Ah, Japan, an indisputable gourmet paradise, what with the finesse of its exquisite cuisine and its wide array of delectable selections known to well satisfy even the most discerning taste buds. A visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, home to the most three-star Michelin restaurants in the world, is almost a mandatory pilgrimage for any respectable foodie.
Sushi, ramen, soba are undoubtedly some of the country’s most famous local foods. But delve into its gourmet scene and you’ll soon discover a dizzying selection ripe for exploration, some of which were the very first inklings of the ubiquitous Japanese cuisine we are familiar with today.
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Join Quotient as we discover these traditional foods and the stalwart establishments that have dedicated themselves to their creation for centuries. Oft overlooked in favour of their more popular counterparts, these no-less delicious dishes will surely add another notch to your culinary belt.
Dozeu nabe | Komakata Dozeu
Essentially Japanese loach twice-stewed in a charcoal hotpot with sake and miso broth, dozeu nabe banks on an uncommon ingredient — an eel-like freshwater fish — with a less conventional Japanese cooking method. It is also full of nutrition; the the loaches, bones and all, are cooked till pliable and inundated with rich flavours perfected over the course of time.
Komakata Dozeu, over 200 years old, was acclaimed by a gourmet guide to Edo cuisine published in 1848. To date, the establishment still enjoys a steady stream of customers, although the majority are of an older demographic.
Sukiyaki and oyako-don | Tamahide
With a reputation dating back to the Edo period, Tamahide’s original claim to fame is its signature sukiyaki. A smorgasbord of chicken, vegetables, noodles and egg slowly simmered in bubbling broth, the simple dish is elevated by the restaurant’s secret-recipe sauce, which was even favoured by the distinguished royal family of times past.
Having thrived for over 250 years, the restaurant is no doubt familiar with a trick or two. It is with this know-how that they invented the oyako-don in 1891. Steaming rice with chicken coated in a rich soy-sauced based broth topped with a dollop of smooth, creamy egg — sounds like straight-up comfort food, and Tamahide has got it down to a pat. The star of both enduring dishes is the shamo, a unique breed of chicken known for its lean and juicy meat; the family that runs Tamahide also raises the birds.
Mochi | Akafuku
Rumoured to have been a staple in the Japanese New Year celebrations from as early as 794, mochi is one of the most quintessential Japanese foods. In essence a rice cake created by methodically pounding mochigome, a short-grain japonica glutinous rice, to a soft, sticky consistency, mochi can be consumed as is and is often found in a variety of sweet and savoury dishes.
One of the more outstanding variations of this plain treat is the Akafuku mochi. Solely available for purchase at Ise, the coastal city in the Mie prefecture, the sweet red bean paste mochi has been crafted by the eponymous shop since 1707 and is famed for its melt-in-the-mouth consistency and fragrant azuki aroma. The confectionery still draws hour-long queues to the store despite its numerous years of operations. Pop by Akafuku’s headquarters for a visit; the Meiji-era building that has been carefully preserved for over 130 years is itself a wondrous piece of history.
Kaiseki | Nakamura
Born as a multi-course meal to complement formal Japanese tea ceremonies in the 16th century, kaiseki has since transformed into the elaborate, luxurious affair of today. Widely recognised as one of the hallmarks of Japanese cuisine, the traditional dinner consists of six to 15 dishes masterfully concocted with delicate cooking techniques and features prime seasonal produce such as matsutake mushrooms in autumn and snow crab in winter.
Kyoto-based three-star Michelin restaurant Nakamura, established in 1827, is one of the most acclaimed purveyors of kaiseki. The establishment practices a special tradition, where the art is only passed on by the father to one of his sons, who then becomes the next-generation cook. One of Nakamura’s defining dishes is an appetising white miso soup with rice cake that thankfully remains a constant in the ever-evolving menu.
Tendon | Daikokuya
Most would already be familiar with tempura; typically fresh seafood or vegetables coated in cold, delicate batter then deep fried and served with a dip, the dish of light and crisp bites has won countless fans over the world. Now add these delectable ingredients to a bed of warm, fluffy rice and lightly pour an umami-rich sauce over it and viola, you have a tendon in hand.
Nestled in a side street close to the iconic Sensoji temple in Tokyo’s Asakusa, Daikokuya draws steady crowds as the original creator of the now universally-enjoyed tendon. Its version of the dish is set apart by a light, non-greasy batter and its special sauce — a heady mixture of soy, mirin, sugar and bonito broth that has been passed down since 1887.
Funa zushi | Kitashina
One of the oldest forms of sushi in Japanese history, funa zushi purportedly dates back over a millennium. The fermented sushi is made with a specific type of carp, the nigoro buna. Given its sharp vinegar notes, the dish is unsurprisingly an acquired taste even amongst the Japanese.
The creation of funa zushi is no mean feat and Kitashina, in Shiga Prefecture is particularly meticulous when it comes to crafting it. Having specialised in producing funa zushi since the 15th century, the restaurant takes a painstaking three years to prepare the key ingredient, from fermenting the fish to pickling it in rice.
Note that time may be running out for tasting this unique dish — changes in the local environment at Lake Biwa has resulted in a dwindling supply of nigoro buna, which might spell the near demise of funa zushi.
Yokan | Toraya
A keystone of Japanese tradition, wagashi are delicate confections enjoyed during most Japanese festivals and milestones. With bean paste and sugar as its base ingredients, wagashi appears uncomplicated on the surface, but consumption of each piece is meant to stir your five senses and evoke an ethereal experience in and of itself.
Toraya rose to prominence in the 1500s precisely because of its intricate wagashi. Of the many varieties available, the establishment is particularly recognised for their yokan, a thick jelly molded out of azuki beans. The business counts the imperial court and feudal lords amongst its history of customers but its sights have been set on greater horizons — making the yokan as popular as chocolate around the world.
Shirayaki | Nodaiwa
Recommended by JTB Global Marketing & Travel Inc, the 18th-century restaurant, Nodaiwa, is a renowned expert when it comes to eel. Most often served broiled and basted in sauce, unagi comes is of no surprise to fans of Japanese cuisine. The Tokyo restaurant’s shirayaki, however, is their true masterpiece.
Lightly steamed and grilled, shirayaki is a less commonly available version of unagi that is as unadorned as it comes. Savour the pure essence of the eel before experimenting with the condiments served on the side to enliven your taste buds. For further opulence, pair your dish with some caviar; together, the two flavours create a gastronomical bomb. The one-star Michelin establishment, which used to be frequented by feudal lords, prides itself for serving only wild-caught unagi.
All things soba | Honke Owariya
At more than 550 years old, Honke Owariya is one of the oldest restaurants not only in Japan but also internationally. Few can compare to its illustrious past; the establishment officially supplies soba noodles to the Imperial Palace, and it is precisely for this high-quality soba that guests flock to the store in Kyoto. Cooked to order, the soba noodles made from Hokkaido buckwheat comes served with several toppings to choose from, including tempura and tofu.
What is also notable but often overlooked is the fact that the establishment specialised in making soba rice cake early on in the 15th century, long before they started sculpting noodles. Today, the grilled sweet dumpling made with buckwheat flour and red bean paste remains a representative snack of the store. Far from resting on the laurels of its rich history, Honke Owariya continues to innovate and the soba-ita is one such recent invention. A sweet concocted with buckwheat flour, the addictive crisp snack is now available in four different variations including Uji green tea and black sesame.