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An insider’s guide to Japan’s must-try dishes and street food

Chef Yosuke Hatanake takes Gwen Luscombe on a culinary journey into ‘My Japan’, from street food to upscale restaurants.

From sushi to ramen to yakiniku, Japan’s cuisine scene is varied and delicious. It’s also some of the freshest and most flavoursome food you’ll find anywhere.

With so many delicious options, I asked second-generation Tokyo-born sushi chef Yosuke Hatanaka for an insider look at his Japan and to tell us about some of his local favourites. Currently the executive chef at Melbourne’s Saké Restaurant & Bar Flinders Lane, he says the local cuisine and variety among the regions keeps reigniting his passion for food.

Tokyo Sushi © David Wright

Explore the variety of the regions

“Each part of Japan offers food and dishes that are unique to that particular area, so my go-to dish really depends on where I am,” he says. “If I’m visiting Hokkaido, I will explore the seafood; in Tokyo, I head straight for traditional sushi, otherwise known as edomae sushi.”

Hatanaka says edomae sushi is high-end and incorporates traditional preparation and ingredients. The name translates to ‘in front of Edo’, which, until 1868, was the name of Japan’s capital city (now Tokyo) and references the front of Tokyo Bay. Edomae doesn’t comprise ingredients such as the salmon, mayonnaise, coriander and avocado you might find in modern sushi restaurants. Instead, it includes the more traditional seafoods, similar to the traditional nigiri style of a simpler pressed fish and rice.

In Tokyo, head to the upscale Ginza district. Here you’ll find some of the city’s best sushi from the three-Michelin-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro to the more accessible and equally delicious sushi shops.

Ramen lovers will enjoy the variety found in Japan

Tokyo also has its share of quirkier sushi bars, such as Nadeshico, Tokyo’s first all-female-staff sushi restaurant; it’s worth a visit as finding a female sushi chef in Japan is very rare. It’s not the only unique sushi bar. Standing sushi bars are common, as they allow more people to be served in a smaller floor space. One worth trying is Sushi Cyoh. It’s close to Tsukiji Fish Market so, not surprisingly, the quality is incredible. The ever popular Sushi Dai and Daiwa Sushi in Tsukiji are also quite possibly the busiest sushi bars in Tokyo; queues form to eat here from 5am.

And if you want to enjoy sushi like a true local, never eat your sushi rice side down. The seafood side is meant to be placed against your tongue first to best enjoy the flavours, and soy sauce is meant to be used at a minimum.

A feast for all tastes

No matter where you go or how big your travel budget is, there’s always a delicious food option and some of the best dishes are incredibly affordable.

“In Osaka, I immerse myself in street snacks such as takoyaki and okonomiyaki,” says Hatanaka.

The ball-shaped takoyaki can be found at street food stalls and local shops all over Japan. Even some convenience stores sell these tasty snacks made of wheat flour batter and minced or dried octopus, pickled ginger and onion. They’re cooked in a special pan to give them their shape and brushed with a sauce similar to a mayonnaise and Worcestershire blend, before being sprinkled with bonito (dried fish flakes). As you travel through Japan, you’ll also find slight variations on this tasty treat.

Former President Obama dining at famed Sukiyabashi Jiro. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Okonomiyaki, sometimes called the ‘Japanese pizza’, is a savoury pancake usually found in the Tokyo and Hiroshima areas of Japan. More like an omelette than a pancake, it’s made up of different ingredients, but typically includes shredded cabbage. It’s crispy on the outside and soft on the inside and there are different varieties depending on where you go.

In Kyushu, Hatanaka says it’s all about the ramen, making it a must-try dish on your travels. Fans of this dish are in luck almost anywhere in Japan, as a decent ramen can be found all over. While the ingredients may vary depending on region, this inexpensive soup most often consists of egg noodles in a chicken or pork bone broth with a variety of vegetables, egg, nori seaweed and sliced braised meat such as pork. It can also be flavoured with miso or soy, and it makes for a great traditional dish that suits all budgets.

Bullet train bento boxes are a must try

Be adventurous

While it’s easy to assume that the cuisine in Japan is just sushi and tempura, Hatanaka says that the Japanese celebrate produce seasonality on a large scale. He also adds that elimination of food waste is a priority.

“We try to use every last bit of produce parts that would usually be discarded in other countries, but which the Japanese turn into something delicious,” he says. “For example, yakitori eateries use every part of the chicken, from skin to the innards; the Japanese use and eat the skin, bones, innards, eyes and scales of fish; and will also use the roots of vegetables.”

For any Australian visiting, it’s worth diving in and experiencing the variety of great food outside the dishes they might be more familiar with, he says.

“I also always recommend visitors try ekiben, or regional bento boxes that are sold on the bullet train and at train stations. Visitors to Japan should also try a traditional, multi-course, kaiseki meal, as well as edomae, and fugu, or puffer fish, which isn’t available in Australia.”

As for some of his favourite eateries, Hatanaka says what he truly enjoys is preparing sushi in his own kitchen at Saké. He admits that since he enjoys eating sushi even more, his destination and dish of choice would be visiting Ginza, otherwise known as the sushi capital of Japan.

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