Before coming to Japan, I ate “Japanese food” all the time. California rolls and fried rice were some of my favorites, and I just couldn’t wait to get to Japan to try the “real” thing. Little did I know, I was in for culinary culture shock when I arrived in Tokyo.
After being in Japan for some time, I had to warn any family or friends coming to visit that what they were about to eat was not exactly what they had eaten at their local Japanese steakhouses back home. Here are some examples of how real Japanese food isn’t quite what you think.
1. California Rolls
This classic dish is now made all over the world, with the most popular being the “California Roll” outside of Japan. Of course we all realize that this is the American name given, but how different could it be from the real thing?
Very different. The California Roll is made with ingredients like cucumber, avocado, crab, and fish eggs with a special mayonnaise sauce on top. Real sushi, however, is most commonly served as “nigiri sushi” (にぎりすし); which consists of plain rice shaped by hand with a drop of wasabi and a raw slice of fish placed gently on top. Another common variation is “makizushi” （まきずし）, which often only contains fermented soybeans or raw tuna inside a seaweed-wrapped rice roll. None of these contain the combination of ingredients or flavors you will find in the Western-style rolls, that’s for sure.
How it compares:
Western-style sushi is bursting with salty flavor and usually dripping in sauce. You can barely taste the nori (のり,seaweed) and almost never will you find raw fish like tuna or octopus.
Japanese sushi is simple, pure, and enhances the natural flavor of the raw fish with the combination of only a few key ingredients. Soy sauce is great for dipping, but this sushi can be enjoyed without it as well. Overall, its simplicity is a stark contrast to the Western-style’s complication.
From flavors and textures to appearance and execution, the actual food in Japan is a world of difference from what we know as Japanese cuisine.
2. Teriyaki- that’s Japanese, right?
If you ask any non-Japanese what their favorite Asian sauce is, most will say “teriyaki.” This word is of Japanese origin, but seems to be used more in other countries than in Japan. What you will find in Japan on every restaurant and home’s table is actually shouyu (しょうゆ、soy sauce), and rarely is teriyaki sauce anywhere to be found.
How it compares:
Teriyaki sauce in the Western world has a sweet and savory flavor. It often includes pineapple juice and garlic among it ingredients, which makes it a great marinade or dipping sauce for red and white meats.
Japanese sauces typically used for dipping include shouyu and ponzu (which has a citrusy vinegar base), with mirin and sake for bases. These sauces tend to be an acidic complement to the otherwise plain flavor of the dish. In addition, fish is far more common than red meat, especially with these flavor combinations. If teriyaki is anywhere on the menu, it will taste more like these vinegar-based sauces and certainly won’t be the same sweet and sour taste that you are expecting.
3. Japanese “Steakhouses”
Putting the two words “Japanese” and “steakhouse” together in Japan would be an oxymoron. Japan’s culture thrives on fish and veggies, and much less often do they eat red meat. Some restaurants such as the well-known GyuuKaku (serving Korean BBQ) do serve steak, but not in the way gaijin would imagine. Japanese steakhouses in other countries have sirloin, shrimp, and salmon, which are usually grilled in front of you in “hibachi” style. In Japan, however, everything from the flavor to the meat’s thickness is different than what you’ve had in other countries.
How it compares:
Japanese steakhouses in the West are known for their succulent beef filets and combination of fried rice and vegetables. The flavor isn’t too different than what you will get at an American steakhouse, but most go for the experience and the variety of dishes rather than the unique “Japanese” taste. Also, you’ll find “hibachi” as the most popular cooking style; which is what most gaijin associate with Japanese cuisine.
In Japan, you’ll find fewer steakhouses than Italian restaurants; despite the stereotype portrayed in the West. As for hibachi, it is reserved for the high class dining experience, if you can even find it in your city. Kobe beef is the most famous, but not found in most cities because of its rare and exquisite nature. Korean BBQ restaurants are found from Hokkaido to Okinawa, but don’t expect sirloins when you visit. This type of steak is thinly sliced, lightly marinated, and cooked by the diner over an open flame at their table. Dipping sauces go wonderfully with this smoked meat, and will be guaranteed to change any preconceptions you may have about Japanese steak.
On every Japanese restaurant menu in North America, you will find a chicken dish. Whether it’s grilled, deep fried, or covered in teriyaki sauce, this meat is always included and often chosen by the diners. However, chicken is found primarily in groceries stores and markets across Japan, and less commonly in restaurants. And that saucy, sweet flavor you find overseas isn’t anything like the real thing.
How it compares:
At the North American Japanese restaurants, chicken is often served in a similar form as wings, only with Asian inspired flavors such as sesame or teriyaki. You will find it as breast meat only in a “stir fry” style in some restaurants as well, which gives a smoky soy sauce flavor alongside the noodles or rice.
In Japan, chicken is most popular at festivals or markets in 2 forms: kara-age (唐揚げ） and yakitori (焼き鳥). Kara-age is shoyuu marinated chicken, lightly breaded and fried in oil. Yakitori, which literally means “grilled chicken,” is chopped chicken pieces on a skewer that has been coated in a variety of traditional flavors. Chicken katsu is another popular dish served with curry, that has been breaded and deep fried in a flat, patty-like form. Each of these types of chicken have either a shouyu or curry flavor, neither of which are the main taste in most Western Japanese chicken.
Also, one main thing each of these styles of real Japanese chicken has in common is fat. To be clear, the Japanese culture is extremely resourceful and makes attempts in their cooking to never have waste. Therefore, their chicken dishes are sometimes half fat, half meat, especially in the yakitori form. When you bite into that chicken skewer, be sure to know what texture to expect, because it is most certainly nothing like the Western-style chicken.
So, before you get too excited about tasting your favorite “Japanese” dishes in Japan, remember that Japan does things differently than what you may expect. From flavors and textures to appearance and execution, the actual food in Japan is a world of difference from what we know as “Japanese cuisine.”