Japan is world renowned for its rich culture, along with which comes a food scene steeped in heritage. In fact, Japanese cuisine even holds cultural heritage status. Tokyo, Japan's capital, is a popular city for tourists, and a great place to begin your exploration of the country's cuisine. In this cosmopolitan city, you'll find a mix of traditional dishes and modern, more experiential styles of cooking. To help you savor Japan, here are five must-try dishes in Tokyo.
It is believed that Japan's sushi obsession began in the 9th century, when adherence to Buddhism resulted in a decrease of red meat consumption and a preference towards fish. Sushi refers to raw and specially prepared fish - like pickled or blanched - that can be enhanced with seafood, meat, veggies, egg and rice. To many, sushi can be a daunting read, as there are numerous varieties, from sashimi (raw or pickled fish served in slices) to nigiri (the raw or pickled fish sits on a bed of compacted rice) to uramaki (the fish is wrapped in seaweed then in rice to form a roll shape) and beyond.
At some point, rice was added to create a complete meal. There are many restaurants in Tokyo known for serving great sushi; however, none come even close to the world's most renowned sushi haven: Tsukiji Market. Tsukiji Market, the world's largest seafood market, has sat in its Tsukiji location since 1924. While one highlight is watching fisherman cut up enormous tuna - tuna auctions are at 5 am most mornings and reservations are required - another is savoring the sushi sold by vendors on the outer edges of the market. The fish is as fresh as it can be with a selection that is simply incredible. Daiwa Sushi, Sushi Dai, and Nakaya are just a few of the top venues within the market.
Although originally a Chinese staple, ramen, a quick-cooking noodle soup, made its way to Japan when Chinese tradesmen brought it over in the 19th century. While by the 1970's ramen had downgraded to an instant soup, the following decades brought a re-birth with ramen museums and restaurants dedicated to the art of this delicious soup.
It's interesting to note that, while a great budget-friendly meal for travelers (think heaping bowls for $10 or less), you'll find Ramen that's much more complex than the typical instant pack of noodles. There are a variety of ramens one can savor in Tokyo. While tonkotsu ramen is creamy and features pork bones in its creation, shoyu ramen swaps in chicken bones with soy sauce. Another popular ramen style is miso, a heartier ramen with a soybean paste-infused broth. These are just a few of the many ramen options in Tokyo. Some must-try ramen restaurants in Tokyo include Ivan Ramen, Harukiya, and Takano.
Curry isn't just part of India's culinary culture; it's also a major facet of Japan's. The history of curry rice in Japan begins in the mid-19th century, with the Brits - not the Indians - bringing it, albeit in a bit of an altered state, for example, using flour instead of ground nuts for thickening. Because of this, many Japanese consider curry to have Western origins. This one-pot dish is delicious and, luckily, quite cheap, a satisfying meal when you're craving something spicy. CoCo Ichibanya is one place to savor curry rice in Tokyo, where curry flavors range from cuttlefish to fried chicken to cheese and beyond. Yum!
When exploring Japan's culinary culture, don't forget to sample the takoyaki, or, more plainly put, octopus balls. The dish consists of battered minced octopus dumplings often stuffed with pickled ginger, green onion, and tempura bits and cooked in cast iron pans so that the outside is crisp and the inside is creamy. The meal is typically covered in a creamy sauce akin to a Worcestershire-mayonnaise blend. The origins of the dish date back to the 1930's, when French food was introduced to the Kansai Region. The idea of batter-frying foods became popular, and locals experimented with their local ingredients, for example, octopus. In the end, they were able to create a satisfying and hearty meal. One popular chain loved by locals that serves the popular snack is Gindaco, so make sure to add this to your eating itinerary.
A kind of mochi ice cream, Yukimi Daifuku, features mochi - a molded Japanese rice cake. The gooey, sticky mochi dumplings feature a decadent center of sweet and velvety ice cream. Ice cream flavors can range from sesame to lychee to mango, although we recommend you go with the earthy green tea flavor, which tastes great and provides a slight caffeine boost. In Tokyo you can get this treat from local convenience and grocery stores; just look for the brand Lotte on the box.
And when all else fails, ask a local. Don't know anyone? Your cab driver, bellman, barista, waiter, and tour guide all make for great recommendation-givers.
What's your favorite Japanese food?
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Jessica Festa is a full-time travel writer who is always up for an adventure. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia and doing orphanage work in Ghana. You can follow her adventures on her travel websites, Epicure & Culture and Jessie On A Journey. You can also connect with Jessica directly on Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, or follow her epicurean adventures on Facebook and Twitter.
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