Japan Food
Food & Drink
The cooking and presentation of Japanese cuisine has as much to do with satisfying the soul as with nourishing the body. The presentation of Japanese foods also has much to do with the development and power of Zen Buddhism, which evokes a spiritual attitude toward cooking and dictates that attention be focused on one thing at a time. Zen-influenced kaiseki cuisine, which accompanies the traditional and elegant tea ceremony, is the highest form of culinary art in Japan.

Gohan (boiled white rice) is the staple of every Japanese diet. Noodles are another staple, eaten hot in winter and cold in summer. Soup, either osumashi (clear) or misoshiru (soybean based), is also standard at all three meals. Tsukemono (small pickled items, such as vegetables and tiny whole fish) accompany every meal.

Japan has an abundance of succulent shellfish and seafood, which is served raw as sashimi or sushi, deep-fried in tempura, or served yakizakana style (grilled). Meat is less frequently served (mainly because of its expense), although Japan is noted for producing tender beef. Pork does not appear often on Japanese menus, except as tonkatsu, a breaded cutlet deep-fried and served with fresh cabbage. More exotic items include turtle, snake, whale, quail, and tiny quail eggs. Carp is highly prized. Fugu (blowfish) is considered a delicacy but is fatally poisonous if improperly prepared.

Much of Japanese food is an acquired taste. Sashimi is thin slices of very fresh raw fish served over a bowl of rice and accompanied by shoyu (soy sauce), pickled ginger, and wasabi (a potent green horseradish-like paste). Sushi is raw fish, vegetables, or a sweetened egg custard arranged upon cold, vinegary rice and served upon a lacquered tray. The requisite ikura (red caviar) and perhaps a few pickles packed in rice will be wrapped in nori, paper-thin pieces of dried seaweed. Nori is an important part of every Japanese diet; it's inexpensive and rich in vitamins and iodine.

Fruit is served for dessert, or a variety of very dry cakes and buns, many filled with a sweet reddish bean paste. Snack items tend to be salty rather than sweet.

Sake and beer are the national drinks and apt accompaniments to local cuisine. During winter months, hot sake is warming, but it hits hard, so first-timers should be careful. The smoother blends are served cold, and the taste is quite different. Kirin, Asahi, Suntory, and Sapporo are the favored brands of beer. The Japanese also have begun to make domestic wines. Mercien is the most popular; it sells for about US$10 in food halls. The Japanese also make their own whiskey (Suntory is the best known), brandy, champagne, plum wine, shochu (an alcoholic beverage made from sweet potato), and semialcoholic beverages. Be careful about ordering mixed drinks—many of the cocktails offered could make any jet-lagged visitor ill.

Eating Out
Japanese restaurants may appear unsophisticated at first glance, but their pristine simplicity purposefully enhances the food and its presentation. Restaurants range from hugely expensive to very affordable, from haute cuisine to stand-up snack shops. The most elegant restaurants tend to be located in hotels or trendy districts of major cities. A restaurant charge will be 25–30 percent more than anticipated because of added tax and service charges.

Popular and inexpensive restaurants cram the basements of office complexes and subway stations. Many menus offer English translations, or you can order from a picture or model of the meal. For a quick immersion course in Japanese cuisine, visit the food halls of large department stores. These treasure troves are located on the basement level and are often the most interesting diversion in town. Here you can sample to your heart's content. In the liquor department, you can taste local and imported spirits.

Another low-priced option is the box lunch, sold on trains and in convenience stores. In stand-up noodle shops, a meal costs less than a dollar a bowl. A fun, relatively inexpensive novelty is a kaiten sushi restaurant, where diners sit at a counter and choose plates from a conveyor belt.

Delicious and low-priced meals are available from roadside food stalls. In late summer, grilled unagi (eels) are offered. Yakitori, grilled bits of chicken and vegetables on a skewer, is also best enjoyed at a sidewalk stall.

Many restaurants in Japan specialize in sukiyaki. Primarily a winter meal, sukiyaki is cooked in a thick iron pot on a hotplate in the middle of the table. Thin slices of marbled beef, vegetables, and tofu (bean curd) are cooked in a salty soup of shoyu, sake, and some sugar. The contents of the pot are served with plain boiled rice and usually a raw egg dip. Lighter variations on the theme are mitzutaki and shabu-shabu. Mitzutaki is a meal of chicken, sliced pork, or beef and vegetables boiled in an earthenware pot, eaten with a sweet-sour dipping sauce to which horseradish and green onion are added. For shabu-shabu, thin slices of tender beef are held by chopsticks, swirled in a pot of boiling water, and dipped into sauce.

Tempura is another Japanese dish popular with Westerners. Fish, vegetables, dried seaweed, and sometimes prawns are coated with batter and quickly deep-fried. It is eaten very hot, with a dipping sauce of shoyu and mirin (sweetened sake).

Teppanyaki is both a very filling meal and a spectator sport. Diners sit around a large flat grill on which seafood (live), beef, and vegetables are dramatically chopped and cooked. The process is a performance.

How to Eat Sushi
Learn simple steps for eating sushi the right way.

Difficulty Level: Easy Time Required: 30 min.-

Here's How:
Clean your hands by using an oshibori (hot towel).
Put soy sauce for dipping in the small dish.
Mix a bit of wasabi (Japanese horse radish) with the soy sauce if you want. Since wasabi is already placed in each sushi piece, you don't need to do this.
When you eat nigiri-zushi (hand-pressed sushi), pick up one sushi piece between your thumb and middle finger, putting the index finger on top.
Dip the end of the neta (ingredients/fish slices side) into the soy sauce.(not the rice part)
Bring the sushi to your mouth and bite in half.
Before your next bite, again dip the neta side in the soy sauce.
When you eat maki-zushi(rolled sushi), place the whole piece in your mouth if you can. Maki-zushi falls apart easily when you bite.

Don't put too much soy sauce in the small dish. It's better to add as you need it.
Don't dip a whole sushi piece into the soy sauce. The rice part tends to fall apart.
Try to eat pieces of pickled ginger between different kinds of sushi. It helps to clean your mouth and enhance the flavors