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By Tokyoiete Poppy Reid
Trying new foods has got to be one of the best things about visiting a new county and discovering its culture, and this is certainly true of Tokyo! Japan is a fantastic place to try all kinds of cuisine that you won’t find anywhere else in the world, but these dishes also come with Japanese eating etiquette and rules which may sound completely new to a first-time visitor in Tokyo. So, what should you eat in Japan? And how should you eat it? Here’s how to eat like a local in Tokyo!
You’ll quickly discover that Japan’s staple foods are rice, fish and vegetables. Rice is usually served as a side dish in lunch and dinner sets, and accompanied by miso soup which contains seaweed. Traditional Japanese cuisine is known as washoku, and this is also how the locals refer to home to cooking, which tends to include dishes with fish, soup, rice and tsukemono (pickled vegetables). Of course, the other must eat foods in Tokyo include sushi, sashimi, ramen and tempura (deep fried food).
Whilst Japanese food is mainly eaten with chopsticks, this doesn’t include curry or bread. Knives and forks are usually included in Tokyo restaurants to cater to western diners, but if you use chopsticks, here are the basic rules to follow! Hold the chopsticks in your dominant hand close to the ends, and use your own chopsticks to eat your meal and a larger pair for serving food from the serving plates (if you’re sharing dishes). Don’t stick your chopsticks into the rice! This is said to bring very bad luck, and reminds people of funerals. Other etiquette for using chopsticks is not to stab your food - if you’re struggling to pick something up, ask for a knife and fork. The other what not to dos are: don’t drag a dish towards yourself using your chopsticks, hover your chopsticks over dishes that are being shared while you decide what to eat, or pass food from one pair of chopsticks to another.
When it comes to eating sushi, you should try it both as a cheap eat (which doesn't mean you’re compromising on quality at all), and at speciality sushi restaurants. To really eat like a local, head to a kaiten sushi shop, which are the typically Japanese conveyor belt restaurants you’ll find everywhere! There are also more expensive places with specialty chefs that have been preparing sushi for years. Both are delicious, but if you have a high budget, you should definitely try a sushi chef’s restaurant at least once. To eat your sushi, pour some soy sauce into the small dish provided, dip the sushi (fish side down) into the soy sauce and eat the whole piece at once. You can also add wasabi (Japanese horseradish), which the chef will put on for you, but if you don’t like wasabi, ask for your sushi to be served “wasabi nuki.” You can eat sushi with your hands or with chopsticks.
There are many great specialty ramen stores all over Tokyo, and these are the best places to try authentic ramen. And even though it’s less formal a dish than sushi, there are still some rules to eating it. You’ll be served your ramen with chopsticks and a spoon - use the spoon to taste the broth; do this first so you can get the flavour of the dish right away. Then dip into the ramen with your chopsticks and taste the noodles. Unlike many other countries, it’s completely ok to slurp as you eat! As well as bringing cool air into your mouth to avoid burning yourself, it also tells the chef you’re enjoying your meal. Then, enjoy the noodles and the toppings together, since if you eat all the toppings at once, you’ll just be left with broth and noodles. You can also add condiments such as black pepper and tougarashi (spicy chilli pepper) depending on your taste, which you’ll find on the table at every ramen shop.
Although there are speciality soba shops, you can also get soba noodles at traditional washoku restaurants and some izakayas. When it comes to eating soba, it depends on if you’ve ordered the hot or cold version. If it’s hot, eat it how you would eat ramen: taste the broth, slurp the noodles, and add any condiments available. For cold soba, it will be served with a small bowl of tare sauce (a slightly sweet, slightly salty dipping sauce), a bowl of negi (spring onions) and wasabi. You can put these into the tare sauce as you like. Dip some of the soba noodles into the sauce and then eat them from the bowl using chopsticks. When you’ve finished the noodles, the restaurant staff will bring hot water in a teapot and add it to the tare sauce, making a sort of soup drink you can enjoy. Soba is often served with a dish of tempura.
The Japanese say two important phrases during mealtimes. “Itadakimasu!” Say this just before you start eating. It means something “I’m about to eat.” After you’ve finished eating, say “Gochiso sama deshita - this can also be said out loud as you’re leaving a restaurant. It means something similar to “Thank you for the meal.”
If you’re eating from a small bowl, such as rice or soup, bring the bowl up to your mouth and eat every grain of rice if you can, as rice is considered precious and shouldn’t be wasted. It can be hard to catch the last few grains with your chopsticks, so use a spoon if you need to. Eating in public places such as trains is considered bad manners, but this does depend on the situation. For example, avoid eating smelly fried foods on public transport, but if there’s a food festival or food stalls in an area, feel free to tuck in!
Many restaurants in Japan are specialty stores dealing with only curry, only ramen, only sushi, and other specific Japanese cuisine. You can also eat at tachinomiya, which is a standing bar that’s very affordable and popular among businessmen after a long day at work. A tachinomiya is the place to come for cheap drinks and food. Here you can get beer and other alcoholic drinks as well as many kinds of food, usually small and easy to eat dishes, such as gyoza (steamed and fried dumplings), sashimi, tofu, tamagoyaki (egg), and kushikatsu (deep-fried skewered meat and vegetables). An izakaya is a Japanese pub and unlike a tachinomiya, you can sit down and relax while you have food and drink. Common foods at izakayas vary, but they can include sushi, yakitori (skewered meat), and fried octopus, which is delicious!
There are some foods that you can only get at certain times of year or during certain events, such as the following:
Kagami-mochi: mochi (savoury rice cakes) in soup that is eaten on New Year’s Day to promote good luck and health for the coming year.
Ehomaki: a special long sushi roll eaten on Setsubun, Bean Throwing Day, on 3rd February.
Many cherry blossom themed foods are available in early spring, from Starbucks pink sakura lattes to special sushi and mochi cakes.
Unagi: in summer, grilled eel called unagi is popular on top of rice.
Kakigori: shaved ice served in summer with various fruit-flavoured toppings.
Nagashi-somen: also in summer, you can try a very special kind of cold noodles - these are served by dropping them at the top of a bamboo slide, and you then have to try catch them with chopsticks as they flow down the slide!
Autumn vegetables: Autumn is the season of eating! After summer is over, many vegetables such as sweet potato and shiitake mushroom are served in restaurants and cooked in Japanese homes.
Nabe: delicious hotpots of many varieties are eaten in winter. These can include crab, kimchi, vegetables, beef, and others and are great to warm up during the cold weather. These are often cooked in homes and many restaurants serve them as well.
Food culture in Japan may be completely different from your own country. Since you’re not local, you are more likely to be forgiven for cultural mishaps, but it is still useful to know some etiquette and rules before you go!
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