Before coming to Japan, I knew that the food was going to be pretty different to back home in the UK. I bought British breakfast tea with me because I didn’t know if they’d have it over here, and even googled whether the Japanese were big on coffee (they are, as it turns out). But I wasn’t quite prepared for how different the food really is.
Sure they have plenty of the same things we have back home, but even some of those look/taste completely different. Take bread, for example. Loaves back home are about 15-20 slices, of different thicknesses, in white, brown, wholemeal and all the types in between. Over here, I’ve only ever seen white and fruit bread, and the loaves tend to come in 3(?!), 5, 6 or 8 slices – no large loaves to be found. (I have a number of bread-loving friends who would not be impressed with these quantities.)
Anyway, while the differences in bread may be substantial, there are some amazing foods here that I’d never even seen before arriving in Japan. So I thought I’d walk you just a few of them!
Takoyaki (literally translated as ‘octopus bake’) are one of Osaka’s specialitites. These small dumpling-like balls are made from wheat-based batter and have chunks of octopus in the middle. They’re also usually coated in sauce and topped with fish flakes. I read up on them before I came to Japan and have since tried both home-made and street food versions; they’re pretty good! (The octopus is a little chewy, but the sauce is delicious.)
Similar to takoyaki, okonomiyaki is a a Japanese type of savoury pancake that is also a speciality in Osaka (and Hiroshima), but can be found all over the country. The batter base is usually made of flour and toppings can include squid, octopus, onion, meat, vegetables and cheese. I’ve not tried okonomiyaki yet (because I’m a veggie and am worried about it containing meat), but I hope to before the end of my trip!
3. Melon bread
Quite simply, this is simply melon flavoured bread. That’s it. But it’s like nothing I’ve ever come across before and it’s usually pale green in colour, which I love. (It also tastes very melony, which is great.)
Nikuman are Japanese steamed buns that are filled with pork or other types of beat. I’ve seen them most frequently in convenience stores such as FamilyMart or 7/11, but apparently they’re also really popular as street food at festivals. I’ve not tried one though because they contain meat and, sadly, I don’t think vegetarian versions exist!
This is a type of wintry broth containing boiled eggs, daikon (radish), konjac and other ingredients. Unlike takoyaki and okonomiyaki, I’d never even heard of oden before I came to Japan, but one evening we had a pot luck party (where everyone makes their own food and you try each other’s dishes) and one guest at the made oden. It was incredible to watch. I’ve never seen anything cooked in such a huge pan (more like a vat), and the amount of different ingredients that went in was amazing.
This beauty, is one of my favourite item to add to ramen or rice. Takuan is pickled radish, and I’ve been buying two a week because I like them so much. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do when I go home and can’t get them any more (probably take some home with me because they’re vacuum-packed).
7. Genji pie
These adorable little sweet snacks are light and crispy and can be gobbled up in a few bites. They’re basically a cross between a biscuit and a pastry, (yet are called ‘pie’) and are like nothing I’ve tasted before in the UK. You can get mini versions too, which are even more dangerous because the whole pack can be gone in five minutes.
8. Milk tea
I know, I know, this is a drink not food, but it’s such an unusual take on British tea that I wanted to include it. I discovered milk tea in my second week here, when I was walking to a temple and had to stop by a convenience store for a cold drink. I was browsing the drinks and suddenly spotted one that claimed to be based on ‘English tea’.
I’ve since discovered that there are various different brands, but all are either inspired by breakfast tea or Earl Grey, with a little sugar thrown in. (Side note: I’m usually very much against sugar in my tea, but in Japanese milk tea it’s actually OK.) I bought a bottle, curious to try it, and my goodness it was delicious. Since that week I’ve been making my way through all the different brands, and so far my favourite has been a hot maple milk tea (delicious!).
9. Omelette rice
Japanese omelette rice is a common lunch or dinner food that is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: rice wrapped inside an omelette. The egg usually perfectly covers the rice and is then topped with tomato or BBQ sauce. I’ve yet to try this dish, but I’ve seen a guest at the peace house make it and it looked great, so I definitely want to give it a go.
My first encounter with Umaibo was when I was handed a free one on my way into the station. Umaibo are a fluffy corn snack that come in flavours such as cheese, takoyaki, pork, vegetable salad, pizza and even chocolate. They’re usually very cheap (under 30 Yen) and are popular with school children. The one I was handed was cheese-flavoured, Halloween-themed, and tasted like a giant cheese wotsit. This was fine but I think I would have preferred the chocolate one to be honest!
Other honorable mentions:
Natto is fermented soy beans, and I’d already heard about it before I arrived in Japan (anyone who watches anime will probably have come across it). Natto is actually famous for tasting horrible, but when I tried some the taste was actually OK – it was the slimy texture that wasn’t great. Apparently lots of Japanese people get round this by mixing it with rice and soy, which changes the texture, so I’d be willing to give that a try.
Dango is a Japanese sweet dumpling, similar to mochi, that usually comes on a skewer stick. There are different flavours depending on the season, and the one I tried was Mitarashi dango (which is dango covered in syrup made from soy sauce). They’re pretty great and I’ll definitely be trying some more!
When my friend and I visited Kyoto, she was looking for omiyage (souvenir gifts that are usually individually wrapped food items) for the teachers at her school.
While searching, we came across a shop that specialised in yatsuhashi, which is a rice flour sweet filled with flavours such as chocolate, cinnamon and matcha. This particular shop had free testers of every single flavour and green tea too. Needless to say, we had to try each flavour, before she chose one (she went for banana yatsuhashi base with a chocolate filling).
Wow, writing this post has made me hungry so I think I better end it there! Have you tried any of these foods? Or have you come across them in Japan/elsewhere? Let me know in the comments!