Traditional Japanese Meals: 20 Mouth-Watering Dishes

Japan is popular for its unique culture and heritage.

And traditional Japanese dishes are also a part of this fascinating culture, which represents the aesthetic beauty and elegant taste of the Japanese.

When the typical Japanese cuisine is largely appreciated all over the world, it is no wonder that their traditional dishes are a few steps ahead in this competition.

The use of fresh, nutritious ingredients and exceptional and remarkable presentation help the traditional Japanese meals to gain this extensive popularity.

Right now, I am here to introduce all of you to a few of those mouth-watering traditional dishes.

Have a look here for the details.

20 Must-Try Traditional Japanese Dishes & Foods

When it comes to talking about traditional Japanese foods or washoku, two famous names will pop up in your head at once.

And they are the famous and well-known sushi and ramen!

Am I right?

However, the fact is, it is actually much more than these two.

Once you start digging further into the world of authentic Japanese food, you will find a wealth of dishes that you might never have heard of before!

So, get ready to discover my top listed 20 classic Japanese dishes.

Let’s start with the renowned sushi.

1. Sushi

Sushi, without any doubt, is one of the best-known Japanese foods all around the world.

It is a dish that was born in ancient times.

Assorted Japanese sushi

Sushi is made with pressed vinegared rice and a piece of fresh raw fish or shellfish called neta.

This famous food is now presented in a number of ways and shapes.

There are various types of sushi, including the oval-shaped nigiri sushi topped with seafood, often raw.

Another type is makizushi, rolled with fish and vegetables laid in rice and rolled inside nori.

Sushi is most delicious when eaten with soy sauce and wasabi. But if you don’t like wasabi, you can eat it only with soy sauce.

Sushi with Wasabi

This special food has a special way to eat. Let’s learn it now.

When dipping it in soy sauce, you should turn it over and take the soy sauce to the neta, not to the rice itself.

It is to prevent the rice from sucking up too much soy sauce, which can erase the original taste of the neta.

Some sushi restaurants even serve Edomae sushi. They follow the traditional Edo style while making them.

If you want a pure Japanese feel, sushi is a must-try food for you.

2. Gohan or Steamed Rice

Though it seems so simple as a dish, it is still the staple food in Japan, without which no meal is complete.

From traditional Japanese breakfast to late-night meals, steamed rice is a mandatory item. You can say it is one of the Japanese signature dishes.

Gohan

The Japanese name for steamed rice is Gohan, which literally means meal.

For making steamed rice, you need to look for polished and short-grain rice (hakumai).

For that, you can consider Calrose short-grain rice, Japonica rice, or sushi rice.

This steamed rice must be cooked properly with the attention and proper care that it deserves.

The cooked rice is meant to be a little sticky to make it easier to eat with chopsticks.

3. Sashimi

Sashimi is another must-try Japanese dish, which is almost similar to sushi but without rice.

The term sashimi denotes any thinly sliced raw food.

So, it is not only limited to raw fish but also includes raw beef (gyuu-sashi), chicken (tori-zashi), horse (basashi), and seafood.

Fresh Sashimi Set

Most of the popular varieties are maguro, tuna, mackerel, salmon, and sea bream. You can also try uni, clams, or sea urchin, or salmon roe.

Sashimi is usually eaten with soy sauce for extra flavor. You can also add wasabi to the top of the sashimi for extra punch, but it is not required all the time.

Some certain varieties, like horse mackerel, are served with ginger instead of wasabi.

4. Tempura

Tempura is a famous Japanese food, which is my personal favorite.

This is a dish where seafood, vegetables, or meat are covered in batter and then deep-fried in oil.

The batter usually contains flour and egg.

Tempura

However, some tempura restaurants have their secret recipes for the batter.

Tempura is generally eaten after dipping it in a special sauce called tentsuyu.

This special sauce is made by mixing and cooking kombu or dried bonito, mirin, and soy sauce at the ratio of 4:1:1.

While some tempura can get oily, the high-quality ones have the perfect balance of oil and flavor.

If you prefer to enjoy a more refreshing taste, you can add grated radish or ginger with it.

5. Unagi or Grilled Eel

What is a Japan trip without trying an unagi dish?

The Japanese word unagi means freshwater eel. It is an all-time popular Japanese dish.

From the early 17th century, unagi has been an inexpensive and common meal in Japan due to its abundance in streams and rivers.

Unagi Don

However, nowadays, its status as a scarce delicacy can be blamed on Japan’s uncontrolled appetite for this fish.

This delicious fish is traditionally eaten grilled and coated with sweet and salty tare sauce.

Besides, you will find a number of unagi dishes, including kabayaki unagi, where the unagi is put on spears and grilled with a special sauce containing soy sauce, mirin, sugar, etc.

Unagi kabayaki

These unagi dishes are so flexible. You can have it on its own or with rice.

Unagi is said to increase energy and vitality. It is also good for digestion.

Hence, you can eat it as a remedy for midsummer fatigue on the Day of the Ox.

Now, let’s discover different Japanese noodle items.

6. Soba or Buckwheat Noodles

Soba is a noodles dish made from buckwheat flour that has been eaten in Japan for centuries.

This dish was popularized in Japan during the Edo period.

Soba has an extended thin shape and firm texture. After boiling in hot water, it is served in a hot broth or sometimes chilled with a dipping sauce.

Delicious Soba Noodles

This delicious broth is made from dried bonito or kombu broth, seasoned with mirin and soy sauce.

It is not only palatable but also has a great food value. Eating soba can correct your nutritional deficiency.

If you like noodles, this dish can surely bring a satisfying smile to your face.

7. Udon or Wheat Noodles

Here comes another famous Japanese noodles dish, which is udon.

A noodles lover will definitely love it.

Japanese Food Udon Ramen Noodle

These thick wheat-flour noodles are said to have been introduced to Japan from China about 800 years ago. However, the appeal of this noodles dish is not over yet.

Nowadays, udon is considered a hearty and inexpensive lunch option.

Udon dishes don’t usually contain many noodles. It is so filling that only a small quantity will be enough for your lunch or dinner.

Three famous regional varieties of udon noodles are inaniwa udon from Akita in northern Japan, sanuki from Kagawa prefecture in southwest Japan, and kishimen udon from Nagoya in central Japan.

Like soba, udon can also be eaten hot or cold and customized with a wide range of toppings such as tempura flakes, raw egg, and spring onion.

Udon Noodles

Generally, it is eaten as a soup dish made from dashi, soy sauce, and mirin broth.

You can also eat it as dipping noodles where the soup and the noodles are served in different bowls.

8. Ramen

Ramen is a popular dish all around Japan.

The concept of ramen is so simple; some boiled wheat noodles are served in a variety of different flavored soups with a wide range of toppings.

However, this simple concept will leave a huge space for you to do a number of experiments with this popular dish.

Japanese Ramen Noodle Soup

You will find instant ramen packets in supermarkets all over the world.

But if you wanna try this dish wholeheartedly, you should head to any of the ten-thousand-plus local restaurants across Japan.

They prepare it with fresh wheat noodles, rich broths (miso, salt, and soy), and delicious quality toppings.

9. Yakitori or Grilled Chicken Skewers

Unlike all other traditional Japanese foods, yakitori has only been eaten since around the mid-17th century. The reason is eating meat was restricted in Japan for several centuries.

Anyway, yakitori is a dish where chicken is cut into small pieces, lightly seasoned with salt, and then grilled, placing on a bamboo skewer.

Yakitori

Every part of the chicken is utilized for making yakitori, from the breast, thigh to the liver, heart, and even the chicken comb.

It is one of the popular Japanese dinners after work, especially for people who want a cheap and relaxed meal after a tiring day.

This famous dish is also a great option for a night out with friends as it is available in most casual restaurants in Japan.

Besides, if you go to a Japanese festival, there is a high chance that you will find the food stalls selling this classic dish.

10. Onigiri or Rice Balls

You might have heard of onigiri or rice balls before.

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You can find these rice balls, the savior of many starved employees, in the selves of every convenience store.

Grilled Onigiri

It is by far the most convenient option for a meal on the go.

Actually, this was the case around 2000 years ago, when laborers and fishermen carried pressed rice balls with them.

The present form of onigiri dates back to the Edo Period when the edible nori seaweed wrapping was introduced.

Inside the onigiri, you will usually find bonito flakes, pickled plum, kelp, or more modern additions such as teriyaki chicken.

To discover all the flavors, you have to buy rice balls from convenience stores or supermarkets.

I can suggest a restaurant in Tokyo named Onigiri Asakusa Yadoroku that has received a Michelin star for its exquisite rice balls.

11. Sukiyaki

Sukiyaki is a Japanese hot pot dish that goes great with rice and will warm you from the inside out during chilly winter days.

It is prepared with several ingredients, such as thin slices of beef, green onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, other vegetables, and tofu.

All the elements are cooked in a shallow iron pot with sukiyaki broth made from soy sauce, sugar, and mirin.

Sukiyaki

If you want to have the traditional taste, you have to dip the meat and vegetable into a bowl of beaten eggs.

Sukiyaki is now made both at home and in restaurants in this country.

But it became prevalent after the lifting of the centuries-long ban on eating meat during the Meiji period.

This dish is also an excellent way to enjoy Japan’s immensely rich and tender wagyu beef.

12. Okonomiyaki

Any Japanese person might tell you that this grilled, fried dish is a mouth-watering Japanese pancake or something like that.

However, that doesn’t describe it quite fully.

Okonomiyaki

Generally, cabbage is mixed with egg and flour batter and then fried, but the word Okonomiyaki literally means ‘grilled as you like it,’ which definitely makes it on the list of must-try Japanese dishes.

Hence, as the name suggests, there are no set rules for this dish. You can add anything.

The commonly used ingredients are shrimp, green onions, vegetables, beef, cheese, and egg.

You can also use pork belly or kimchi if you wish.

This dish is typically served with a topping of dried bonito fish flakes, mayonnaise, and special okonomiyaki sauce.

13. Tofu

Tofu, a staple of Japanese cuisine, is a good source of protein.

This food became popular in Japan when eating meat was banned for several centuries.

Still, now it is popular in Japanese Buddhist temples, where the monks prefer to eat vegetarian food.

Japanese Tofu

Tofu is an important ingredient of their vegetarian meal shojin ryori, and it is considered a great replacement for meat.

Its another name is bean curd. Tofu is made from curdled soy milk. The resulting curds are pressed into solid white blocks of varying softness.

You will find tofu in various forms: soft tofu, firm tofu, deep-fried tofu, freeze-dried tofu, and fermented tofu.

It is a versatile food item that can be eaten on its own or used in a variety of sweet and savory dishes.

14. Miso Soup

Miso soup is another staple in the Japanese diet, which you can find on their daily menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

From teishoku set meals to high-end kaiseki cuisine, it is found everywhere in between.

Traditional Miso Soup

This soup is renowned for its great taste and health benefits and is conventionally enjoyed with other side and main dishes.

It is made with dashi (a mixture of bonito and kelp) soup stock, tofu, miso paste, and green onions.

Different types of miso vary in saltiness and flavor. The four main categories are white, red, barley, and blended.

There are hundreds of regional varieties of miso soup, from plain soups with just seaweed and tofu to ones with crabs and a variety of vegetables.

This famous soup is served at most Japanese restaurants in varying price ranges.

Therefore, be sure to enjoy a bowl of authentic miso soup when you are in Japan.

15. Tonkatsu

Leaving Japan without trying tonkatsu! It can rarely happen.

Though this traditional food of this country is actually of European origin, the Japanese have modified it their own way.

Tonkatsu with Cabbage Salad

The present version was invented at a Tokyo restaurant called Rengatei in the year of 1899.

It is a classic Japanese dish, where deep-fried breaded pork cutlets are served with rice and shredded cabbage.

To make it more delicious, most of the time, tonkatsu is topped with tonkatsu sauce.

This special sauce tastes sweet and tangy and quite similar to barbecue sauce, which is actually a mixture of soy sauce, ketchup, Dijon mustard, and Worcestershire sauce.

16. Oden

Oden is another Japanese hot pot dish, which started in the Muromachi Period as a stewed tofu dish.

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This dish is traditionally eaten in fall and winter to bring comfort during the chilly winter weather.

Oden

Though it started as a simple dish, nowadays, various ingredients are added to the bone-warming oden broth, such as potatoes, fish cakes, daikon radish, boiled eggs, and other vegetables.

Another popular option is ganmodoki, a hearty mixture of vegetables and tofu that is made into a circular shape.

Then they are simmered for several hours to infuse all the ingredients with the flavor fully.

The rich-yet-mild oden broth typically consists of dried kombu (kelp) and dried bonito (skipjack tuna) flakes.

There are restaurants and food stalls that specially sell oden, but you can even find it in the convenience store during the fall and winter months.

In Akihabara, Tokyo, oden is even sold in cans in vending machines.

Be sure to taste this iconic dish during your Japan trip!

This time, I will talk about a famous Japanese dessert.

17. Wagashi

The traditional confectionery or sweets are the jewels of Japanese food culture.

In the Edo era, these sweets were served with matcha green tea at traditional tea ceremonies.

Wagashi

And those sweets have evolved into ornate delicacies with time.

The category of this wagashi is pretty broad, and now they are served with tea in Japan.

They started as a basic creation of mochi (a glutinous pulp made from steamed and crushed rice) that was filled with nuts.

Nowadays, the most common types of wagashi include dorayaki (an anko pancake sandwich), taiyaki (a fish-shaped pancake filled with anko or custard), namagashi (beautifully hand-molded rice flour and anko sweets), and daifuku (mochi bites with various fillings).

Like its heavenly taste, the look is also very eye-catching as different food colors are used to make them vibrant and colorful.

18. Tsukemono Pickles

These traditional Japanese pickles have been eaten in Japan since prehistoric times.

This pickle is made with a wide variety of ingredients. Typically picked elements are vegetables like eggplant, daikon radish, and fruits like ume plum.

Japanese pickles (tsukemono)

Tsukemono has a brighter color, which not only adds a visual appeal to the meal but also it has a great food value.

19. Takoyaki

You may know this food as octopus balls, but their true name is takoyaki.

These delicious dumplings with octopus meat are one of Japan’s most popular street dishes.

Takoyaki on a Plate

The distinctive ball shape is achieved by using a special pan, where you can see rows of half-spherical molds. These molds are filled with bite-sized octopus meat and a unique savory batter.

Flipping the batter at the perfect time to get the proper shape takes some skill.

Six balls are usually served in a takoyaki dish with the toppings of mayonnaise, dried seaweed, katsuobushi bonito flakes, and a special takoyaki sauce.

I am talking about traditional Japanese foods, but Kaiseki will not come; it cannot happen.

That’s why I have decided to wrap up this writing with this.

20. Kaiseki

Well, you can see kaiseki as a type of multi-course haute cuisine meal rather than a food.

This fine-dining style originated from the courtly culture of imperial Kyoto in the 16th century.

Kaiseki

At that time, visiting dignitaries and samurai were treated to a series of seasonally-themed small dishes to accompany traditional tea ceremonies.

Now, this traditional-style has found its way into restaurants, where diners can enjoy around 12 to 20 dishes featuring a typical kaiseki meal.

Those small dishes are crafted perfectly with the utmost precision and attention.

You shouldn’t miss this elaborate meal while visiting Japan if you are a foodie at heart.

Okay, let’s conclude it here.

Conclusion

By this time, you have had a vast idea about traditional Japanese meals.

These delicious dishes are not a tale of one or two days.

If you dig deeper into the history of Japanese cuisine, you can understand that they had to go through a lot of reforms to come to this present state.

You can spend a decade traveling to Japan but never fully conquer their cuisine.

But you can make a start with the famous 20 Japanese traditional dishes mentioned above to discover your new favorite.

Lastly, happy eating.

Thanks for reading till now.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Gochisousama deshita, or more casually Gochisousama is used in japan after finishing the meal. It literally means “It was a great deal of work (that means preparing the meal).”

So, you can interpret it in Japanese as “Thank you for the meal. It was a feast.”

Rice is the staple food and their number one source of carbohydrates in Japan.

Japanese people eat rice daily, and it is an essential food for their breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu.

The notable thing is, it is cooked without any butter or salt. Therefore with rice, Japanese people can keep their slim figures.