Traditional Japanese cuisine, known as washoku, is one of the most diverse and fascinating kinds in the world. This seasonal cuisine, developed over centuries behind the closed doors of this once isolationist nation, is now celebrated on the global food scene for its inventiveness, wholesomeness and heritage.
But do you know the wide variety of traditional Japanese dishes available in the country itself? Once you’ve scratched the surface of authentic Japanese cuisine, you’ll find that there are tons of dishes to discover that you may have never heard of before!
20 traditional Japanese dishes to try
Here is our list of 20 traditional Japanese dishes you must try in Japan:
- Miso Soup
- Shabu Shabu
Japanese cuisine par excellence; in its home country, the art of sushi is taken to religious extremes, with elite chefs trained over decades going to insane lengths to create the perfect (usually very expensive) bite. It was not always an elite profession. Japanese sushi has its roots in the street food culture of medieval Tokyo, with pieces of nigiri (a rectangular bed of vinegar-seasoned rice topped with a slice of raw fish) served in stalls and eaten by hand .
Of all the types of fish on the menu, fatty tuna is the gold standard. These melty fish are so coveted that Toyosu Market’s first giant maguro (bluefin tuna) of the year sold for almost $1.8 million in 2020! You read that right – one point eight million USD.
Japanese people will often tell you that this fried dish is a “Japanese savory pancake”, or something like that, but that doesn’t fully describe it. It is made from a batter of eggs and flour mixed with cabbage and fried, with other ingredients added according to regional recipes and your personal taste (in fact, okonomi literally translates to ‘preference’ ). These can include pork belly, kimchi, various vegetables, and usually a garnish of dried bonito flakes, mayonnaise, and special okonomiyaki sauce.
- miso soup
A firm staple in the Japanese diet, you can find this thin soup on the menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Miso soup is made with dashi broth and miso: a salty-tasting paste made from fermented soybeans and koji rice. There are four main categories of miso – white, red, mixed and barley – and dozens of regional varieties, each producing a distinctive soup.
These reasonably priced grilled chicken skewers are a favorite among after-work diners looking for a cheap, relaxed meal with a few beers. Step into a yakitori restaurant and you’ll be greeted by the heat of scorching charcoal, with chefs busy fanning them and preparing skewers with just about every piece of chicken imaginable; from breast and thigh to heart, gizzard and cartilage!
These thick wheat flour noodles are believed to have been introduced to Japan from China around 800 years ago. These days, udon is a hearty and inexpensive lunch option, usually boiled and then served with a simple broth. Kake udon contains these two ingredients alone, and although it may look basic, it is actually a very filling meal on its own. If you want a little more bite, udon shops usually carry a wide range of toppings such as raw eggs, tempura flakes, and spring onions.
These octopus-stuffed wheat dough balls originated in Osaka, where they were invented by a street vendor in the 1930s. The distinctive shape of the takoyaki ball is achieved by using a specialized pan with half-sphere indentations on its surface. Returning the batter at the right time to get the perfect ball shape takes some skill. If you think flipping pancakes is difficult, try doing it two dozen times in a row – with chopsticks! The traditional style is topped with dried bonito flakes, dried seaweed flakes, and a special takoyaki sauce.
It is undoubtedly one of the oldest dishes on the list, believed to have been first made in China over 6000 years ago. However, these buckwheat noodles were not popularized in Japan until the Edo period. Much healthier and nutritious than most other varieties of noodles, eating soba has been found to prevent nutritional deficiencies.
This Japanese hotpot dish is perfect for social meals, with raw beef, noodles and vegetables cooked at your table in a shallow iron pot of boiling broth made with soy sauce, sugar and some type of rice wine called mirin. Thin strips of beef are usually dipped in raw egg after cooking.
It was invented during the Edo period, but failed to fully catch on due to strict Buddhist restrictions on meat consumption, which meant that beef could only be eaten on special occasions or if you you were recovering from an illness. These restrictions were eventually lifted, but sukiyaki retained its status as a celebratory treat dish, popular for holiday parties between colleagues and families.
Some of the nastier Japanese will be happy to point out the technical difference between sushi and sashimi if you fall into the trap of assuming they are the same thing. Basically, sashimi is sushi without rice. You will usually find it as a side dish in fancy dishes or as an appetizer in gourmet izakaya restaurants
From the early 17th century, unagi was an inexpensive and common meal among the Japanese due to the abundance of fish in rivers and streams. Its status as a rare delicacy these days can be attributed to Japan’s insatiable appetite for this delicious fish, traditionally eaten grilled and coated in sweet and savory tare sauce. Unagi is said to impart energy and vitality, so it has long been consumed on Ox Day as a remedy for midsummer fatigue and as an aphrodisiac for men.
The history of this soy curd ingredient, now a popular vegan meat alternative, dates back two millennia to ancient China. It was reportedly discovered by a Chinese chef who accidentally curdled his soy milk with seaweed. There are many types of tofu eaten in Asia, from thin noodle-like strips to huge yellow leaves, but the most common types in Japan are the white block varieties: primarily the firmly pressed momen (which literally means “cotton”) ) unpressed and incredibly smooth kinu (meaning “silk”), and yuba (“hot water sheet”): thin sheets of skin formed on top of boiled soymilk.
The savior of many hungry workers, these rice balls (the Japanese equivalent of a sandwich) can be found on the shelves of every convenience store – by far the most convenient choice for a meal on the go. This was the case 2000 years ago, when laborers and fishermen carried pressed rice dumplings in their sacks. The current form of onigiri dates back to the Edo period, when edible seaweed wrapper was introduced. Inside, you’ll usually find salted fish toppings, pickled plums, or more modern additions like teriyaki chicken. Check out our beginner’s guide to common Onigiri toppings for more classic and adventurous flavors.
These traditional sweets are the jewels of Japanese culinary culture. The wagashi category is incredibly broad, basically referring to all traditional regional, seasonal, and mundane Japanese sweets. Beginning in ancient times as very basic creations of mochi (a glutinous paste made from steamed and mashed rice) that were filled with nuts, these sweets have evolved into ornate delicacies made to accompany traditional tea ceremonies. matcha green from the Edo period.
Common types include taiyaki (a fish-shaped pancake filled with anko or custard), dorayaki (an anko pancake sandwich), daifuku (mochi bites with various fillings), and namagashi (rice flour beautifully hand molded and anko candies). Browse wagashi cooking classes and learn how to make your own!
Legend has it that this divisive dish was invented by accident in the 11th century when the samurai Minamoto no Yoshiie left cooked soybeans in a straw bag on his horse’s back which had fermented by the time he began to eat them. . A lot of people would say he should have just thrown them away.
Natto is the Japanese equivalent of cooking pot – you’ll either love it or hate it. Despite its pungent smell, natto is a popular breakfast food. It’s also incredibly healthy due to the effect of bacteria on boiled soy, which is said to benefit heart health, digestive health, and bone strength.
This popular winter comfort food started in the Muromachi era as a cooked tofu dish. Nowadays, other ingredients are added to bone-warming oden broth, such as fish cakes, potatoes, boiled eggs, daikon radish, and other assorted vegetables. They are usually simmered for several hours to fully infuse the ingredients with flavor. The rich but sweet broth itself usually consists of flakes of dried bonito (skipjack) and dried kombu (kelp).
- Shabu Shabu
This is by far the most modern dish on the list, invented in 1952 in a restaurant in Osaka. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it for sukiyaki. After all, both are hot dishes in which you cook finely cut strips of beef with vegetables.
There are, however, a few key differences. Shabu shabu is cooked in a deeper pot with a softer, tastier broth. It is also common to only partially cook the meat in a shabu shabu pot, and the raw egg is not used as a dipping sauce.
One of the mainstays of Japanese cuisine, tempura consists of pieces of fish and vegetables coated in a light egg batter and flour then fried. The technique actually found its way to Japan via Portuguese traders who were allowed to do business with the country in the 1500s. In fact, the name even comes from the Latin tempora – a word related to the Christian fasting weeks of the Lent. It quickly spread in Japan, becoming the favorite food of the first Edo shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
The premise of ramen is deceptively simple: soup broth, flavorings, seasonings, wheat noodles, and toppings (usually fatty pork and vegetables such as bamboo shoots). However, in this simple formula, there is a huge margin for interpretation.
You’ll find packets of instant ramen in supermarkets around the world, but if you really want to try this dish, head to one of over ten thousand local restaurants in Japan that prepare it with fresh noodles, rich broths (miso, salt and soy being the main types) and generous portions of toppings.
As with many things we consider quintessentially Japanese, that’s only half the story of this breaded pork cutlet dish. Tonkatsu was invented in a Tokyo restaurant called Rengatei in 1899, served with rice and shredded cabbage. It was originally considered a Western-style dish due to the use of pork, which the Japanese rarely ate. In addition to this, the curry sauce added to make the popular katsu curry was introduced to Japan by the British via India.
A type of cuisine, rather than a food, this style of gastronomy has its roots in the courtly culture of imperial Kyoto in the 16th century, when visiting samurai and dignitaries were treated to a series of small dishes to accompany the traditional tea ceremonies.
The style has found its way into restaurants, where diners of this day sit along the counters of small establishments, watching expert chefs prepare seasonal Japanese dishes on the other side while enjoying cups of sake. Between 12 and 20 dishes feature in a typical kaiseki meal, with the exact offerings varying depending on the season, the chef’s expertise and how strictly they adhere to orthodoxy.
You could spend a decade touring Japan and never fully conquer the country’s cuisine, but the twenty traditional Japanese dishes mentioned above are a good place to start. Try them all and you’re sure to discover a new favorite that you’ll want for the rest of your life!