If you’re not into Japanese food, you may have a problem while you’re there. Watching videos about Japan, I’ve seen and heard comments from travellers who didn’t really like any Japanese food, didn’t know what to order while they were there and would end up eating at McDonalds. McDonalds! I think that’s a shame. There is so much variation in Japanese cuisine. Something for everyone, you would think.

Japanese food variety

When imagining Japanese food, the average Westerner probably thinks of sushi, maybe sashimi. Maybe miso-soup. The staff restaurant of my very Dutch employer has been serving “miso-soup” recently. It doesn’t even begin to approach the real thing, but still. You are probably familiar with ramen, these days. More and more ramen shops are opening all over Europe. But maybe your knowledge of Japanese food ends there.

Japanese cuisine is quite varied, and with some exceptions, not particularly spicy. The flavours may be different from what you are used to, but they’re often subtle and not particularly dominating. Even Chinese restaurants in Japan seem to favour mild flavours compared to what I am used to in my country, The Netherlands. The spicing appears to have been adjusted to suit the mild palates of the Japanese.

The Dutch are potato eaters. You won’t find that tuber in Japan much. Even if you think the potato belongs with a certain dish, steak for example, you’ll find that it is served with rice in Japan. If you are dying for some potatoes, your best bet is to go to one of the better hamburger joints like Shake Shack, they serve pretty good fries with their hamburgers.

Sometimes, Japanese cuisine uses ingredients you wouldn’t put in your mouth, coming from a Western culture. Raw egg, for example, scares a lot of people. In the picture below you’ll see a Japanese breakfast option, tamago kake gohan. The idea is to mix the raw egg with your- lukewarm – rice. The result is a rather mild kind of savoury porridge that you then add flavour to using soy soy or other sauces and spices.

Japanese food Tamago kake gohan. Rice and raw egg.
Japanese food Tamago kake gohan. Rice and raw egg.

A bun full of noodles

I think that even difficult eaters can find something to their liking in Japan. A schnitzel (Tonkatsu) of fried chicken (Karaage), most non-vegetarians should be ok with that, right? And the Japanese version of spaghetti (Naporitan) shouldn’t be too much of a problem: pasta with tomato ketchup, onion, bell peppers, sausage and bacon. Sounds like the child menu, or what? I should thin most people will have eaten chicken satay. Japanese Yakitori isn’t that different. It doesn’t come with peanut sauce and you can choose from the various parts of the chicken. Avoid the scary bits, pick chicken thigh (‘momo’) and you’re good to go.

Another easy to digest meal for Westerners is Gyudon, a bowl of rice with beef, simmered in soy sauce. Or Yakisoba, the Japanese version of fried noodles or bami goreng. In Japanese convenience stores (konbini) you’ll often find Yakisoba Pan, buns filled with noodles. Looks weird, but very easy to eat.

Japanese food - Yakisoba pan - a bun filled with noodles
Japanese food – Yakisoba pan – a bun filled with noodles

Be prepared

If you are preparing for your trip to Japan and you want to know more about what you can eat over there, Dutch readers should take a look at the foodwiki on Thuisbezorgd.nl. You can learn a lot from their Japanese Japanese pages. Read their foodwiki page abour Yakisoba. Or their article about Gyoza, a tasty snack that doesn’t look out of place among Dutch bitterballen or vlammetjes.

English readers should check out Nami-san’s Just One Cookbook for simple recipes, or read up on Japanese food and drink on Japan-guide.com

Don’t worry about ordering in Japanese restaurants. Even if the staff does not speak English, they often have English menus. Or they’ll have picture menus that make it easy to choose what to order.

And now for the top 3 Japanese dishes you are better off not ordering.

  1. Natto
  2. Natto
  3. Natto

If you have any questions about Japanese food, don’t hesitate to ask. And which Japanese dishes do you like or dislike?

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