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Japanese Cuisine - It's not what you think

It seems every time you go to a Japanese restaurant in the US (excluding Hawaii and Guam), it involves sushi (or sashimi).  They almost always have miso soup, sometimes tempura, occasionally udon, but very rarely much else.  (This might have something to do with the fact that most Japanese restaurants I have seen in the US are run by Koreans).  

Yet - Japanese don't really eat Sushi all that often!  No, seriously!  That's not to say that Sushi isn't a common food, you can certainly find a sushi restaurant in most towns.  In fact, you can usually find sushi in most convenience stores.  Expecting that most Japanese eat sushi for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is like expecting that Americans eat steak at every meal, or that Italians only eat pizza.

First, let's set up some terminology.  For the purposes of this article, "Japanese food" means not food that Japanese eat now (which would include Wendy's, Subway, Pizza Hut, etc.), but food that either originated in Japan, or was popular in Japan for the past several hundred years.

First of all, Japan is a modern first world country, so most all of the food available overseas is available in Japan, and much of it is popular.  Starbucks' has no shortage of customers, and neither does Dominos.  Indeed, I've seen lines around the block at Krispy Kreme!  There are also Japanese companies selling the same type of things as well, including Loteria, Dotour, Mr. Donuts, and more.  Italian food is especially popular, even if it isn't typically very authentic.

So what about "real" traditional Japanese food?
Well, there's a lot besides sushi, including:
  • Curry Rice - The Japanese Staple
Curry Rice is a popular dish in Japan, mainly because it's tasty and cheap.  Note that the curry is usually a bit different from (and less spicy than) Indian curry.
  • Gyoza - Dumplings, steamed or fried
  • Monja-yaki - A Tokyo Specialty
Monja-yaki is a dish made somewhat similarly to Okonomiyaki, but with much less substance.  This dish is popular in the Tokyo area, and many of my friends from the Kansai area have never tried it.  This dish is the specialty of a tourist town called Tsukishima.  This is usually a do-it-yourself type food, prepared on an iron griddle.  To make monja-yaki, the ingredients will be given to you on a bowl, along with a copious amount of water (or some other soup).  The ingredients vary, and you can usually choose them, but the base is cabbage.  Common additions are other vegetables, squid, etc.  First, oil is applied to the griddle.  Then, any ingredients (such as meat) that take longer to cook are placed on the griddle to start cooking.  The vegetables are then placed in the griddle, and the preparer begins to work them over with metal spatulas.  Eventually the previous ingredients are mixed in.  As for the water, the pile of food on the griddle is made into a donut shape (to prevent the escape of the water), and then the water is poured into the middle little by little.  The water is mixed in gradually, and the process is repeated until there is no water left.  The ingredients are repeatedly cut or mashed with the spatulas, until they lose all appearance of food, resulting in a gooey consistency by the time you are done cooking it.  Then, it is scraped off the griddle with the spatula and eaten.  Many varieties exist, including curry monja-yaki and desert monja-yaki.  It's best to watch the preparation process a few times before you attempt it on your own, if you've never made monja-yaki before, the staff will usually be happy to prepare it for you.  
  • Nattou - A delicacy if you can handle it
Nattou is made from fermented beans, and has a gooey consistency and a strong smell.  It is usually purchased in small ready-to-eat cups at the supermarket.  The closest analog to western food is probably yoghurt.  Even many Japanese don't like nattou, so "Do you like nattou?" is a common question among Japanese.  
  • Oden - Cheap, and tasty
Oden is a cheap food made from simmering vegetables, eggs, seaweed, and other items in a watery soup until they become waterlogged and take on the flavor of the soup.  This can be found at many convenience stores, and also some street stands (usually along with alcohol).  Oden is not typically a restaurant food.  Although few people outside of Japan know what oden is, many like it once they try it.  
  • Okonomiyaki / Modanyaki - Somewhere between a pancake and a pizza
Okonomiyaki literally means "Cooked stuff you like", so obviously offers the flexibility to put whatever toppings you like in it.  Likewise, it is a great thing to make to clear out the leftovers at home.  It is prepared on an iron griddle much like Monja-yaki, but has a much more solid form.  I have heard it described as "Japanese pizza" or "Japanese pancakes", although frankly neither one is very close to the truth in my view.  This is also typically a do-it-yourself food, although it can often be found at street venders during festivals and fireworks, and some fancy restaurants will cook it and then bring it to your table as well.  The best place to try authentic ononomiyaki, though, is probably an old-style tourist town like Tsukishima or Asakusa.  Although not normally considered an upscale food, I have even seen okonomiyaki shops in Ginza.    The primary difference between okonomiyaki and modanyaki (modern yaki) is that the latter contains soba or udon noodles in addition to the typical ingredients.

The preparation process:
The ingredients are usually supplied in a bowl.  The table is heated, and oil is applied to prevent sticking.  Next, meats or other ingredients that might need to be cooked longer will be placed on the griddle to start cooking ahead of time.  The remaining ingredients (usually consisting mainly of a batter containing eggs and cabbage, along with other toppings) are mixed in the bowl before being applied to the griddle.  The lump of batter is flattened into a circle.  When it has cooked sufficiently, the entire pancake is flipped so that the other side can cook.  When complete, it is topped with a thick sauce (similar to bar-b-q sauce), and possibly seaweed flakes and/or fish  flakes, sliced, and then eaten.

Popular toppings include: Asparagus, Corn, and other vegetables, Cheese, Mochi (rice cakes), squid, octopus, other seafood, beef, pork, etc.
  • Onigiri - Rice balls
these are simple and cheap, and can be purchased in any convenience store or easily made at home.  Typically they have a round or triangular shape.  The most basic variety is plain rice, but onigiri containing red beans, salmon, sesame seeds, ume (plum), etc. are common as well.  Often, onigiri will be wrapped with a seaweed covering or strip.
  • Ramen - Similar to, but unique from Chinese Ramen
  • Robata-yaki / Yaki-tori - Skewers and Shishkabobs
  • Suki-yaki - Similar to Chinese "Hot Pot"
  • Tacoyaki - Common food-stand food, although sometimes seen at super-markets or convenience stores - Octopus balls! mmm.. yummy!
  • Taiyaki - Sweet snack food seen mainly at festivals, usually shaped like a fish, and containing bean paste or custard.
  • Tempura - Fried stuff on a stick!
  • Teppanyaki (Hibachi)
  • Yaki-Soba/Udon - Fried noodles with veggies, meat, or seafood
  • Zaru-Soba/Udon - Cold noodles on ice

So why this persistent belief that Japanese eat mainly sushi?  First, there is a rumor that when western businessmen first went to Japan, their Japanese hosts took them to s sushi restaurant to impress them (since sushi is expensive).  The western businessmen then assumed that was normal food, and went home and told everyone about how Japanese eat mainly sushi.  Besides that, sushi is perhaps more unusual to westerners than most Japanese food, so it sticks in their minds better and becomes an icon of Japanese food.  Also, many people associate Japanese stuff with being small and cute, and sushi is, well, small and possibly cute.  Also, sushi may be the most "Japanese" food in that is unlike anything I have seen in other cultures.