Japan is one of the best foodie places on the planet with a wide variety of dishes and regional specialities.
Japan as we know it today is a relatively modern invention. Before the Meiji Restoration, Japan was a collection of states and regions each with its own traditions and specialities. Certain regions and areas are famous for their products and you will find that each part of Japan appears to have its own special dish. Japanese will travel well out of their way to sample them and take great pleasure in doing so.
Here are some of the more famous regional dishes in Japan.
Osaka – Takoyaki and Okonomiyaki
Osaka is the culinary capital of Japan and its two famous dishes are takoyaki and okonomiyaki. These two dishes were made out of necessity due to a lack of rice to feed the nation. Flour and water-based dishes filled the gap. Takoyaki was born around 1935 by a street vendor in Osaka, who took a confectionary dish of hot balls of sweet batter and turned it into a savoury dish by adding chunks of octopus. His success led to his small cart becoming a restaurant, which in turn became a franchise. Takoyaki is usually served in portions of 6 or 12 and is topped with a soy based sauce, mayonnaise and fish flakes. Okonomiyaki, the other famous dish, is a Japanese savoury pancake made from a batter containing a variety of ingredients and cooked on a hot plate. The name “okonomiyaki” is derived from the Japanese word “okonomi” which means “what you like” or “what you want” and “yaki” meaning “grilled” or “cooked”. In modern okonomiyaki, a wide variety of ingredients are used such as shrimp, squid, octopus, pork, cabbage and vegetables. The finished pancake is served with a special sauce, mayonnaise and seasonings such as green powdered seaweed (aonori) and dried fish flakes (katsuobushi).
Kobe beef is famous around the world for its marbled meat and melt-in-your-mouth texture. There is a myth around Kobe beef that the cows are bottled fed on expensive beer, hand massaged with sake and played classical music to give them their superior texture and flavor. Whether or not this is true or not, I’ll leave it up to you. In reality, the cows are subject to strict regulations that ensure the quality of Kobe beef, which can only come from Wagyu cattle born and raised on a Hyogo farm with a specific marbling ratio of BMS level 6 or above. The best way to try Kobe beef is as a steak or Kobe beef curry.
Okinawa is so remote from the main islands of Japan that it almost seems like another country. In fact, it was once a kingdom of its own, drawing on influences from China, Korea and Southeast Asia. Chanpuru means something mixed, which the locals think embodies their culture and hence the name of this dish, which is a mixture of many different ingredients. Typically, vegetables, tofu, egg, goya (bitter melon), bacon, pork belly and then somen noodles are stir fried in different combinations to create multiple variations on the theme. Most places have their own unique spin on the dish and many tend to add Spam.
Sushi is considered Japan’s national dish, but ramen has become so popular that it can almost claim to be the new national dish. Ramen is served all over Japan and each region has its own speciality. Ramen was originally introduced to Japan from China, adapted to the Japanese palate and perfected in Sapporo by stirring through miso soup. Ramen noodles are wheat based and are usually served in a meat or fish broth with cabbage and other vegetables. Miso ramen has become a Hokkaido speciality and typically contains a lot of miso giving it a thick, slightly sweet and heart soup.
Nagasaki with its location in Kyushu was once a prime destination for visitors to Japan and has had a lot of influence from different cultures including Asia and Europe. The Chinese in particular brought culinary ideas and ingredients with them to this area. Champon is a white salty broth of vegetables, noodles, pork and seafood. The name Champon itself means everything, so this dish is a bowl of everything.
I highly recommend traveling around Japan to experience these wonderful regional dishes. Domestic travel in Japan is now becoming more affordable and ANA is currently running a campaign for tourists to Japan. You can visit anywhere in Japan for only 10,500 yen.