A lot of my friends ask if Japanese eat sushi every day. The answer is “No, of course not”. There are so many varieties of food, and many of them are not raw. Japanese restaurants abroad seem to capitalize on sushi-hype and neglect some other wonderful dishes. There are a few foods that are as, or even more popular than sushi and almost every dish in Japan has endless variations. As you study Japanese, exploring food is a great way to better understand Japanese culture.
Popular Japanese Noodles
The first common food that comes to mind is soba, or thin buckwheat noodles, which can be served in various different ways. Soba-ya or Soba resteraunts are everywhere and popular among the older generation and among working people looking for something fast, cheap and healthy. It is also a popular meal to make at home. You can order them cold with a dipping sauce or soup (mori-soba, zaru-soba) or in hot soups (tanuki, kitsune) Many Soba-ya also offer Udon, a very thick noodle as an alternative and some stores specialize in only Udon.
Ramen is another obvious answer. Aside from a billion varieties of instant noodles, there are also many famous chains and local shops serving fresh Ramen. Despite being far too greasy to call “healthy”, this is much more of a balanced meal than the instant counterpart. The standards are Soy Sauce, Miso, and Salt but there are a thousand styles with many shops specializing in a certain kind. Some of my favorite specialty ramens have been kaku-ni (soft fatty pork), goma (sesame) and garlic. You can also pick your own toppings so if you want more bamboo shoots, it’s no problem.
Other Common Japanese Foods
Many of my friends who study Japanese are surprised by this but I insist; Curry is very popular in Japan and sometimes more readily available than sushi. If you are a fan of local cafes, you know this very well. It feels like almost every cafe in Japan serves some form of curry (and/or spaghetti). There are Japanese curry shops and pre-made curry packages. Indian and Thai food is also very easy to find in and around Tokyo.
One of the dishes I always have fun introducing people to is Okonomiyaki, which falls somewhere between a cabbage pancake and a pizza. You can fill in with almost any meat you’d like (although I have never seen chicken). Popular choices are squid, pork, and shrimp though my favorite is pork, garlic and kimchi, which can be hard to find.
The “family restaurant” is also very popular in Japan. These serve a variety of Japanese and Western foods (ranging from authentic to extremely unauthentic). The easiest way to imagine these is a mix of a chain-diner and a Japanese version of Chili’s or Friday’s. In fact, Denny’s, with it’s very localized menu is considered a “fami-resu”. Japanese style Hamburgers, Port Cutlet, Spaghetti, Udon, and Omu-rice (Omlett over rice).
Department stores also have a huge variety of western and Japanese deli-style take out to explore. Some of the western food is very authentic and some of it is not at all but still very delicious.
While you study Japanese it’s important to understand the culture and food is a big part of the culture. It’s also delicious so いっぱい食べてください (Please eat a lot!)。