I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that one of my biggest concerns about moving to Japan was the food. I can be a picky eater, and though I don’t have many allergies, I always preferred my Mother’s nutritious home-cooking compared to anything else.
If you aren’t a fan of Japanese food, visiting a restaurant in the country can be intimidating. Most menus are loaded with pictures, so you can just point and hope you get what you want, but the ordering process can still be mysterious. I remember when I first visited Tokyo in the summer of 2009, I went to a chain restaurant alone to order a quick dinner. I pointed at a picture that I thought was simply pasta in a light sauce. Instead, I got octopus. Embarrassed and unable to eat anything that resembled pimpled fingers, I ran out of the restaurant almost in tears.
But I am happy to say that now after a year living in Japan and eating kyushoku (school lunch) almost everyday, I have come to appreciate some Japanese foods, even if I am still warming up to the fish heads. This year, I have tried octopus, whale meat, hotaruika (firefly squid), shiroebi (white shrimp with its eyes attached) and almost every other type of fish.
Below is a list of some of my favorite foods and drinks that are staples in the Japanese diet. I have also included an interesting video that explains the Japanese diet and its link to Japanese people’s long life-expectancy (80 years for men; 87 years for women).
1. Green tea – I wasn’t a big fan until coming to Japan. Now, I can’t go a day without drinking at least one cup a day. In favor of coffee, I now drink green tea, or ryokucha 緑茶. I still like black tea, but green tea tastes best on its own, which means you don’t have to add sugar or milk to it. It has less caffeine than coffee and black tea and is also loaded with antioxidants that can do wonders for the body.
Creative recipe: Green tea pound cake!
2. Bamboo (竹) – Yummy bamboo is often included in many Asian dishes and I have had it often in soups here. The only thing I knew about bamboo before coming to Japan was that it grows very fast, so it is often considered a “renewable” resource in construction. In Kyoto, I walked through a bamboo forest and was struck by its beauty. I had no idea I would fall in love with the taste of it as well. It has somewhat of a neutral taste but is a great source of protein and fiber. Young bamboo shoots also have several antioxidant, anti-cancer and anti-bacterial properties.
Creative recipe: Grilled bamboo shoots with crabmeat and asparagus!
3. Salmon (and most fish for that matter) – This year alone, I sometimes feel like I have eaten more fish than a Great White Shark on the prowl. See my list above for the seafood I have tried. But I have become quite fond of fish as an important part of my diet and generally feel better when I eat more fish and less red meat.
4. Mushrooms – Again, I wasn’t a big fan until coming to Japan, but now I can’t get enough of them. For those in love with mushrooms, it is somewhat of a heaven here. I am in awe of all the types available at my local grocery store. Last time I counted, I could choose between at least fourteen different types. Some are slimy, while others more like ones most people are familiar with (shitake, portabello).
Creative recipe: Mushroom burgers.