Japanese Street Food

If you haven’t noticed already, food is everywhere in Japan. You can’t walk down the street without passing a ramen shop, konbini, or sushi-ya. However, one of my favorite parts of eating in Tokyo was the street food culture, found in festivals, public parks, and around major tourist destinations. Food vendors travel from place to place with traditional decorative stalls, and offer everything from chocolate covered bananas to squid on a stick.

Street food stalls near a temple in Kyoto

Street food stalls near a temple in Kyoto

Like American street fare (i.e. funnel cakes and deep fried Oreos), Japanese street food tends to be pretty unhealthy. But who’s worrying about calories?! Certainly not me. Here’s a few of the most popular and delicious foods I tried, from temples and shrines in Kamakura to festivals in Minato-ku.

1.    Takoyaki

DSC_1427Aka, the food of the gods. Takoyaki are little balls of pancake batter, filled with vegetables and chunks of octopus. Vendors make these delicious treats in a pan with half-dome indentations, and use metal chopsticks to form their round shape. They’re served drizzled with takoyaki sauce (like Worcestershire sauce), Japanese mayo (which is sweet and nothing like American mayo), dried seaweed, and katsuobushi (dried fish flakes).

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A takoyaki stall in Asakusa. Isn’t that octopus cute??

DSC_0436 Takoyaki are extremely popular at festivals, but they can be found at konbini and supermarkets too! Just don’t expect them to have the same delicious ooey gooeyness as the piping hot ones served in a takoyaki shop or in a fair.

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Making takoyaki. This was at a restaurant in Osaka in the Dōtonbori, which is a street famous for its many takoyaki, ramen, and okonomiyaki restaurants.

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 2.    Yakisoba

Traditional yakisoba, from a festival in Minato-ku, Tokyo.

Traditional yakisoba, from a festival in Minato-ku, Tokyo.

Fried soba noodles with vegetables, usually served with dried seaweed and pickled ginger. It’s like a Japanese version of chow mein, and extremely satisfying.

Yakisoba can also come with a variety of different toppings. Here, I have a super delicious fried egg.

Yakisoba can also come with a variety of different toppings. Here, I have a super delicious fried egg.

 3.    Yakitori

Nom nom nom. This is beef, from a yakitori stall in Kyoto.

Nom nom nom. This is beef, from a yakitori stall in Kyoto.

Grilled meat (usually chicken) served on a stick. It’s easy to eat with one hand, and it’s a super popular drinking food. While there are entire bars and restaurants dedicated to serving yakitori, it’s a common staple in festivals as well.

 4.    Taiyaki

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Murasaki imo (purple sweet potato) filling

Murasaki imo (purple sweet potato) filling

A fish-shaped pancake with a sweet filling inside. Taiyaki are probably my favorite street food, as the possibilities for fillings are basically endless. I enjoyed taiyaki with chestnuts, chocolate crème, custard, red bean paste, purple sweet potato, and even ice cream. If you’re not into sweets, some taiyaki even come with a molten center of cheese.

This taiyaki from Kyoto had custard inside!

This taiyaki from Kyoto had custard inside!

 5.    Kakigori

Ichigo (strawberry) kakigori

Ichigo (strawberry) kakigori

Japanese snow cones, or shaved ice with syrup. This is a particular favorite at summer festivals.

 6.    Wataame

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Cotton candy! Unline the wataame I had, cotton candy usually comes prepackaged in brightly decorated bags. It’s the most popular with children, as the bags are decorated with characters from their favorite animes and TV shows.

 7.    Dango

DSC_2881A Japanese dumpling on a stick made from mochiko (rice flour). It’s similar to mochi, and is often served with a savory sweet and salty sauce. While dango are eaten year round, the type and variety of dango often depends on the seasons.

Dango stall in Kamakura

Dango stall in Kamakura

 8.    Jaga Bata

DSC_1670A grilled potato, served with butter. Sounds simple, but it’s incredibly delicious.

 9.    Dorayaki

DSC_3863Two sweet pancakes with a filling of azuki (red bean paste). They’re super delicious served warm, especially with a dollop of ice cream in the middle.

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 10.    Hotate Bata Yaki

DSC_1669Scallops grilled in their shell with butter. These are insanely delicious if you’re willing to splurge a little on street food.

And finally…

11. Ika Yaki.

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You thought I was lying about the squid on a stick, didn’t you? Here it is. A whole squid, skewered, grilled, and basted with a sweet barbeque-like sauce.

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Yes, it has a face. Yes, I ate the face.

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And yes, it was delicious and I would do it again.

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How do these foods compare to the cuisine you find at festivals in your country? Thanks for reading, and I hope I got you ready for lunch!

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Yakiniku

Japan has a real love for going to restaurants and cooking food themselves. I’m not exactly sure why (isn’t the point of going out to eat so that you don’t have to cook?), but it’s certainly a lot of fun. With a group of friends, shared dishes, and the possibility of lighting your sleeves on fire, it’s really neat to try cooking delicious food yourself without the hassle of prep work.

Although you can rarely find these types of restaurants in America (I’m sure people are afraid of lawsuits), there are several types of cook-it-yourself dining experiences in Japan. Today, I want to show you Japanese yakiniku (grilled meat), and introduce you to one of my favorite meals while I lived in Tokyo.

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At yakiniku restaurants, guests sit at tables with a small charcoal grill built into the tabletop. It’s not hot when you when you sit down, so no one risks setting themselves on fire. Later on, your server will spray the grill with oil and light the flames so that it’s hot by the time your dishes come out of the kitchen.

A traditional yakiniku grill

A traditional yakiniku grill

DSC_0651Yakiniku menus offer a variety of meats and vegetables that are seasoned or marinated in many delicious sauces. If you want a little of everything, a lot of restaurants offer a set meal to share, often with steamed rice. If you’re more adventurous or know exactly what you want, you can also order items a la carte.

The menu of a yakiniku restaurant near my university

The menu of a yakiniku restaurant near my university

DSC_0658Some of the most popular meat choices include kalbi (boneless short rib), harami (tender beef from around the diaphragm), beef tongue, chicken, various seafood, and pork belly. Mushrooms, onions, kabocha squash, corn, and peppers are also commonly available for vegetables. If you want to get a little more daring, you can also find a lot of organ meat as well- including heart, liver, intestine, tail, tripe, and stomach.

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I'm getting hungry just thinking about how delicious this was

I’m getting hungry just thinking about how delicious this was

The meats and vegetables come to your table raw and cut into bite-sized pieces. The server will tell you how long each meat needs to cook, and then it’s time to start grilling. Using tongs, you put the raw meat onto the grill and cook to your heart’s content. There are usually several different dipping sauces to choose from on the side, including ponzu (citrus soy sauce) and spicy chili oil.

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DSC_0661Most restaurants will also offer steamed rice or other side dishes to help fill you up. I enjoyed marinated bean sprouts and seaweed with one meal, while another yakiniku restaurant with a Korean influence had a vegetable omelet, kimchi, and salad.

Several types of bean sprouts and seaweed

Several types of bean sprouts and seaweed

Japanese yakiniku is a ton of fun if you don’t mind a little work, and extremely delicious. All the meat is super tender and marinated in amazing sauces, from miso to barbeque.

Yakiniku at a Korean barbecue restaurant

Yakiniku at a Korean barbecue restaurant

And you know what’s awesome? You don’t need to go to Japan anymore to enjoy this awesome experience! Gyu Kaku, a Japanese yakiniku chain I actually ate at in Tokyo, has restaurants all across the US! There’s one right down the street from where I live in Boston, and it’s just as delicious as the yakiniku in Japan. Plus, they offer s’mores as dessert…it’s seriously too hard to resist.

I hope I made you hungry today! Would you try yakiniku, or are you afraid of cooking your own food?