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Just a mere glance at all of these Japanese foods will help you understand why so many travelers claim Japan was home to their favorite cuisine when out on the road.
Intense flavor, creative composition, and some of the freshest, mouthwatering ingredients on the planet are just some of the many reasons why mind-blowing food is simply all around you in this vast and unique country.
Whether you’re completely new to Japanese food or a seasoned foodie, there’s something on this list for everyone to get excited about. Prepare to see Japan in a truly magnificent way, through 21 of its most popular and must-try dishes.
Before we begin, you may notice we have excluded sushi from this list. This is because Japanese sushi is so vast, geographical, and diverse in what it can offer and can be, a mere mention of it on our list will not do it justice.
Absolutely try as much sushi as you can in Japan. But be sure to check back here in the near future, because we plan to go deep into the world of Japanese sushi, and give you the food guide this global phenomenon deserves.
1 – Unohana no Irini – 卯の花の煎り煮 (Simmered Soy Pulp & Vegetables)
Unohana no Irini (卯の花) is a dish of okara (soy pulp), vegetables, and shiitake mushrooms. It is one of the most popular homemade appetizers in Japan. The dish is made by stir-frying the ingredients together, simmering them in the heat for a little while, and finally seasoning the dish with dashi, sugar, mirin, and soy sauce.
Okara has a light creamy color and is very crumbly. On its own, it has a mild flavor, but in this dish it blends with the other ingredients wonderfully well, making for both a nutritious and flavorful dish.
Okara is also rich in fiber, calcium, and protein, and it is also used in sweeter dishes, such as okara cookies and muffins.
2 – Chawanmushi – 茶碗蒸し (Steamed Savory Egg Custard)
Chawanmushi is one of the most popular appetizers at sushi restaurants and traditional Japanese hotels (Ryokan), and it can be served hot or cold, commonly eaten with a spoon.
Since the process of making chawanmushi is time-consuming and intricate, and it also requires tools such as Mushiki, many Japanese prefer to buy chawanmushi from stores, instead of making it themselves.
The dish is a steamed savory egg custard, served in a Japanese teacup (茶碗). The custard is made of whisked egg, rich with dashi flavour, and a variety of ingredients including fishcakes, Shiitake mushrooms, yuri-ne (lily root), Ginnan (Ginkgo nuts), and boiled shrimp or chicken.
3 – Pīman no Nikuzume – ピーマンの肉詰め (Stuffed Peppers)
Pīman no nikuzume is a traditional Japanese dish that can be served as an appetizer or as a side dish to accompany rice.
The dish consists of stuffed green peppers that are first sliced in half, then stuffed with a range of fillings including seasoned ground pork, chopped onions, eggs, and breadcrumbs.
Once stuffed, the peppers grilled until well browned. A rich and flavorful dish, it is surprisingly quick and easy to make, and one of the most popular homecooked dishes in Japan.
4 – Agedashi Tofu – 揚げ出し豆腐 (Deep-Fried Tofu with Tentsuyu Broth)
Agedashi tofu is a dish of crispy deep-fried tofu blocks, topped with grated radish and chopped green onions. A warm tentsuyu broth is poured on the dish just before it is served, adding a generous amount of savory umami flavor and a touch of sweetness.
The tofu in the dish is deep-fried, but the use of a very thin layer of Katakuriko, potato starch flour, is used to coat it, stopping it from becoming greasy.
Other dishes are prepared in a similar way, such as agedashi nasu (揚げ出し茄子) which uses eggplant in the recipe.
5 – Tempura – 天ぷら (Deep-Fried Vegetables/Seafood/Meat in Tempura Batter)
Tempura is a dish of various vegetables and seafood that are lightly battered and fried and served with Tempura dipping sauce (Tentsuyu). It is sold anywhere, from convenience stores to upscale specialty tempura restaurants.
A basic Japanese tempura batter is made of light flour, egg, and water, and while it only consists of three ingredients, there are some tricks to making crispy tempura, so specially formulated tempura flour (Tempurako) sold at supermarkets is usually used when the dish is cooked at home.
6 – Katsu Don – カツ丼 (Deep-Fried Pork Cutlet Bowl)
Katsu Don is a bowl (donburi) of rice, topped with a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet (tonkatsu), simmered with onions and egg in a sweet and savory broth.
It is one of the most popular rice bowl dishes at Teishoku-ya (Japanese diners). Many Japanese students eat katsu don before taking a test or school entrance exam for good luck, as ‘katsu’ also means ‘to win’ in Japanese.
7 – Nimono – 煮物 (Vegetables/Seafood/Meat Simmered in Shiru Stock)
Nimono means ‘simmered (ni) things (mono)’, making for a more than appropriate name for this beloved dish.
Nimono consists of various ingredients, simmered in shiru stock, which is flavored with sake, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar.
Popular ingredients added to the stock include thick deep-fried tofu (atsuage), chicken, fish, konnyaku (a chewy, jelly-like food made from konjac potato), and vegetables such as carrots, burdock root (gobo), lotus roots, Japanese white radish (daikon), and shiitake mushrooms.
Nimono is one of the most popular home-cooked meals, and due to its diversity, every Japanese family has their own special way of making it.
8 – Buta no Kakuni – 豚の角煮 (Braised Pork Belly)
Buta, meaning ‘pork’ and kakuni meaning ‘simmered square’, perfectly captures what this rich and succulent meat-based dish is all about.
Buta no kakuni consists of braised pork belly, slowly cooked until the meat is tender. Delightfully umami in flavor, the meat is braised in a sauce of soy sauce, mirin, sake, and sugar, with a hint of ginger.
The dish has a rather strong sweet soy sauce flavor, and it is often served with Japanese mustard called karashi (からし) to balance the sweetness.
9 – Yakisoba – 焼きそば (Japanese Stir-Fry Noodles)
Yakisoba is a stir-fry noodle dish, and it is one of the most popular street foods in Japan. It is made by stir-frying vegetables, pork, and Chinese noodles (Chuuka soba) with Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, and seasoning.
Yakisoba can be eaten straight from the bowl. However, many Japanese children love it in a sandwich, where the stir-fry noodles are served in a fluffy hotdog-like bun, topped with refreshing pickled ginger and mayonnaise. It is truly sumptuous!
10 – Okonomiyaki – お好み焼き (Savory Pancake)
Okonomiyaki is a savory version of a Japanese pancake, made with flour, eggs, shredded cabbage, and pork belly slices, topped with a variety of condiments, including okonomiyaki sauce (made with Worcestershire sauce), aonori (dried seaweed flakes), katsuobushi (bonito flakes), mayonnaise, and pickled ginger.
It is a pan-fried dish, cooked on an iron griddle (teppan). The word okomoni means ‘to one’s liking’, meaning that you can tailor this dish to your preferences. Anything from meat and seafood to cheese and mochi can be added to this wholesome and delicious savory pancake.
11 – Sukiyaki – すき焼き (Beef and Vegetables Cooked in a Hotpot)
Sukiyaki is a popular winter dish that is prepared and served in nabe (Japanese hot pot), and consists of meat (usually thinly sliced beef), leafy vegetables, tofu, and enoki mushroom, among other ingredients.
The ingredients are all cooked in a shallow iron pot, filled with a sweet Sukiyaki broth, usually made with soy sauce, sugar, mirin, and water.
After being cooked in the hotpot, the ingredients are finally dipped in a small bowl of raw beaten eggs. Although some may resist the idea of dipping the cooked ingredients into the raw egg, this final part of the preparation is essential to achieving the iconic sukiyaki flavor.
12 – Hayashi Rice – ハヤシライス (Hashed Beef over Rice)
Hayashi rice is a popular Western-style stew, made with tender hashed beef, onions, bell peppers, and button mushrooms in demi-glaze style sauce, which often contains red wine and tomato sauce.
It is served atop or alongside steamed rice, just like Japanese curry rice. It is believed the name of the dish comes from the English word ‘hashed.’
According to the theory, ‘Hashed and Rice’ over time became ‘Hayashi Rice’, as ‘hashed’ was an unfamiliar sounding word in Japan.
13 – Kushikatsu – 串カツ (Deep-Fried Skewered Dish)
Kushikatsu (串カツ), also known as kushiage (串揚げ), is a dish of deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables. ‘Kushi’ means ‘skewer’, and ‘katsu’ means ‘deep-fried cutlet (usually referring to pork)’, as pork cutlet is the commonly used meat used. However, various other meats can also be used, including chicken and a variety of seafood.
The batter used to coat the meat consists of egg, flour, and panko breadcrumbs, a Japanese-style of breadcrumbs. After the meat and vegetables are coated in batter, they are skwered, and the skewer is then deep-fried and served with tonkatsu or oyster sauce for dipping.
Osaka is said to be the birthplace of kushikatsu, and there is a wide selection of restaurants serving the local favorite throughout the city.
14 – Millefeuille Cheese Katsu – ミルフィーユカツ (Deep-Fried Layered Pork Loin Filled with Cheese)
Millefeuille means ‘a thousand layers or leaves’, which is a beautifully appropriate name for Japan’s Millefeuille Cheese Katsu, a dish of deep-fried layered pork loin, filled with cheese.
Unlike the traditional tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlet), the dish instead uses thinly-sliced pork. These slices are stacked between layers of sliced cheese, while some Japanese also add layers of shiso leaves to the dish during the preparation stage.
Once prepared, the layered cutlet is covered with panko breadcrumbs, deep-fried, and served with a tonkatsu dipping sauce. It is one of the most satisfying pork cutlets to sink your teeth into, and packed with flavor.
15 – Nikujaga – 肉じゃが (Sliced Beef, Potatoes, and Onion in Dashi Broth)
Nikujaga means ‘meat and potatoes’, and is, without doubt, one of the most popular home-cooked comfort foods in Japan. This dish instantly brings back the memory of mother’s home cooking, or ‘ofukuro no aji’, for many Japanese people.
Essentially, nikujaga is a stew of thinly sliced beef, big chunks of potatoes, and onion, simmered in soy sauce, sugar, sake, mirin, and dashi (or water).
The ingredients are boiled in the broth until most of the liquid has been reduced, and the rich, nutritious stew is served with a side of steamed white rice.
Nikujaga was invented by chefs for the Imperial Japanese Navy in the late 19th century. The story goes that Tōgō Heihachirō, the admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy, ordered the naval chefs to create a kind of beef stew, similar to that of the stews served to the English Royal Navy.
16 – Oden – おでん (Vegetables/Boiled Eggs/Fishcakes Skewered in Dashi Broth)
Oden is a type of Japanese hotpot dish, commonly eaten in the winter. It consists of boiled eggs, daikon, konjac, shirataki noodles, and processed fish cakes, among other ingredients, stewed in a light, soy-flavored dashi broth.
Oden is often sold at food stalls, but many convenience store chains now also sell it from fall until spring. Ingredients used for Oden can vary according to region, and a Japanese mustard called karashi (からし) is often used as a condiment.
17 – Chirashizushi – ちらし寿司 (Sushi Rice with Raw Fish, Omelets, and Nori)
Meaning ‘scattered sushi’, chirashizushi is a vibrant, wholesome dish of seasoned sushi rice (vinegared rice), topped with a variety of raw fish, shredded egg crepes, and nori. You can also add other toppings, such as steamed shrimp, snow peas, and lotus roots.
It is typically served in a bowl or lacquered box, and it is traditionally eaten for celebratory occasions, such as Hinamatsuri (Girls’ Day).
The raw or cooked ingredients are sliced or cut into small pieces, then scattered over the sushi rice. The dish is usually served with suimono (clear soup) or miso soup on the side.
18 – Saba no Misoni – さばの味噌煮 (Mackerel Cooked in Miso)
‘Saba’ (さば／鯖) means ‘mackerel’, and ‘misoni’ (味噌煮) is a cooking style where ingredients are simmered in a miso-based sauce.
The dish consists of tender mackerel fillets, cooked in a miso-based sauce along with ginger, and the combination of flavors creates a strong salty-sweet taste, which pairs wonderfully with steamed rice.
The dish is one of the most popular home-cooked fish dishes in Japan, but it is also widely available at supermarkets. Even the canned version is very popular for its convenience!
19 – Yokan – 羊羹 (Confection Made from Sweet Bean Paste)
Yōkan (羊羹) is wagashi, a traditional Japanese confectionery, made with anko (sweet red bean paste) or shiro-an (sweet white bean paste), agar jelly, and sugar. It is one of Japan’s oldest sweets.
There are two main types of yokan: Neri yōkan and Mizu yōkan. Neri yokan has a more liquid-like consistency and is often sold in cups, while Mizu yokan is thick and firm, prepared in blocks, and sliced before eaten.
There are a wide variety of Yokan flavors available, including sweet potatoes, chestnuts, and matcha, among many others.
20 – Taiyaki – たい焼き (Fish-Shaped Cake)
Taiyaki is a fish-shaped waffle, traditionally sold as street food. It is molded into the shape of snapper, and because of its appearance, is one of the most iconic and recognized Japanese foods.
Taiyaki is made from regular pancake or waffle batter. The batter is poured into a fish-shaped, two-sided mold, similar to that of a waffle plate, with the filling added to one side of the mold. The mold is then closed and the battered fried. Watching the street food vendors make this delicious treat is just as enjoyable as eating it!
The traditional filling for taiyaki is anko (sweet red bean paste), but today there are a variety of fillings available, such as custard cream, chocolate, cheese, caramel, and even a savory filling like sausage and mayonnaise!
21 – Fruit Daifuku – フルーツ大福 (Mochi Balls Filled with Sweet Bean Paste and Fruit)
Fruit Daifuku is one of the most popular items at Wagashi: traditional Japanese confectionery shops. It is a Mochi (glutinous rice cake) dessert, where a soft and smooth mochi encases a central filling, most commonly anko (sweet red bean paste) or shiro-an (sweet white bean paste) with a piece of fruit, such as a strawberry, banana, kiwi or orange. Some shops even add whipped cream to the dessert.
Daifuku was originally called Harabuto mochi (thick belly rice cake), because of how filling the dessert was. In time, however, the name was changed to Daifuku mochi, since the pronunciation of Daifuku can mean both ‘big or thick belly’, as well as ‘good luck.’
Japanese Food Summary
The ingredients, fusions, textures, and flavors of Japanese food are truly unique. Japan has a rich history with food, and today both traditional practice and outside influence have created a cuisine that is celebrated all over the globe for its creativity, color, and astonishing flavor.
Food has to be a big part of any trip to Japan. You simply cannot embrace Japanese culture without trying as much of the delicious food all around you.
Seek out these beloved dishes in restaurants, food markets, and eateries, and let their unique flavor combinations and melt-in-mouth textures take you on a culinary journey like never before. You are in for a treat!
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Contributor: Izumi Taneda is a freelance content writer, blogger, and Japanese translator based in Tokyo, Japan. After spending a decade living in Los Angeles, she returned to Japan as a translator and interpreter before moving into content and creative writing on a full-time basis.
Images licensed via Shutterstock