirm my dislike.
Natto The second worst food I've had in Japan. Natto is made from fermented soy beans and usually served on rice. It is a collection of sticky brown beans that stinks to high heaven. People actually eat it for breakfast here. It is supposed to be the ultimate vegetarian food. Called the meat of the field, it is the only vegetable that contains a full protein. Whatever that means.
Oden Oden is a pot full of radishes, tofu and chikuwa, all boiled until they take on a pale, mushy texture. Mostly tasteless, but not completely.
Sashimi Raw fish, served in strips. You dip each strip into soya sauce before eating. Can be any kind of fish or seafood. One of my favorites.
Sushi The epitome of Japanese food. Strips of raw fish served on little rice paddies. You can get it at a normal restaurant, or a kaiten sushi restaurant, which served sushi on a conveyor belt. Not only fish can be used though, scrambled eggs, raw shellfish, ika, tako and ikura are also common sushi dishes.
Tako Unlike the Mexican food with the same name, Japanese tako has tentacles. That's right, it's octopus. Served raw (as sushi or sashimi) or battered and fried in little balls (takoyaki).
Tofu Does this word conjure up groups of tree-hugging hippy vegetarians in Birkenstocks? Maybe it reminds you of a sickening veggie burger you once decided not to eat, but were sure it tasted bad anyway? Tofu is simply soy bean curd, and in Japan it is not seen as a diet food or fad (unless fads typically last hundreds of years). It can be served countless different ways and usually takes on the flavour of whatever it is being cooked with.
Torisashi Boiled chicken strips. How boiled? Well, only enough to cook the outer layer, leaving the inside a raw pink. Absolutely delicious. WARNING: do not try this at home.
Unagi Grilled eel. Commonly served on rice or as sushi, unagi is one of my favorites.
Wasabi A green horseradish, notorious for burning the inside of one's nose. Usually served with sushi (between the rice and the fish) and sashimi (to be mixed with the soya sauce).
Wasabizuke The #1 worst thing I have ever eaten in Japan (or possibly in my life). I came into the dormitory cafeteria one morning, surprised to see they were serving potato salad for breakfast. Well, it looked like potato salad. Grayish mush with green bits (possibly green onion?). One bite convinced me not only was it not potato salad, but it was also not fit for human consumption. Not even as a punishment. Combine the nose-burning qualities of wasabi with the awful fermented smell/taste of tofu lees (run off... the stuff most people throw away) and you have an eye-watering dish that will convince your guests never to come back.

Nagano Prefecture Specialties

Because Nagano prefecture does not border the ocean, seafood plays a very small part in traditional Nagano dishes. Also, since cattle were not typically raised here due to the mountainous terrain, the locals had to find alternate sources of protein. Having lived in Nagano prefecture for nearly a year, I have had the good fortune of trying some of these local delicacies.

Basashi Raw horse meat, cut into thin strips. Eaten the same way as sashimi. One of my favorites.
Hachinoko Bee larvae. Usually served as a beer snack. They don't look like much and taste sweet.
Inago As if bee larvae wasn't enough of a strange dish, grasshoppers are also served at a few restaurants. Much like hachinoko, inago are sweet, but they look exactly like dead grasshoppers. At least hachinoko aren't visibly identifiable.
Shinshu Soba The best soba in all of Japan comes from Nagano prefecture. It is slightly grey in colour and is thinner than other sobas. One of the foods I will miss the most when I come back home is Shinshu Soba.

Okinawa Prefecture Specialties

These are some of the foods I tried in Okinawa. Because of its location, Okinawa cuisine was developed with Japanese and Chinese influences, as well as Okinawa's own island culture.

Aloe Vera This was given to John and me as a complimentary dish from the owner of a small restaurant in Okinawa. I guess he doesn't like foreigners. This was disgusting. Gelatinous pieces of aloe, floating in a thick syrup that is not unlike the texture (and taste) of snot.
Goya A bitter bumpy cucumber-melon native to Okinawa. Served with scrambled eggs and tofu.
Ika Sumi Jiru Squid ink soup. The broth is completely black, so you don't know what lurks beneath the surface. Well, I'll tell you: squid, seaweed and chicken. Not too bad, except that it stains your lips and teeth black.
Okinawa Soba Even Okinawa has its own version of this popular noodle. Served in a soup, usually with rafute, Okinawa soba is white, flat and wide.
Rafute Rafute, my favorite Okinawa food. It's pork hocks, stewed in water, soya sauce and a special Okinawa alcohol. It's so tender, you can break it apart with chopsticks.
Yagi Jiru The last meal John and I had in Okinawa did not leave a good impression. Yagi Jiru is basically goat-innards soup. Not very good tasting, the soup leaves you smelling of dead goat for the rest of the day.
Yushi Tofu A tofu soup. Not much to this dish: boiled tofu and green onions, but it uses Okinawa tofu, which is rumoured to be the best tofu in Japan.
Chris Lyon
July 16, 2001