Japanese cuisine

The Japanese cuisine: A Guide to the 14 Most Iconic Dishes, from Sushi to Gyudon12 min read

The Japanese cuisine, also known as washoku, is a style of food that has evolved over the centuries. It is characterized by a focus on natural ingredients, the use of seasonings such as soy sauce and miso, and the use of traditional cooking techniques such as grilling, steaming, and boiling.

Japanese cuisine has a long history that can be traced back to the Jomon period (14,000-300 BCE) when the Japanese first began cultivating rice and other crops. During this time, the Japanese diet consisted mainly of grains, vegetables, and seafood, which were prepared using simple cooking techniques such as boiling and roasting.

As the country developed and became more urbanized, Japanese cuisine began to evolve and incorporate new ingredients and cooking techniques. During the Heian period (794-1185), the Japanese began to adopt more sophisticated cooking techniques such as frying and grilling. This is also the period they started using ingredients such as miso and soy sauce for seasoning their dishes.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japanese cuisine underwent a further transformation as the country became more open to foreign influences: The Europeans arrived in Japan during this period, introducing new ingredients such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and corn. This significantly impacted Japanese cuisine, leading to the development of new dishes such as tempura and tonkatsu.

In the modern era, Japanese cuisine has continued to evolve and adapt to changing tastes and trends; It has become a global phenomenon, with Japanese restaurants and dishes found all around the world. Today, Japanese cuisine is known for its focus on fresh, natural ingredients and its emphasis on balance, harmony, and presentation. It is often considered one of the world’s most refined and sophisticated cuisines.

From Sushi to Gyudon: A Guide to the 14 Most Iconic Dishes in Japan

As we just explained, the Japanese cuisine has a long and rich history that has been influenced by various factors, including geography, climate, and cultural influences. The balance of their dishes is also highly valued, both in terms of flavor and presentation. 

The concept of “ichiju-sansai,” or combining one soup and three side dishes, is often followed in traditional Japanese meals. This helps to ensure that various flavors and textures are present in each meal, creating a balanced and satisfying dining experience.

Additionally, the use of umami (the fifth taste) is an important aspect of Japanese cuisine. Umami, often described as a savory or meaty flavor, is present in ingredients such as soy sauce, bonito flakes, and fermented products like miso and natto. These ingredients are used to add depth and complexity to dishes, helping to create a harmonious balance of flavors. 

Overall, Japanese cuisine’s long history and cultural influences have shaped it into a unique and highly respected culinary tradition that values the use of fresh, seasonal ingredients and the balance of flavors. That’s why we listed the 14 Most Iconic Dishes in Japan below.

Make sure to use this guide when you plan your trip or copy our Japan Itinerary, this way you know what iconic dish from the Japanese cuisine you need to look for when you’re visiting one of Japan’s 7 metropolitan cities, Japan’s hidden gems, or when you visit Japan on a budget.

Sushi

Does this dish even need an introduction?

 Sushi is a type of Japanese dish consisting of cooked vinegared rice typically served with raw seafood, vegetables, and occasionally tropical fruits. It’s typically made with ingredients such as tuna, salmon, and yellowtail, as well as vegetables like cucumber and avocado. 

Some popular types of sushi include maki (sushi rolls), nigiri (slices of raw fish on top of sushi rice), and sashimi (slices of raw fish without rice). 

There are many excellent sushi restaurants in Japan, with some of the best ones located in Tokyo. Some highly regarded sushi restaurants in Tokyo include Sukiyabashi Jiro, Sushi Saito, and Sushi Mizutani.

Tempura

Tempura is a type of Japanese dish in which ingredients such as seafood and vegetables are coated in a light, crispy batter and deep-fried. Tempura is usually served with a dipping sauce made of dashi (a type of Japanese broth), soy sauce, and mirin (a type of sweet rice wine). 

Tempura originated in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868) and is now a popular dish worldwide. Some of the best tempura can be found in the city of Osaka, which is known for its high-quality tempura restaurants.

Ramen

Another popular Japanese dish is Ramen. It’s a noodle dish made with wheat noodles and a variety of toppings, such as sliced pork, boiled egg, and green onions. The broth is typically made from chicken, pork, or seafood and is seasoned with soy sauce, miso, or salt.

Ramen became typical to the Japanese cuisine as it’s inexpensive and widely available in Japan, with many specialty ramen shops and chains scattered throughout the country. Some of the best ramen can be found in the city of Sapporo, which is known for its rich, flavorful miso-based ramen.

Tonkatsu

Tonkatsu is a type of Japanese dish made with breaded and deep-fried pork cutlets. The pork is typically served with tonkatsu sauce (a sweet and savory sauce made with fruit and vegetable purees), mustard, and shredded cabbage. 

Tonkatsu can be found at many restaurants throughout the country. Although some of the best tonkatsu can be found in the city of Nagoya, which is known for its flavorful and tender tonkatsu.

Shabu-shabu

Shabu-shabu is a type of Japanese hot pot dish in which thin slices of beef and vegetables are cooked in a pot of boiling water and then dipped in a variety of sauces. Shabu-shabu is typically served with various dipping sauces such as ponzu (a citrus-based sauce), goma (a sesame-based sauce), and soy sauce. 

Shabu-shabu can be found at many restaurants throughout the country, but the best shabu-shabu can be found in the city of Kyoto, as it is known for its high-quality beef and vegetables.

Yakitori

Yakitori is a type of Japanese dish made with skewered and grilled chicken, often flavored with soy sauce or a sweet glaze. Yakitori can be found at many izakaya (Japanese pubs) and yakiniku (Japanese BBQ) restaurants throughout the country. 

Udon

Udon is a type of thick, wheat-flour noodle. These Udon noodles are typically served in a broth made with dashi, soy sauce, and mirin, and garnished with green onions and tempura bits. 

Udon is a versatile dish that can be served hot or cold, and is often served with various toppings such as tempura, chicken, and vegetables. Some of the best udon can be found in Kagawa, known for its high-quality udon noodles and flavorful broth.

Okonomiyaki

Okonomiyaki is a type of Japanese savory pancake made with a mixture of flour, water, and grated yam. It’s often filled with various ingredients, such as seafood, vegetables, and meat. 

Real okonomiyaki is typically grilled on a hotplate and is then topped with a variety of condiments, such as okonomiyaki sauce (a sweet and savory sauce made with fruit and vegetable purees), mayonnaise, and green onions. 

There are many specialized okonomiyaki restaurants throughout the country, but the city of Osaka is known for its delicious okonomiyaki and is often referred to as the “home of okonomiyaki.”

Soba

Soba is a type of thin, buckwheat noodle that is typically served in a broth made with dashi, soy sauce, and mirin, and is often garnished with green onions and tempura bits. 

Soba can both be served hot or cold, and is often served with various toppings such as tempura, chicken, and vegetables. The city of Nikko is most known for its high-quality soba noodles and flavorful broth.

Takoyaki

Takoyaki is a type of Japanese snack made with a ball-shaped batter filled with diced octopus, tempura bits, and green onions. It’s typically cooked in a special takoyaki pan and is then topped with a variety of condiments, such as takoyaki sauce (a sweet and savory sauce made with fruit and vegetable purees), mayonnaise, and green onions. 

Takoyaki is a popular snack in Japan and can be found at many specialized takoyaki stands and vendors throughout the country. Some of the best takoyaki can be found in the city of Osaka, which is known for its delicious takoyaki.

Unagi

Unagi is made with grilled eel, often flavored with a sweet sauce made with soy sauce and mirin, typically served on top of a bed of rice and is garnished with sliced lemon and green onions. 

Unagi is particularly popular during the summer months and can be found at many unagi specialty restaurants throughout the country. Some of the best unagi can be found in the city of Hamamatsu, which is known for its high-quality eel and flavorful unagi dishes.

Onigiri

Onigiri is a type of Japanese rice ball that is typically filled with a variety of ingredients like seafood, vegetables, and pickled plums. Onigiri is such a great example of the Japanese cuisine that it can be found at many convenience stores and supermarkets throughout the country, as its a convenient and portable snack that is often eaten as a light meal or as a snack on the go. 

Mochi

Mochi is a type of Japanese rice cake that is made by pounding steamed glutinous rice into a paste and shaping it into various forms, often filled with a variety of sweet fillings such as red bean paste, sesame paste, and fruit. 

Kyoto is known for its high-quality mochi and is home to many excellent mochi shops and vendors.

Gyudon

Gyudon is a type of Japanese dish made with thinly sliced beef and onions cooked in a sweet and savory sauce made with dashi, soy sauce, and mirin, and served over a bed of rice. 

Gyudon is a popular and inexpensive dish, with many specialty gyudon chains and restaurants scattered throughout the country. Some of the best gyudon can be found at specialty gyudon restaurants in Tokyo and other major cities in Japan.

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