Japan’s Culinary Gems: A Taste of the Nation’s Most Beloved Delicacies

Krystal Smith

Discover the hidden gems of Japanese cuisine. From familiar favorites like sushi and ramen to lesser-known dishes, we’ve compiled a list of 18 must-try Japanese foods for an outstanding dining experience. 


Ramen is a noodle soup made with wheat noodles, savory broth, and various toppings. The dish’s roots trace back to China, called initially “la-mian,” meaning “pulled noodles. Today, ramen is a budget-friendly and widely popular comfort food in Japan. It is so popular that there is a ramen-themed museum in Tokyo!


Sushi is the first thing that comes to mind when discussing Japanese food. Originally a street food, sushi became a staple of Japanese cuisine and gained popularity in the US in the 1860s. Sushi covers dishes with Japanese rice seasoned with vinegar, including nigiri sushi (rice with fish on top) and makizushi (rolled in seaweed). 


Tofu has been a long-standing staple in Japanese cuisine due to its versatility. This protein-rich food is made by coagulating soy milk and pressing the resulting curds into solid white blocks. It comes in four different levels of softness: silken, soft, firm, and extra firm. Tofu is rich in proteins and nutrients and can be eaten uncooked, boiled, or fried.


Udon is a famous Japanese noodle made from thick, chewy wheat flour. It is often added to hot pots, stir-fries, or noodle soups. The basic version of udon soup is called kake udon. It is made with udon noodles, dashi stock, soy sauce, and mirin. You can add different toppings like scallions, abura-age, tempura, kamaboko (fish cakes), and spices.


Tempura is a traditional Japanese cooking method that involves deep-frying seafood or veggies in a light batter. Typically, tempura is cooked briefly and served with grated daikon radish and a dipping sauce. Various fish, seafood, and vegetables are used for tempura, with shrimp being the most popular choice.


Oden is a nabemono (hot-pot dish) made by stewing vegetables and proteins (tofu, fish cakes, eggs, mochi rice cakes, or daikon radish). It’s cooked in a large pot at the table, and diners can enjoy it with karashi mustard or other condiments. Oden is especially popular in winter because it is a satisfying meal and warms up the room on chilly nights.


Okonomiyaki is a famous Japanese sweet-savory pancake made with batter, shredded cabbage, and other savory ingredients (shrimp, pork belly, or vegetables). This popular comfort food is topped with Japanese mayo, brown sauce, bonito flakes, and seaweed. Diners often grill Okonomiyaki at a hotplate built into the table for a fun dining experience.


Unagi is river eel, usually grilled over charcoal and glazed with soy-based kabayaki sauce. The result is a smoky, savory-sweet flavor with great texture. People in Japan especially like eating unagi during the warmer months because eel is full of vitamins and is believed to increase stamina. Grilled unagi is commonly served in sushi or over rice in a dish called unadon. 


Sashimi is thinly sliced raw fish or seafood with raw meat like chicken. It’s essentially sushi without the vinegared rice. Sashimi is served with pickled ginger, daikon radish, and soy sauce mixed with wasabi-like sushi. It’s important to use fresh fish for this dish to ensure a better taste and avoid contamination. 


Soba refers to thin noodles made from buckwheat flour. They are served either in a hot broth as noodle soup or cold with a dipping sauce called tsuyu. Eating them cold is the best way to enjoy soba noodles, as soaking them in a hot soup can affect their texture. Throughout the country, soba is ubiquitous, with the Nagano prefecture earning recognition for its exceptional version known as Shinshu soba.


Tamagoyaki is a Japanese omelet seasoned with sugar or soy sauce. It is made by cooking and rolling up layers of beaten egg. It can be served as a Japanese-style breakfast, a side for a bento lunch box, or as a sushi filling. In the 1960s, this versatile dish was trendy among Japanese kids. There was a saying that Japanese children loved three things the most: tamagoyaki, the Japanese baseball team Giants, and the sumo wrestler Taiho.


Yakitori is charcoal-grilled chicken skewers commonly enjoyed by the Japanese with a cold beer during sports matches or after work. The dish’s name means ‘barbecued chicken,’ and it consists of small skewers with bite-size chicken pieces seasoned with salt or tere sauce. Common types of yakitori include tsukune (chicken meatballs), momo (chicken thighs), and negima (chicken with spring onion).


Natto is a traditional Japanese food made by fermenting soybeans using bacteria in the human gut. Although it smells like moldy cheese and has a sticky texture, many people enjoy its rich, salty, and savory (umami) flavor. Moreover, natto is high in protein and a valuable vegetarian source of vitamins B2 and B12.

Miso Soup

Miso soup is a traditional Japanese dish made from fermented soybean paste (miso) and dashi broth. It is often served alongside Japanese-style meals and includes optional ingredients like tofu, vegetables, fish, seafood, and seaweed to enhance the flavor and texture. The soup is considered a healthy food because the fermented soybean base is rich in B-complex vitamins, probiotics, and proteins.


Originating in Kyoto centuries ago, Kaiseki isn’t a specific dish but a term for a traditional multi-course Japanese meal. It features more than ten small, artfully prepared dishes. These include appetizers, soup, rice, cooked dishes, and dessert with tea. Fresh ingredients are a must, and each dish reflects the current season.

Kashi Pan

Kashi pan is a unique Japanese bread filled or topped with various sweet ingredients. Japan’s first sweet bread was anpan (buns filled with red bean paste called anko). It was introduced in the 1870s by the Kimuraya Bakery and is still a favorite among the Japanese. Some of the most popular variations include karee pan (bread filled with curry sauce, coated in breadcrumbs, and deep-fried), melon pan (bread covered in a cookie dough layer), and cornet (a horn-shaped bread filled with chocolate or custard cream).


Tonkatsu, a breaded and deep-fried pork cutlet, originated in the late 19th century when Japan embraced Western influence. It’s commonly served with rice, tonkatsu sauce (made with soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and ketchup), pickled vegetables, and shredded cabbage. In Nagoya, there’s a version called Miso katsu; the pork cutlet is served with a sauce made from Hatcho miso bean paste.


Gyoza are Japanese dumplings with minced meat and veggies wrapped in thin dough. Though initially from China, these moon-shaped dumplings are very popular in Japan. Typically stuffed with ground pork, mushrooms, garlic, chives, sesame oil, ginger, gyoza, or accompanying heartier dishes like ramen are served on their own. They can be pan-fried, deep-fried, or steamed. 

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