You’re in Japan. You’ve eaten more sushi in two days than you have in your whole life and you feel like you consist entirely of raw fish. It’s time to try out these spectacular Japanese culinary classics, without a shred of sashimi in sight.
If your only experience of tempura is re-constituted prawns smothered in greasy batter and accompanied by a watery chilli sauce, you’re in for a treat. Japan’s tastiest tempura comprises meaty prawns, soft tofu and green goodies like okra and seaweed coated in a fluffy batter and served with soup. Try Tsukiji Central Fish Market in Tokyo for a taster or if you’re planing a trip to Honshū, go to tiny back-alley joint Tenkin in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka. The owner has been serving up delicious tempura for 40 years and is so dedicated to getting just the right amount of batter on every piece of tempura that he plunges his flour-covered hands directly into the bubbling oil to cover each morsel.
About as far removed from the heavy European version as you can get, Japanese hot-pot, or shabu shabu, is all about fresh flavours and healthy balance. Thinly sliced meat is soaked into a hot broth consisting of cabbage, nori (edible seaweed), shiitake mushrooms and whatever else is available and then served with a mound of rice. Try Nagano’s 1166 Hostel for their weekly hot-pot party where you can sample a range of different hot-pot styles for around ¥600-800.
Roughly translated as ‘what you like”, it’s hard to go wrong with this speciality of Osaka and Hiroshima. Essentially, it’s an omelette – or ‘Japanese pizza’ – grilled on a griddle before your eyes and filled with a range of garnishes like octopus, greens, cheese and wasabi. Serving staff then make an artful criss-cross of otafuku, a sort of Worcestershire sauce, and mayonnaise on the top of your creation and scatter dried fish flakes. For comparison’s sake, try one in Osaka where the ingredients are mixed to form an omelette-style dish and then travel southwards to Hiroshima where the fillings and batter are cooked separately and then layered on top of a bed of udon noodles.
Although these succulent dumplings originated in China, the ones you’ll devour in Japan will feel a world apart from their Chinese brothers. Lighter and less greasy in texture, these perfectly formed thin-skinned dumplings house veggies, squid, octopus and other tasty titbits, set off beautifully with dipping sauces and seasonal pickles. Head to the appropriately named Gyōza Centre in Gora, Hakone for some fresh Fuji air and some delectable dumplings to send you on your way before heading to the wonderful nearby Hakone Open-Air Museum.
Chances are that you will eat at least one noodle soup while visiting Japan. Slurped in stations, gulped at stand-up restaurants and with so many variants, these omnipresent thick broths are a cheap and filling way of eating while in the country. For a full-flavoured feed and some world-class people-watching, sit yourself down for a steaming bowl of noodles entwined with slithers of pork, battered tofu, bean-sprouts and vegetables at Shin-Umeda Shokudo-gai station in Osaka.
If all the broths, noodles and rice are leaving you hankering for a slab of meat, you could do much worse than sink your teeth into some yakitori. These parcels of meat – typically liver or chicken – come stacked up on bamboo sticks, which are then roasted over hot coals. Tokyo’s Yūrakuchō Yakitori Alley is home to several yakitori stalls which serve inexpensive skewers of meat and glasses of beer to an after-work crowd.
If you need a fishy fix but are sworn off the raw stuff, plump for some oysters in the southern island of Miyajima (Itsukushima). Sizzling over a tray of hot coals, these jumbo barbecued oysters will have you wondering why you ever slung burgers on the barbie. Go to Miyajima – about an hour’s journey from Hiroshima – in February where the annual oyster festival sees the oysters sold off at rock bottom prices.