A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Food

Updated May 22, 2019
Posted by

When I think of Japan, my mind brings me back to all the cooking and eating shows that I have watched with my sister when I was young. Japan is not only popular because of its cherry blossoms, technological advancements, exceptional manners, but also because of its overwhelming and borderline obsession with their own cuisine.

Big fast food chains, high-end dining, and even small obasan/ojichan owned restaurants boasts outstanding quality of excellence. For them, food is an art form that is to be taken seriously. Even the simplest dish is not taken lightly as diligent preparation and presentation are invested into.

With this, let us indulge ourselves in some of the Japanese dishes that we simply can’t get enough of.


Octopus balls but far from tasting like octopus’ balls. A favorite snack with a thin crispy exterior and gooey inside made of flour, egg and dashi stock. It is then filled with ginger, scallion and huge chunks of octopus meat. Topped with a sweet-savory sauce, mayonnaise and dried bonito flakes.

It is best-eaten piping hot straight from the pan. The first bite gives you that mix of texture as you bite into the crisp flakes and exterior then you feel that creamy and gooey inside with the chewy octopus meat in the middle as you fan your mouth to avoid getting burnt.  

Japan really goes out of their way in making the best takoyaki, we were able to try a takoyaki stall that offers a whole tiny octopus in one takoyaki ball and it was sold in a pack of six! If all balls tasted this good, then we all would’ve liked it more.

Takoyaki at Donaiya in Shinjuku

Takoyaki at Donaiya in Shinjuku


Another “ball” on our list are onigiris or my quick go-to snack. It is simply a rice ball containing meat, fish or vegetable and is wrapped in nori seaweed. It is a staple food in Japan and any Japanese restaurants worldwide.

There’s a lot of variety for onigiri, but my favorite will have to be tuna mayo. It’s simple, familiar and very easy to the palate. The fluffy rice is quite bland as compared to sushi rice as it is not seasoned as much. But the creamy tuna mayo completes it with a sweet and savory taste.

Amusement park’s food and snacks can be quite expensive so we always make sure to bring our own, the fact that these rice balls are available at every convenience store is a life-saver! Onigiris are small but packed and you can instantly feel full with just one or two.  It’s tasty, cheap and filling!

Home-made style Onigiri, sold at a local grocery store

Home-made style Onigiri, sold at a local grocery store


Japanese styled chicken-satay, except they aren’t marinated. The bite-sized chicken meat is skewered into a stick and grilled either with plain salt or a sweet-savory sauce called tare which is a sweet thickened soy sauce. You can usually find stalls selling yakitori but there are also restaurants specializing in this dish.

This dish is especially tender and is not overly seasoned. It is sweet and savory but you can still taste the natural taste of the chicken. It goes amazingly well with alcohol. We found it to be expensive until we found out that we were also charged for our seats.


It’s grill as you like (it’s the literal translation). Okonomiyaki is like a savory pancake cooked in a metal griddle. It is usually made of flour, eggs, cabbage, your choice of protein, tenkasu(tempura scraps), mayo, okonomiyaki sauce, and dried bonito flakes. It sounds like a lot of ingredients, but it just all works well together! The sauce and the mayo tie everything well together.

Much like takoyaki, it has a very crisp exterior resulting from being cooked in an oiled griddle. The inside is, however, a contrast of texture, it is soft and almost gooey.

Part of the eating okonomiyaki is the cooking experience. You can either cook it your own, have a chef cook it in front of you or just get the cooked one which sounds lazy and lame.

Okonomiyaki at Chibo

Okonomiyaki at Chibo

Ice cream

One of my favorite thing to do in a convenience store is to check the chest freezers. What I find really impressive in Japan is their collection of ice cream and the quality of each and everything. They are really bold in flavor options and despite the fact that these packages are crammed inside these freezers, they are still able to maintain their interesting shapes! Not like those, character-inspired ice creams that start to look like the devil’s spawn that you usually find anywhere else.

If you have a more luxurious taste, you may also try their sundae covered in gold leaf which I honestly think is just too expensive and gimmicky. But who am I to judge?


The national dish of Japan. It starts of with having a stew made of meat and vegetables then a roux made of curry powder, oil and flour is added until thickened. When ready, it is poured over white rice.

The flavor and smell of Japanese curry is not as strong as other country’s curry. It is also a lot thicker than most and it uses a lot more vegetables rather than spice. It is so popular that even instant packed curry are readily available everywhere, you just have to heat it up then you can enjoy it without any effort.

Tonkatsu Curry at Nagashima Spa Land

Tonkatsu Curry at Nagashima Spa Land

Hamburg Steak

Is it a hamburger? Is it a steak? No, it’s a hamburg steak! Well to answer the question, it is actually both. Another popular Japanese dish and is uniquely Japan. It is their take on the classic Salisbury steak but using a hamburger patty. It is a fusion of two classic western dishes and Japanese technique of cooking.

The hamburg steak has a very distinct taste as it uses both usual western and Asian seasoning. From worcestershire, oyster and soy sauce, possibly even wine. The meat itself is usually a combination of both beef and pork. It is then served with rice, salad or both!

Hamburg Steak with Omurice at Pomme's

Hamburg Steak with Omurice at Pomme’s


Who wouldn’t know about a noodle soup called Ramen? It’s probably the most famous food in Japan, worldwide. It’s popularity resulted in the construction of one of the most unique museums about food.

Ramen has typically three components: soup base, noodles, and toppings. Ramen is typically categorized based on its soup base from soy sauce, miso, salt, and curry. Each offers a completely different and delicate taste. The noodles are usually long, firm in texture and have a strong yellowish color. Toppings are then added at the end and rest on top of steaming hot bowl of noodles and soup. Chashu or the thin slices of pork are the best, in my opinion, they are very tender and light but packs such an intense flavor.

Ramen are generally inexpensive and widely available. They come in huge servings so always be prepared and come with an almost empty stomach!

Ramen at Ikkakuya

Ramen at Ikkakuya


Thin, crispy, deep fried goodness! They are basically pork chops or cutlets that are salted and peppered, then coated with flour, eggs and bread crumbs before being deep fried. It is served with a bowl of rice, miso soup, bedding of shredded cabbage, and tonkatsu sauce which is a thick, brown, sweet and savory sauce.

I am not really a fan of deep-fried food, I find them to be too greasy for my liking. But the Japanese have a way of making their fried food very light but packed with flavors. This is a meal that I can indulge in any time of the day.

Tonkatsu at Tokumi (Shibu Onsen)

Tonkatsu at Tokumi (Shibu Onsen)


Who doesn’t love a good deep fried chicken? What’s makes Karaage different is the starch used for the batter. Instead of flour, they use potato starch which gives the chicken light and crispy coating. I believe the Japanese have perfected the art of deep-frying chicken more than any other culinary culture.

Squeeze in a lemon over the chicken and dip it into the mayo sauce. It is without a doubt, insanely delicious, juicy and crispy. It is also very light despite the fact that it is deep fried a few times. Hence, they are served as either an appetizer or main. You definitely can’t miss this whenever you eat in a Japanese restaurant.

Karaage at Tokumi (Shibu Onsen)

Karaage at Tokumi (Shibu Onsen)


If Tonkatsu is to pork and Karaage is to chicken, the final dish to complete our holy trinity of deep-fried food is the tempura. This light-and-crispy dish is made by battering and deep frying thin slices of seafood and vegetables. The batter is what makes this dish exceptional, as it uses cold water and the flour is only mixed lightly. Over mixing the batter can produce gluten which makes the batter absorb more oil resulting in a heavier and less crisp texture.

For me, a perfectly made tempura should pass a crunch test. There should be an ASMR sound as you bite into this deep-fried food followed by an explosion of flavor and a change of texture as you bite in the sweet and soft meat of the seafood or vegetable.


Synonymous to Japanese food, sushi is the most popular Japanese dish outside Japan. It is one of the most prized dishes in Japan as it is one of the most labor-intensive dishes to prepare. Each and every sushi is crafted by hand and the ingredients are hand-picked to ensure the freshness and quality of the dish. Not to mention that they are a sight to behold, chefs take careful consideration of the visual presentation of the dish.

Great quality sushi can be pretty pricey, but definitely worth it. The freshness and the delicateness of the ingredients gives an awesome feeling in the mouth. The mix of the ingredients complement one another and gives an experience that is truly a feast for the senses.

Conveyor belt sushi at Sakurazushi

Conveyor belt sushi at Sakurazushi

More often than not, traveling to another country gives a sense of discomfort as your palate tries to adjust to what’s out there. Japan does not disappoint when it comes to food, there is simply anything for everyone. Japanese people are very passionate about their food and this gives a feeling of familiarity but at the same time, luxury. So next time you visit, don’t be afraid to splurge a bit. It’s definitely worth it!

For more Guides and DIY Itineraries in Japan, click here!