Growing up in the United States when I heard “Japanese food,” I immediately thought “sushi.” Outside Japan, sushi has definitely enjoyed widespread popularity. Once I traveled to Japan though, I learned that Japanese cuisine includes many more delicious and wonderful foods!
In particular, Japanese home cooking offers many healthy, delicious, and quick to prepare foods that I rarely see in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. Now I love the taste of home cooked meals in Japan. I appreciate the simple preparation that highlights the taste of the fresh, raw ingredients.
If you are wondering what is to eat in Japan aside from sushi, here is a glimpse into the typical diet of a group of twenty-somethings in Japan.
My “data” (if you can call it that) comes from the show “Terrace House” produced in collaboration with Netflix and Fuji Television. This show is absolutely golden.
It is everything I wanted from a reality show and more. The premise of the show is simple – 6 Millennials (3 boys, 3 girls) live together in a house. The show is like a Japanese version of “Real World” meets “Jersey Shore” meets “Bachelor.”
There are just so many reasons why this show hooked me.
- Realism: Terrace House has a carefully studied realism that I find lacking in every American reality show I have watched.
- Japan: As a Japanophile, I love that the show happens in Tokyo.
- Culture: As a cultural researcher, I cannot get enough of this hidden view inside Japanese life.
- Romance: And on top of all those reasons, it is about LOVE! How can a romantic like myself possibly withstand the allure of this show.
Aside – Kitchen Stories
Jumping to another continent… “Terrace House” feels like the real world realization of a Norwegian movie “Kitchen Stories” that I loved in college.
“Kitchen Stories” is about a group of Swedish researchers who want to revolutionize the home kitchen. After studying the behavior of housewives, they decide to focus next on the kitchen habits of male bachelors.
The main character, a scientist named Folke, is sent to an isolated Norwegian town. He sets up a life guard-type chair in the kitchen of an odd single man to observe his kitchen behavior. As a researcher, Folke is supposed to avoid any personal interaction with this subject but simply observe. (Of course, he cannot help it and a fascinating relationship develops between the two men.)
“Terrace House” is just like that – minus the cantankerous Norwegian bachelor and rural Norwegian town – instead substituted with bustling Tokyo and hip, young, attractive singles. The view provided by the camera in “Terrace House” mimics what I imagine Folke experienced from his perch atop the observation chair.
Both are excellent and satisfy my strange desire to peer inside the lives of others.
Back to Terrace House…
I think the title of this commentary from TheFader sums the show up nicely – “Netflix’s Terrace House is the Delicate, Fleeting Reality Show We Don’t Deserve.”
Watching Terrace House is a little like gorging yourself on a huge bag of potato chips. Remember that 2007 advertising campaign from Lay’s Potato Chips – “Bet you can’t eat just one”? I have more willpower against potato chips than Terrace House… it totally sucked me in. Betcha can’t watch just one! I finished all 18 episodes in 1 week.
As another hooked viewer from Wired wrote, “Terrace house, in short, is pretty terrible. I couldn’t get enough of it.”
The Food They Eat
Of course, the point of the show is to enjoy the dynamics of the participants. Will love blossom? What conflicts and jealousies will emerge? And as the show progresses – Will he FINALLY confess his love? Will she reciprocate?
While I certainly relished the unfolding romantic dramas, I also got fascinated by much more mundane details – the food they ate, the clothes they wore. When writing about the show, TheFader article notes the long sequences that “focus on the painstaking detail of prepared group meals.”
As a frequent traveler to Japan, what I saw was very typical Japanese food. The kind of food that can be easily prepared in an unfamiliar kitchen, with limited ingredients and equipment. Safe food options that are sure to please a range of tastes.
As an American twenty-something, I was curious about everything they ate. So just what does a typical twenty-something eat in Japan?
Part 1 – Home Cooked Food
Thus begins my incredibly obsessive study of every food that the participants ate in the show. (Or at least all the foods that we see on camera.) My thanks to my patient boyfriend Kosuke who created the detailed Excel spreadsheet behind this dataset.
This will be Part 1 – focusing on the food that the participants cooked and ate at home. Soon I will be posting Part 2 – a study of the restaurants where they ate.
Temakizushi – Hand Rolled Sushi (@26:37)
So I said this post would be about more than just sushi and here I am starting the list of foods with a meal of sushi. >_<
However, this is not the kind of sushi that you will see in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. Temakizushi (or “hand rolled sushi”) is an easy form of sushi that is commonly made at home in Japan. It is simple to prepare and fun to make! Everyone can help themselves to seaweed, rice, and various fillings to roll their own individual sushi.
This kind of sushi is particularly good for a large group! Here is a recipe for Temakizushi from Nami at the “Just One Cookbook” blog. (I love her blog for authentic, easy to prepare Japanese food.)
Kaisen Don – Rice Bowl with Raw Seafood (@8:27)
Oh no… This meal also kind of looks like sushi… (Please keep reading! I promise that non-sushi foods will show up.)
This meal is simply a bowl of rice seasoned with vinegar and served with raw seafood arranged on top. The participants probably made this dish to use up the leftover temakizushi ingredients from the night before.
If you do not have access to good quality raw seafood (or do not care for the taste or texture of raw fish), you can substitute cooked seafood. Here is a recipe from the simply amazing YouTube channel “Cooking with Dog.”
In the name of this meal, “don” means “bowl.” This word show up in other Japanese dishes like “donburi” (a general term for bowls of rice with fish, meat, vegetable toppings) or “unadon” (rice bowl with eel.)
The word “don” has another meaning in Japan though…
It can refer to a loud sound. In particular, it is used in the phrase “kabedon,” a badass romantic gesture where a guy slams his hand against the wall and leans over someone (usually a girl). A kiss or a sexy whisper might follow.
Want to see “kabedon” in action?
Steamed Cod in Foil (@20:42)
I love this kind of simple Japanese cooking. The flavor profile is clean, allowing the fish and fresh vegetables to shine. Covering the fish with a lid (or foil) lets the fish gently steam and ensures it is not overcooked. While it looks impressive, this dish can be quickly prepared with just a few basic ingredients.
There are lots of variations on this dish. Here is one that looked tasty from the website CookPad – “Easy Chinese Cabbage and Cod Steamed in Sake.”(CookPad is one of the largest online recipe posting sites in Japan, similar to “AllRecipes” in the U.S. Originally CookPad was all in Japanese but recently has been offered in English as well.)
Okonomiyaki – Grilled Savory Pancake (@4:34)
This was one food that I had definitely never experienced before going to Japan. It is a heavy pancake-like batter mixed with cabbage and meat, then grilled, and topped with a thick savory sauce and seaweed.
My host mother made okonomiyaki for my first dinner at their house. “What is this?” I thought. It was nothing like my image of light and delicate Japanese flavors. I have to say it is pretty tasty. Some people call okonomiyaki “Japanese pizza,” which I think is closer to the taste of this dish. It is rich, savory, quite filling, and satisfying.
Here is a recipe for okonomiyaki again from Just One Cookbook.
No recipe to offer here. For Japanese delivery pizza, you will just have to go to Japan.
There are lots of American pizza chains in Japan – Domino’s, Pizza Hut – but something seems to have happened in the trip over the ocean.Japanese delivery pizzas come with unfamiliar toppings like mayonnaise and canned corn, and have their own special taste.
One of the most absurd pizzas I ever saw had gorgonzola, mango, and pudding-flavored Kit Kat bars. @_@
This might sound strange to say but I discovered a love of Italian food in Japan.
Just like the U.S. has the “American” version of cuisines from around the world – American Chinese, American Mexican, American Japanese – Japan has imported and adapted cuisines to its culture. I particularly enjoy Japanese Italian food. It tastes lighter and less cheesy than Italian food in the U.S.
From another Japanese recipe website, Washoku Guide, here is a recipe for Japanese-style risotto – “Restaurant Flavor Porcini Risotto.” (Washoku Guide are translated recipes from the original Cookpad Japan site.)
And here is a slightly more Japanese kind of recipe, which is vegetarian and made with soy milk. “Warm Soy Risotto with Chinese Cabbage.”
Tomato Sauce Pasta (@54:05)
Another Japanese-twist on an Italian classic. I have had some wonderfully savory and rich tomato meat sauces in Japan. I find the sauce in Japan is usually thicker than tomato sauce I am served in the U.S., like a cross between a meatball and tomato sauce.
Here is another recipe from Washoku Guide – “Meat Sauce Pasta from Canned Tomatoes.”
Nigirizushi – Raw fish-topped sushi rice (@37:23)
This type of sushi is often sold in American Japanese restaurants. It is the simplest kind of sushi with thin slice of raw fish over pressed rice seasoned with vinegar.
In Japan, trays of nigirizushi can be ordered and delivered to your home (like pizza). The nigirizushi in the show looks like it was ordered. This kind of sushi can be prepared at home but it is a little labor intensive. Temakizushi like they ate in Episode 1 is an easier at home option.
If you want to see some mouthwatering shots of nigirizushi, I would recommend the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” Jiro is widely considered to be the world’s greatest sushi chef. His delicately formed nigirizushi almost look alive with each grain of rice perfectly formed and nestled together, and the fish gently falling to rest on top.
Delivery pizza (@57:37)
More delivery pizza! (See my previous notes on delivery pizza from Episode 3.)
Pork and Hakusai Nabe – Pork and Chinese Cabbage Hot Pot (@37:45)
By Episode 13, the participants have entered the fall months and are turning to warm, wintery dishes like this Pork and Chinese Hot Pot.
Similar to soup, nabe is made with meat, fish, and vegetables cooked together in broth and dipped in sauce before eating. After all the main ingredients have been eaten, often rice or noodles are cooked in the leftover broth to provide a filling finish to meal. In some variations, an egg is combined with the rice and cooked down to make porridge.
Nabe is another great meal for large groups, since you can easily prepare generous helpings of meat and vegetables. The rice (or noodles) at the end ensure that everyone goes home full.
Whenever I eat nabe in groups in Japan, there always seems to be one person with specific ideas about how the ingredients should be cooked. Certain foods cook at different rates, and even a single ingredient might vary in cook times. For example, the stem part of the Chinese cabbage cooks slower than the leafy part.
This person – the “nabe master” – always wants to ensure that ingredients are added in the correct order so that everything is ready at the same time. I am usually happy to leave them to it and enjoy the benefits of their careful attention.
Honestly when I make nabe, I am not that picky and I just dump everything into the pot together. I like nabe because it is easy to prepare. Just cut up all the ingredients and cook. Here is a recipe from the Japan Centre for “Cabbage and Pork Nabe Hot Pot.”
There are lots of other variations though. A popular variation is nabe flavored with kimchi. Here is a recipe from Nami at Just One Cookbook for “Kimchi Nabe.”
Here is another Japanese food that I was never served in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. It turns out though that curry (along with ramen) is one of the top national dishes in Japan… ahead of sushi and miso soup!
Japanese curry is very different from Indian curry or Thai curry. It is thicker with a milder flavor (sometimes almost sweet). You can make curry from scratch but I saw many people in Japan making it from “curry blocks.” If you want to try from the box curry cooking, I have seen curry blocks sold in many Japanese markets in the U.S.
Or you can also make it from scratch. Here is a recipe from JapaneseCooking101.
Omu Rice with Corn Potage Soup – Rice “Omelet” with Corn Soup (@48:05)
In Japan, omu rice is considered “Western food” (although I have not seen anything like it outside Japan). It is an omelet made with fried rice and often topped with ketchup. Sometimes it is also served with a savory meat gravy-type sauce.
This popular Japanese food appears often in dramas. I think the main reason for the popularity of omu rice in Japanese television is that it is served topped with ketchup, which means the characters can write messages to each other. Hearts ♥ are popular.
In Terrace House, one of the girls writes “coward” on her omurice. If you want to know why, you will just have to watch the show.
To be honest, I am not particularly fond of this dish. Probably because I do not like ketchup. However, I did recently see a pretty amazing omu rice that I might just have to try. The chef prepares a perfectly fluffy omelette, carefully places it atop the bed of rice, and then…..
Click here to see what happens next!
If you want to prepare this dish at home, here is a recipe to try! (Again courtesy of Just One Cookbook.)
For the soup, I am not entirely sure. I think it might be “Corn Potage Soup” – thick creamy corn puree soup. During the winter months, you can actually buy cans of this soup from vending machines around Japan! If you want to make it at home, here is a recipe from Washoku Guide.
Curry with Stir Fried Rice from Omu Rice (@41:01)
This meal is just leftovers from the two previous meals. No recipe necessary – start by making the other two meals, store the leftovers, and eat them the next day.
Nabe Leftovers (38:54)
As the show approaches the end of Season 1, it seems that the participants are losing motivation in the kitchen. This meal is simply leftovers from the Pork and Chinese Cabbage Nabe of Episode 13.
Chirashizushi – Scattered Sushi Recipe (@56:49)
To close, one final style of sushi. I said this post would be about more than sushi.. but in fact three different kinds of sushi appear.
Chirashizushi is essentially Kaisen Don (from Episode 2). It is rice seasoned with vinegar and topped with raw fish. The basic components are about the same.
Chirashizushi is more of a special occasion food though and often served with other kinds of colorful toppings like raw fish eggs, shredded cooked egg, and seaweed. I find the flavor slightly sweeter than Kaisen Don.
Both are excellent and can be easily prepared at home. If you have a fancy bowl or lacquered box, it will make for a pretty presentation. Here is a recipe.
How about breakfast?
Watching Terrace House, there are only a few scenes with the participants eating breakfast. One day, the girls eat cereal with milk. I think it might be Frosted Flakes.
In Japan, I have been served an incredibly wide range of foods for breakfast from toast with butter, to microwaved pizza, to raw egg over rice, to grilled fish.
Still haven’t seen enough? Check out a recent article from RocketNews on “What’s really for Breakfast. Japanese People Tell Us What They Usually Eat Each Morning.”
Thank you dear reader for reading my longest post yet!! Leave any thoughts, comments, or questions below!
Come back on Monday! New yummy recipes and random musings on Japan posted here every week.