Japanese traditional food is one piece of the wonderful ancient/modern jigsaw that is Japan. If you’re reading this from the UK, or the US, you’ll find it hard to comprehend just how passionate the Japanese are about their cuisine. They will travel hundreds of miles to the other side of the country just to taste a slightly different variation of noodle from that offered in their hometown.
Devoted, or crazy? That’s left best to your personal judgement. This article will take you past the sushis and the tempuras to offer you a glimpse of some of the other less known Japanese traditional food.
Introducing 5 kinds of Japanese traditional food
Somen: The noodle that’s great for the summer and winter
All the common noodle dishes come in hot or chilled form, but for a real cool down in the middle of August, nothing comes close to somen.
Served with ice cubes and a special tsuyu sauce, these super thin wheat based noodles are perfect for tackling 35-40 degree heat and high 90s humidity.
Check out this recipe to see how easy they are to make. They’re also pretty nice warmed up and served in February.
Nagashi Somen are also super fun. This involves flowing cold fresh water down a bamboo shoot. The freshly cooked noodles are then released down this shoot. This cools the noodles and the diners have to catch the passing noodles with their chopsticks. You get tasty noodles and a great game wrapped up in one.
Recently some TV celebrities were challenged to build a 1 km nagashi somen flume. They succeeded but by the time the noodles got to the end there was only one sad strand left!
Seriously High Class Meat: Matsuzaka Beef
If you are vegetarian or into the more tough-as-leather beef, then you might want to skip this section. If you like the idea of melt-in-your-mouth beef, then read on!
"The big three" dominate the Japanese beef (wagyu) market. The best usually depends on who you're speaking to. Matsusaka, Ohmi, and Kobe beef all hail from central Japan and the Kansai area based around Osaka.
This writer has been biased by a sister-in-law who used to live in Matsusaka. Every August meant her bringing up a couple of packs of the famed local beef produce. Our barbecues were elevated a few hundred notches! Japanese traditional food at it's best!
The thing that sets Matsusaka beef apart is the marbling that starts to melt as soon as it hits your mouth. This helps give it a really mellow taste. You can eat it in steaks, or on thin strips grilled on the BBQ. It's not uncommon for it to be served in sukiyaki on New Years eve as well. An absolutely stellar way to see in the new year!!.
Keep things simmering with Nimono
We're going to head into a slightly different direction. Where Matsusaka is the premium stuff, nimono is a staple of any self respecting Japanese person's diet.
Nimono (which translates literally to 'simmered thing') is unlikely to blow you away like wagyu can but it's essential to check out. Even if its just to get a true feel for Japan.
So what's in nimono? The common point is the sake, soya sauce and mirin sauce used to flavour the ingredients. The ingredients, however, vary greatly. Carrot, pumpkin, lotus root, can be joined with fish, chicken, squid, even tofu.
This dish is a real comfort food for Japanese. It reminds them of hometowns, mother's cooking, child hood memories. If you've been bought up on the strong tastes of curry, ketchup, barbecue sauce etc that dominate a lot of us western types' diets, then it's subtle taste might be underwhelming.
But you cannot deny the key part nimono has to play in traditional Japanese food culture.
Unagi- Eel as you've never known it before
Unagi is river eel grilled over charcoal and covered with a sweet barbecue sauce. According to locals, unagi is the ideal cure to the heat and humidity of Japan’s summers. It’s a delicacy straight from old Japan and most restaurants that specialize in eel have a wonderfully traditional feel.
Don't be put off by the snake-like look of the eel, once you see how beautifully prepared this delicious dish is, you'll be hooked.
Chirashi Sushi- Sushi with a bit of difference
I am positive you know all about sushi. You sweeten rice with sushi vinegar, place a pice of raw seafood on it, then eat it with soya sauce and wasabi. But this is sushi with a difference. There is no moulding or wrapping involved, the ingredients is plopped onto of the rice. It's a bit like a sushi salad.
Chirashi sushi first came on the scene in the 18th century and ingredients usually include crab, avocado, carrots, green beans, unagi (eel), omelette slices, tofu or fried tofu, scallions, green beans and bell peppers.
A lot of western Japanese restaurants serve chirashi with soy sauce and wasabi (much like the usual "nigiri" type). However, you'll be hard pushed to find a Japanese person who feels the need to add condiments to this already pretty tasty dish.
Last But Not Least: Miso Nikomi Udon
Down in the very heart of japan is the city of Nagoya. Nagoya is a city of about 2 million folk, and it gets a pretty rough time from other parts of Japan. Truly it is a pretty unremarkable city, a "don't visit if you have to" kind of place. It's only claim to "fame" is that it is the home of Toyota Motor Company (though their HQ is actually in neighbouring Toyota City).
But, as with most places in Japan, there are culinary gems hidden away in the most unlikely of places. And Nagoya meshi (cuisine) is no different. Each part of Japan has a leaning towards a different shade of miso. Tokyo likes mixed, Osaka tends to favour white, but Nagoya is full on red. This means most of it's most popular dishes are red miso based.
MIso nikomi udon is perhaps the most popular of these dishes. Fat, chunky udon noodles are served with pretty much any vegetable you like in as rich dark miso soup. The most famous place for this noodle dish is Yamatoya, but you'll be hard pressed to get a seat! It really is that popular.
Granted, miso nikomi udon will not even make most people's top 150 favourite dishes, outside of Nagoya. But inside this city, the amount of devotees is astonishing.
When you venture to Japan, or into a Japanese restaurant, see if you can spot these great dishes. People often trot out the same old stuff when they talk about Japanese traditional food so I hope this has broadened your scope a little.