7 things to expect from traditional Japanese meals

My tummy will be forever thankful to Japan for giving the world sushi, tempura, ramen, katsu, and other glorious eats. Japanese food is a favorite around the world because the cuisine is considered umami-rich, healthy, and basically an art form. The Japanese take their food seriously.

When I say the Japanese take their food seriously, I mean seriously. Presentation alone, I think the Japanese are the best at presenting and plating their food. Even the vessels the food are on are also works of art—beautiful ceramic plates, bowls, and cups are often handmade by master craftsmen. And for chefs, some take years just to master one dish. Japanese master chefs are not called masters for nothing.

I discovered in Japan that what we eat today at local Japanese restaurants is far from the traditional meals. Yes, tempura, ramen, sushi, etc. are common dishes in the Land of the Rising Sun, but you haven’t truly eaten Japanese food until you try the traditional meals.

So, for people traveling to Japan for the first time and really want to try authentic Japanese fare, I will give you a list of what to expect from them.

Traditional Japanese setup
The beautiful dining setup at Bizenya restaurant in Goju

1. Traditional dining setup

You might already know this but traditional Japanese restaurants don’t have regular tables and chairs. Instead, a table that is low and close to the floor and pillows or legless chairs to sit on. Don’t worry because sitting on tatami mats is very comfortable even without pillows.

And a reminder, shoes are not allowed inside traditional restaurants. Eateries usually have shelves or shoe racks at the entrance and sometimes they provide guests with slip-ons so you can walk around the restaurant. But the dining area is still off limits to any kind of footwear.

Ready
Cold appetizers would be waiting for you on the table.

2. The food is ready on the table

The starters are already ready on the table before you even enter the restaurant especially if you or your tour guide reserved and ordered ahead of time. A typical Japanese meal starts with several amuse bouche or small portions of appetizers (mostly cold) like salad, pickles, vegetables, tamago (egg) omelet, grilled fish, sashimi, just to name a few.

Mini squid specialty
Toyama’s mini squid delicacy

3. Delicacies and exotic dishes

Speaking of appetizers, depending on where you are in Japan, there are certain specialties to try. When we were in Toyama, Toyama Prefecture, the city’s specialty is a type of tiny squid native to Toyama Bay. This squid is steamed or boiled then served cold with some kind of sour sauce. It’s very briny (not salty) but very fishy. I did not like this one that much.

Another are these small white fish sashimi in Goju. It is mixed in with herbs and pickles. Again, it was too fishy for me. These dishes are for people with an acquired taste.

There are however more delicious things than dishes I didn’t like. I loved the grilled fish, salad, seaweed pickles (or something), blanched green vegetable with crushed peanuts, egg omelet slices, various pickled vegetables, among others.

Cooking your main dish
Hot dish on the table

4. Cook your own main dish

At every restaurant we dined in, we always cooked the main dish on the table. A small pot or pan is usually situated on the side of your starter plate. What’s inside is raw fish or meat in a broth or sauce with whatever ingredients the dish may accompany. The pot is usually on top of a small ceramic or metal “stove” with some kind of burner the size of a small candle. The meat are usually sliced thinly for quick cooking.

This actually was quite a nice experience because we were able to cook the meat according to our liking. My favorite was the Hida beef dish at Irori restaurant in the heritage village Shirakawa-go. Slices of beef, tofu cubes, chopped scallions, bean sprouts (not sure but it may be soy bean sprouts), and miso paste on a bed of dry but soaked in oil ho leaf. It was so good. Hida beef is a kind of high grade cattle meat like Kobe.

Various starters
Small but several portions

5. A meal is composed of several courses

Most of the restaurants we dined in are very fine dining-esque. The dishes come in courses. After the appetizers and while waiting for your main dish to cook, several dishes would come one after another like a plate of sashimi then a bowl of soba noodles then a bowl of miso soup then a bowl of rice then the dessert.

You would think that the meals have small portions but there are several dishes—six to seven courses! You’ll get full but you won’t get that bloated feeling.

rice
A Japanese meal is not complete without rice.

6. Rice comes in late

Like Chinese lauriat, rice arrives towards the end of the meal, usually served with a bowl of miso soup. The rice bowl comes before the dessert. Just be prepared because during our first meals, we were surprised when the rice was served last after we already downed the main dishes. Though some restaurants serve noodles instead of rice and sometimes both.

But like good Filipinos we are, we usually order the rice in advance so we can eat it with the main dish. You can ask politely and they will oblige. But in a non-traditional setting, rice is usually served along with all the dishes.

tempura
Mixed tempura served with fine wasabi salt

7. It gets really authentic

Japanese cuisine outside Japan is already modified one way or another. We were served tempura in two meals and both times, no dipping sauce was served with it. Gasp! We are used to the sweet, soy, and gingery sauce of tempura served here in the Philippines. Traditionally, however, termpura is only served with a small plate of fine salt. Sometimes, the salt are flavored with various herbs and other spices.

When in Japan, expect real wasabi and not the bright green kind that comes in a tube. The real wasabi has a lighter green color, is more moist, and has bits and pieces of the root. The spice doesn’t linger and smoother compared to the fake ones.

So there you go! If you’re traveling to Japan, make sure to try some traditional fare. You’ll really discover how the Japanese really take their food seriously.

Jetstar offers low fares to Nagoya and flies four times weekly from Manila / www.jetstar.com