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It's not just sushi - a brief guide to traditional Japanese cuisine

21 September 2016

When people think of Japanese food, they normally think of raw fish and rice rolls. But that's not all that's on offer! Discover some other favourites here.

Traditional sushi on a stone plate
The most famous of Japanese cuisines - while many associate sushi with raw fish, traditional sushi also incorporates vegetarian options.

When people think of Japanese food, the first image that usually comes to mind is a multitude of plates of sushi proceeding on their way around a conveyor belt. 

This isn’t entirely surprising: sushi is one of Japan’s most recognisable cultural exports. But there is a lot more to Japanese cuisine.

Sushi in Japan

Firstly, the sushi you may be familiar with in the UK is just the tip of the iceberg. While many people associate sushi with raw fish this is in fact inaccurate and traditional sushi also incorporates plenty of vegetarian options. 

The one ingredient that is always found in sushi is the vinegared rice to which other ingredients are added, and the name 'sushi' refers to the rice not the fish. If you want raw fish without rice, you will be ordering sashimi which is generally available anywhere sushi is.

As sushi has spread across the globe, countries have adapted it to their local tastes, so it’s not unusual to find cooked meat and seafood at less traditional establishments.

The US influence is particularly prevalent in international sushi, the California roll being an obvious example.

Japanese sushi restaurants can be broadly separated into two main groups: counter and belt. 

Belt vs. counter

Belt restaurants will have an array of food mounted on a conveyor belt which winds its way around the restaurant. 

If a customer wants something which is not on the belt, a bell on the table or a call of ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) will summon a member of staff to take your order. 

There are a huge number of mid-range restaurants which serve food in this way as well as a lot of cheaper options, with plates ranging from 100-200 yen. 

While it may seem a little risky plumping for cheaper raw seafood, the quality is roughly equivalent to what you would find in a chain restaurant in Britain, but for a far lower price. 

Counter restaurants tend to have a bar looking directly into the kitchen along with tables and booths on the main floor with either Western seating or Japanese style tables. 

These are often more expensive but if you want the best seafood they are very much worth it. 

Until I went to an upmarket sushi bar recently I was entirely ignorant of how many variants of tuna there are and the fact that I could taste the difference between them!

If you’ve been to a sushi bar in the UK, then you probably know to expect pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce as your condiments. 

If you have found yourself indifferent to wasabi in the UK, you should definitely try the authentic product in Japan as ‘wasabi’ in Britain is often horseradish with green colouring. 

That said, this is changing with time as British farmers have been expanding their crops.

Related: Culture shock Japan: what you need to know before going to Japan.

The Japanese Barbeque: Kushiyaki

If you’re not convinced on the subject of eating raw fish, kushiyaki might be what you’re looking for. 

Kushiyaki is skewered meat and vegetables cooked over a charcoal grill, suiting the palate of anyone who enjoys a barbeque.

There’s something for everyone, whether you feel like chunks of pork and beef or taking the healthy options with mushrooms, tomatoes and assorted vegetables.

A favourite of mine are cheese croquettes grilled until they are crispy with a warm melted centre.

Yakitori restaurants are a popular branch of Kushiyaki restaurant specialising in chicken. 

While this may seem limited, every part of the chicken is used and a number of herbs and spices can be added giving a quite varied menu. 

If you’re feeling adventurous, a yakitori restaurant is where you want to get your chicken feet!

Osaka Cuisine: Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki

While I really enjoy sushi, okonomiyaki is definitely one of my favourite Japanese dishes.

A mix of flour, yam, cabbage and eggs, it can be roughly compared to a savoury pancake with a wide range of accompanying ingredients available including seafood, meat and vegetables.

Considering my general dislike of cabbage, my love of okonomiyaki says a lot about how delicious it is.

Though it originated in Osaka, a city known for its excellent food, okonomiyaki can be found in any Japanese town, be it from general restaurants, street vendors or specialist eateries. 

While some okonomiyaki restaurants have a chef who prepares your food in front of you, I highly recommend that you find one where you can have a go at cooking it for yourself. 

The ingredients are set out for you alongside a hotplate where you can put your masterpiece together- if you’re going to sample the cuisine, why not have a go at cooking it?  

Though it might seem daunting there are instructions and assistance available and I’m a firm believer that if I can cook it, pretty much anyone can. 

The sweet brown okonomiyaki sauce sets off the meal brilliantly, and if you bring some home with you it’s surprisingly good with cheese on toast.

Takoyaki, like Okonomoyaki, is from Osaka originally but now available across the country. 

While a snack rather than a meal, they are both delicious and unique to Japan so if you have an opportunity to try these balls of batter and octopus don’t pass it up!

Visit our Japanese recipe section for culinary inspiration.

Kobe beef

Kobe beef is famous around the world for its soft texture and strong flavour. 

It’s also famous for its exorbitant cost, though if you order it at a restaurant in Japan you can be assured that it is the genuine article: restaurants will proudly display the certification for their meat, tracking the cow’s origin and lineage back several generations. 

Should the cost seem a bit steep, wagyu beef is very similar if you buy the more expensive cuts. 

The key to the taste is down to the high fat content and marbling of the meat which means that it melts at just above room temperature.

With this in mind, it should be cooked medium-rare at most so that you can enjoy a steak that literally melts in your mouth. 

Kare - the dish introduced by the British

People are often surprised at the popularity of kare - Japanese curry. 

Curry over rice or udon are the most common forms, though the curry filled pastries are also widely available. 

The curry is similar to the type that you would find in Pan-Asian restaurants in the UK so you probably have a good idea of what to expect. 

It’s fairly mild but full of flavour, often served with breaded and fried chicken or pork.

One of my most pleasant surprises was buying a doughnut at a train station which turned out to be full of curry. 

True, receiving a mouthful of curry when you’re expecting jam can be a surprise, but it was actually really good.  Everyone I’ve mentioned this to has been horrified but trust me, it’s worth a try. 

The lesson here is that if you’re not sure what is in a pastry or dumpling, proceed slowly. 

I was lucky and got curry, but if I’d ended up with a thistle dumpling I might not have been as happy…

Related: The best Japanese festivals to experience.


Tempura is battered seafood or vegetables and can be served as a dish by themselves or combined with a noodle or rice dish. 

When served by themselves with a dipping sauce or mix of spices, they should be eaten fairly quickly after cooking to maintain the crispness of the light batter. 

Cooking tempura batter correctly is an art of its own and it’s definitely a good choice at any good restaurant. 

I’ve always had a weakness for tempura prawns dipped in soy sauce, but the vegetables are also very good. 

The heat of the oil means that the batter hardens almost instantly and vegetables keep their moisture and flavour, making it surprisingly healthy for fried food.

Vegetarian Japanese cuisine

Japanese restaurants are increasingly aware of vegetarianism as a diet and are starting to cater towards it, especially in areas with a lot of tourism. 

If you see ‘yasai’ as a menu option, then at least some of the main ingredients are vegetables.  For example, yasai katsu kare is breaded and fried vegetables in a curry sauce.

That’s not to say that the entire dish will be vegetarian, so it’s worth checking if the menu gives you any indication or if the staff can help. 

If the staff have trouble understanding ‘vegetarian,’ it might be worth explaining your diet as ‘Buddhist’ as traditionally they avoid eating meat of any kind. 

Kyoto has a large number of vegetarian restaurants due to the links with the Buddhist shrines there, so if you’re in the area make sure that you head to the city.  Zen Buddhist meals are in fact vegan and surprisingly varied.

I haven’t even touched on the various noodle and rice dishes linked to Japan such as udon and donburi.

While they may seem simple, it’s the mix of spices and garnishes which really make the meals Japanese. 

The best advice I can give you is to be brave and explore all your options: if you’re going to eat Japanese cuisine you’re not restricted to raw fish!

Discover the ultra-modernity and ancient traditions of Japan. Find out more here.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.