For anyone wanting to be fully immersed in the local culture, most would suggest tackling the Japanese street foods. With hundreds of festivals illuminating the streets of Japan each year, food vendors creep out of the shadows to spread the mouthwatering joy of their treasured street food. These dishes hold a legacy of pleasing tummies as early as the 20th century. If you find yourself in Japan, look out for these tasty eats.
Yaki-imo / Photo credit: Chris Gladis
You hear a cheerful melody slowly drifting closer. “Yaki-imo, yaki-imo, yaki-imo!” The seductive smell of roasted potatoes creeps into your senses leaving you no choice but to submit to the temptation. A customised cart with a potato-filled wooden stove stops in front of you. It’s here, your yaki-imo.
This hundred-year-old street food tradition still lives on despite the simplicity of its nature. If you ever hear the catchy tune from a yaki-imo man or woman, pay them a visit and engulf your taste buds with warm starchy heaven.
Pile all of your favorite foods together, add batter and make a pancake out of it. Bam, now you have okonomiyaki! Well, not exactly, but try the same cooking method with ingredients like octopus, shrimp, pork, yam or kimchi, and then you’ll create this Japanese foodie favorite.
With mayonnaise and sweet sauce drizzled on the top, the savory pancake provides a hearty meal customized to your palette. Nab down the perfect combination of ingredients and allow okonomiyaki to live up to its namesake of providing “what you like.” Our suggestion? Head to Osaka for Japan’s best okonomiyaki.
Don’t flake out just yet. Vendors selling squid pierced through the length of its body with a wooden skewer is completely normal in Japan and particularly Osaka. Vendors grill the squid and then top it off with soy sauce leaving room for costumers to experience the freshness and delightfully chewy texture of the squid. It may be a simple snack, but when cooked correctly, the slimy meat transforms into a plump and tender culinary work of art.
Kakigori / Photo credit: jamesjustin
Kakigori is a fine example of how Japan takes an existing invention and improves it tenfold. This summer treat leaves snow cones in the dust with added condensed milk, sweetener and flavored syrup. Sure, the add-ons are simple, but they change the course of the game. The typical shaved ice transforms into a feathery soft cloud of sweet holiness. You taste the rich sweetness as you would with ice cream, but the light consistency of the kakigori leaves your body feeling guilt free!
Don’t be fooled by the fish imprint in the sweet doe, Taiyaki has nothing to do with sea creatures. Particularly common in Tokyo (but any tourist towns will sell it) and eaten as a dessert or snack, vendors regularly fill these golden fish with red bean paste, custard, chocolate or cheese. There’s continued debate in Japan about the proper way to eat the treat. Head first or tail first? It’s yours to decide.
Pour yourself a cup of green tea and munch on one of these delectable rice crackers. Senbei come in a plethora of sizes, shapes and flavors. The crackers are usually baked or grilled, and are enhanced with soy sauce and mirin (a rice wine condiment). In the ancient city of Nara, the sacred deer that roam the area have learned of these delicious treats, and might even bow for a cracker when offered one.
Dango / Photo credit: Chi (in Oz)
Take a break from Japan’s fishy cuisine and treat yourself to a sweet skewer of dango. These spherical Japanese dumplings are made from mochiko (rice flower) and blanketed with an unforgiving layer of shoyu and sugar sauce. Most dango prefers to stay sweet, but the level of sweetness depends on the type of dango. If you’re feeling like a light sugary snack, try the kawaii colored hanami dangok, or for those craving a bite of something heavy and rich, take a shot at the sweet potato-filled ikinari dango.
Sink your teeth into these warm luscious spherical treats. Takoyaki is a ball-shaped pancake filled with octopus, and garnished with mayonnaise, ginger pickles and fermented fish flakes. The savory snacks have their own special griddles equipped with cast iron molds that help create that classic spherical shape. With similar ingredients to okonomiyaki, Osaka is also a firm favorite for getting your takoyaki fix.
A hot lunch spot in the business districts in Japan, bento stands usually sell out in less than hour. These colorful boxes full of an assortment of meat, rice and vegetables offer a convenient method to consume multiple dishes from one compact box.
With the fierce competition from surrounding restaurants, street vendors and convenience stores, these local stands depend on loyal customers. Bento also appeals to expats and visitors—no need to worry struggling with the language when pointing at your preferred box is all that’s needed.
Giant Nikuman / Photo credit: masamunecyrus
Prepare yourself for a texturally pleasing steamy dough wrapped around a savory pork onion mixture. Nikuman is the Japanese equivalent of Chinese bao (steamed buns). These classic buns are the perfect way to warm your tummy during the frosty winter months.