Best Japanese Foods You Can’t Get at Home
This ripe-smelling, fermented soybean concoction is enjoyed with a spoon or rolled with rice and nori seaweed, often for breakfast or before bed. The sticky, gloppy texture often scares foreigners. It’s one of the most off-putting, disgusting mouth-feels for people who have not been brought up in the culture.
Yama kake (山掛)
When you first sit down in a restaurant, the waiter may bring you a small dish of grated Japanese mountain potato over a block of raw tuna. this dish exemplifies the Japanese fetish with neba neba (viscous) foods. This oozy potato sauce is also served over noodles.
Seki saba and seki aji (関サバ)
In the Shimonoseki Straits that separate the Japanese islands of Honshu (where Tokyo is located) and Kyushu (the southern island) live two types of mackerel found nowhere else. Japanese, who eat other mackerel frequently, prize these fish and guard their appellation much like the French do Champagne or Bordeaux. Larger and uniquely patterned, the fish are caught one at a time, so they are quite pricey.
Tako yaki (たこ焼き or 蛸焼)
Every culture has a dish best eaten with friends in an unpretentious, neighborhood hole-in-the-wall. Tako yaki, served in Osaka’s greasy local joints and at temple-festival stalls, is a golf-ball-sized fritter of octopus (tako) mixed with a potato batter, eggs, onions, pickled ginger and cabbage, with some sweet mayo squirted haphazardly on top. A cheerful octopus banner hanging outside often announces a tako yaki place.
Shin cha (新茶)
Shin cha, tea made from newly picked Japanese tea leaves, is considered the best green tea in a country obsessed with the drink: machines on every corner sell cold and hot bottles of tea, and uniformed waitresses serve tea in business meetings. I can’t imagine a Japanese passing a 24-hour time period without having ocha, or tea. Japanese green tea leaves are steamed, unlike Chinese leaves, which are pan-roasted. The best-quality Japanese tea comes from Shizuoka and Uji.
Hamo is a type of eel that looks like a sea python. You do not want to meet it on a wet night, and its teeth are incredible. Popular in the Kansai region around Kyoto in the summertime, hamo requires a skillful chef, one who wields his knife carefully to render the bones into a subtle crunch.
Fugu (河豚 : ふぐ)
If not prepared correctly, blowfish is poisonous and potentially lethal. But the Japanese are crazy about this funny-looking fish, with restaurants devoting a whole multi-course menu to it when it’s in season. Because it’s so difficult to handle, a chef needs to be certified to serve it, Andoh notes. Fugu is very expensive, creating a cult of exclusivity. Eat at your own risk.
Japanese cuisine relies heavily on kombu, dried kelp seaweed that, when boiled into a broth called dashi, creates a powerful flavor enhancer called umami. The compound that makes dashi taste so good was isolated a hundred years ago and synthesized as MSG; a Tokyo company named Ajinomoto, formed to commercialize the discovery, is now the world’s biggest MSG seller. But Japanese food typically uses kombu, the real thing, not the artificial version.
True to the Japanese fondness for collective celebrations, this special type of eel is traditionally eaten on a special day–or days–in the summer (depending on the lunar calendar, this can occur once or twice a year). The fish supposedly restores a person’s energy after heat exhaustion in the steamy Japanese summer. A major scandal broke out this year when some unagi was found to be mislabeled, giving it a pricier Japanese origin instead of a less-prized foreign origin.
Konnyaku (蒟蒻/菎蒻; こんにゃく)
Although this potato is found elsewhere, konnyaku is cultivated for food only in Japan. It’s made into a chewy, gelatinous mound that can then be pushed through an extruder to form noodles, traditionally served with sukiyaki or cut up into quivering triangular chunks in oden and other dishes. Konnyaku has no calories, which makes it popular as a diet food in Japan.