By Emily Wilson
Most people’s knowledge of Japanese food consists mainly of sushi, teriyaki, and mochi ice cream. However, the realm of Japanese food is actually incredibly diverse, and is full of very specific distinctions and terms. For those who want to take their knowledge of Japanese food to the next level, here’s a guide to some of the most common menu items:
Noodle Dishes: There is a variety of both hot and cold Japanese noodle dishes. In the summertime, Japanese people eat zaru soba. Soba noodles are made of dark grey buckwheat and are served cold. Zaru soba always comes with a bowl of soy sauce-based dipping broth.
There are also many hot noodle soup dishes that include thick udon noodles with various meats and vegetables. Most udon soups include fried tofu skin, mushrooms, and bamboo shoots.
In the winter time, sukiyaki is a popular family dinner item. A large pot is used to boil thin pieces of beef, onion, scallion, and mushroom with clear noodles. At home, sukiyaki is typically cooked with one or two bottles of sukiyaki sauce. This Japanese comfort food is both sweet and salty, and commonly eaten with steamed rice.
Sushi, Sashimi, and Rolls: When it comes to bite sized fish dishes, there is an extensive variety. Before eating at an authentic Japanese restaurant, you should be sure to know what maki rolls are. Maki is made with a variety of toppings that are rolled into rice and seaweed. Popular examples include california rolls and futomaki (which literally translates to ‘fat roll’).
During your dining experiences, you may even come across temaki, or handrolls. Translated, ‘te’ means hand, and ‘maki,’ again, means roll. Temaki are little triangular cones made out of seaweed wrap and are filled with various fish and vegetables. These are popular with little kids.
Nigiri sushi, on the other hand, only refers to sushi where the ingredients are placed on top of a clump of rice. Toppings may include pieces of fish (cooked or raw), vegetable (like shitake mushroom), or even cooked egg (tamago).
In addition, sashimi refers to a plate of just sliced fish (raw or cooked) with vegetables. If you order a sashimi platter, rice is served separately in a bowl.
Sides: Two popular Japanese side dishes are tempura and miso soup. However, tempura is often seen as both a side dish and as a main dish. Tempura consists of shrimp and vegetables deep-fried in a crispy batter. In Japanese, shrimp tempura is called ebi-fry (‘ebi’ means shrimp).
Lastly, many may think of miso soup as a beige soybean paste boiled in water, with a few pieces of seaweed, tofu, and scallion floating on top. However, miso soup is a genuine staple of Japanese food, and there are many types that accompany every meal (including breakfast). One type of miso soup is red miso soup, which has a much stronger and deeper flavor. There is also homestyle miso soup, which includes actual pieces of fermented soybeans. In addition, there is the strong flavor of country style miso soup. It has a very bold miso taste and smell, and would probably not be your favorite if you don’t regularly eat authentic Japanese food.
Japan has an extensive culture that can be seen throughout the diverse cuisine. You simply can’t go wrong, no matter what you chose from those listed above. Always keep in mind that there are still many more options, and feel free to ask your waiter if you want to try something new!