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If you’re visiting Japan for the first time and think that most restaurants are all about sushi, you’re in for a big surprise. There is so much good food in Japan that sushi isn’t something we look forward to eating when we make our yearly visit home.
We grew up in Japan and sushi wasn’t something we ate regularly in our home. In fact, the only time we had sushi was at a gathering of some sort like a wedding or a New Year’s Eve party. We’re not saying sushi isn’t popular in Japan, but it’s not really what most people eat on a daily basis. We put together a list of our favorite dishes that are considered Japan’s comfort foods and are just as popular as sushi.
Katsu has been a dish our mother prepared regularly and there is a ton of katsu restaurants around Japan. Even if you aren’t at a katsu specific restaurant , you’ll most likely see it on the menu. It’s a dish typically made with pork; however it can be prepared with any meat you’d like. Steak katsu is a fairly new dish in Japan that is trending. It’s covered in Japanese bread crumb called panko and then deep fried to perfection. It’s often served with several side dishes like miso soup, oshinko (pickled veggies), thinly sliced cabbage, and rice. We love this dish so much that we often cook it at home.
2. Grilled Salmon
Eating grilled salmon for breakfast, lunch, or dinner is very common in Japan. Our mother used to cook it for us for breakfast and it’s a great meal to start your day. When I moved to the States, I was so sad that I couldn’t get that same salmon I was so accustomed to eating for breakfast. The salmon in Japan is pre-salted so the flavors are completely different from what you would purchase from a grocery store in the U.S. It’s also very reasonably priced as you can buy them in small quantities. If you order it from a restaurant, it’s usually served with rice, miso soup, and some sort of pickled veggies. It’s typically grilled with just salt, but sometimes you will see it on a menu with teriyaki sauce or miso paste added to it.
3. Hot or Cold Udon
We usually like our udon hot with a ton of green scallions and tempura. It’s a dish we eat all the time as the soup base is light and the thick noodles are delicious. A lot of train stations will have udon shops where you can stand and eat a bowl of udon which are more like fast food. Just like many dishes, you can get the cheap version which may not taste as good. Many restaurants make their udon noodles from scratch and when you dine at one of these places, you’ll be happy you paid the extra money. We like to eat the cold version of udon in the summer when a hot bowl of soup isn’t so appetizing during the hot muggy months in Japan. With the cold version, you dip the chilled noodle in the udon sauce which uses the same basic ingredients (sake, mirin, soy sauce, and dashi) that’s in the warm bowl of udon.
Sautéed ginger pork is one of Candy’s favorite comfort foods. It’s a simple dish that is packed with a ton of ginger flavor which is her favorite. The pork is sliced very thin and the the meat is marinated in fresh grated ginger, soy sauce, mirin, and sake. It’s often served with thinly sliced cabbage which is a perfect combination as the cabbage tastes great with the sauce. Just like many of the other dishes, it’s commonly served with rice, miso soup, and pickled veggies.
Remember that katsu we mentioned earlier? Well, you can take that katsu and cook it with eggs, onions, and a slightly sweet soy sauce based broth. Then you put it on top of a bowl of rice and you got yourself a katsu-don. We also make this dish at home often. Basically, we cook katsu the night before and any leftover katsu is used the next day to make katsu-don.
Tempura is a dish that usually consists of seafood or vegetables that have been battered and deep fried. Cooking tempura looks easy, but perfecting the batter is actually a skill that is hard to achieve. We’ve had plenty of tempura at restaurants where the batter was too thick, soggy, or even overcooked. Tempura should be a light golden brown perfection with a slightly crispy outer layer. When we are in the mood for some yummy tempura, we like to go to a place that specializes in tempura as it tastes so different from other establishments that just make them on the side.
It’s pretty much guaranteed that you will come across kara-age on every menu you see at a restaurant in Japan. It’s a common appetizer and also a common dish at izakayas and convenience stores. In our family, Crystal, Dad, and our niece order this dish pretty much every time we dine out. It’s dark meat chicken that is marinated in freshly grated ginger and garlic, soy sauce, mirin, and sake. It is then deep fried. It’s often served with a slice of lemon which brings out the flavors.
Yakitori is Japanese skewered chicken and it’s one of the best ways to really enjoy super juicy chicken. The charcoal fire really brings out the flavors in the chicken and it’s really addicting. The meat is typically seasoned with salt or a sweet soy sauce based sauce. We usually prefer it with just salt as the chicken has plenty of flavors just by itself. You can choose from a variety of meat like chicken, pork, beef, beef tongue and more. Yakitori is a popular dish at festivals and izakayas and you can even find them at the local grocery store.
9. Hot or Cold Soba
Soba is quite similar to the udon we mentioned above. The main difference is the noodles. Soba is made of buckwheat noodles, whereas udon is made of wheat noodles. Soba noodles are also thinner and udon noodles are much thicker. Despite its name, buckwheat is unrelated to wheat and is one of the healthiest whole grains. It’s also gluten-free. Just like the cold udon, it is served either cold or hot. When it comes to soba, we actually prefer this dish cold and rarely eat it hot.
10. Japanese Hamburger Steak
This dish may not seem appetizing at first because it just looks like a grilled hamburger with some A1 sauce. It’s actually nothing like an American burger and is quite similar to a Salisbury Steak. The Japanese Hamburger Steak, or as we call it “Hambāgu” is very juicy and melts in your mouth. It’s usually topped with demi-glacé sauce and sometimes a boiled egg is placed on top as well. There are many variations of the hambāgu, like the Wafū Hambāgu, but the common theme of these steaks is that they are made from a blend of minced beef and pork. The dish is usually served by itself or with a side of rice. I remember helping our mom cook this dish when we were kids. It was such a fun task making those hamburger patties before they were ready for searing.
If you’re planning a trip to Japan, we hope you try one of these dishes if you haven’t already. Of course, if you are a sushi fan you definitely want to eat that in Japan, but if you see any of these items on a menu we encourage you to give them a try. We’re curious if you have already tried any of these dishes or if all of these are new to you. Comment below as we’d love to hear your thoughts.